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Building a Castle: Meals

We looked previously at the food supply and the kitchen, so we finish this long series by looking at meals. There is a chapter on meals in my free book Life in a Medieval Castle which you get for joining my mailing list. 

The main meal of the day was dinner, served about 11am. People may grab some bread and some ale before they started work at sunrise, but they then all came together for dinner. The Lord and his guests would have chairs at a table on a dais, but everyone else sat on benches at trestle tables which could be easily moved out of the way to free up the space in the hall. The word banquet comes from the French for little bench, banquette.

The social position of everyone was marked out clearly by the seating arrangements. The noblest sat at the top and the rest sat in order in their ranks. The Bible talks about sitting in a lower seat at a feast and having the honour of being invited to move up, rather than sitting higher up and having the shame of being asked to move down. This still applied over a thousand years later. Also, salt was placed only on the top table, giving rise to the expression of being above or below the salt to denote social standing.

The top table were served with sliced meat from silver platters, the rest helped themselves from shared dishes called messes somewhat like stew, or sliced their own meat off a roast joint. Meat was salted to preserve it through the winter, and as the meat got older and older, herbs and spices were added to disguise the flavour. 

Wooden Trencher with place for salt

Some had trenchers of stale bread from which to eat. The sauce from the meal would soak into the bread and it was eaten at the end of the meal. The only cutlery was the knife everyone carried at their waist, and maybe a spoon would be provided.

Supper was served in the evening, when the day’s work was done and before dark. This was a much simpler meal and then people would sit and chat or entertain with songs and poetry. Once it got dark, since few people could afford candles or rush lights, most went to bed.

Water wasn’t safe to drink so the nobles drank wine while everyone else drank ale. This was not like the beer of today but much weaker, and was also diluted more further down the table. The lower classes even drank from a shared jug. Even children drank weak ale.

[adapted from The Medieval Castle Haynes Manual by Charles Phillips]

Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, and book two Alien Secrets, are out now. Follow her at