Have you ever heard the statement that people in the Middle Ages did not use plates but slices of bread as plates? Or that people in the Middle Ages did not eat with a fork because they feared it as a sign of the devil? These ideas are pretty common. But they are wrong!
So in the following, I would like to talk about the use of plates, cutlery, and tableware in general in the Middle Ages.
Slices of bread (so-called trenchers) were only used as plates at banquets, most medieval people ate off wooden or tin plates with a diameter of 10-12 cm (4–4,7 in). These plates were round in Germany and angular in England and France. The knife was the main type of cutlery. Forks were not used for eating since the food was served in bite-sized pieces. Both cutlery and plates were either wiped clean or washed with water after they were used.
Let`s take a closer look!
Plates in the Middle Ages – not the stereotypical slice of bread
There is the common idea that especially peasants but also knights did not eat off plates but instead used slices of bread as plates. That however is a myth!
Flat wooden or tin plates with a diameter of 10-12 cm (4 – 4,7 in) were used daily in the Middle Ages by both peasants and knights. In the German-speaking parts, these plates were round, while they were angular in medieval England and France. The slices of bread (trenchers) that are commonly associated with medieval plates were only occasionally used at large banquets. They were not eaten but donated to the poor after the banquet was over.
It is unclear when and why the misconception that especially poor peasants just used an old slice of bread for a plate made its way into our heads.
Only at banquets where large numbers of people ate at the same time, it was more reasonable to hand out slices of bread as plates. By the way. The slices of bread (trenchers) that were used as plates at medieval banquets were not just slices of stale bread but were baked for that specific purpose.
So specially baked slices of bread (trenchers) as plates were only occasionally used at banquets. Outside of the banquets neither peasants nor knights used slices of bread as plates!
Not using slices of bread that had to be baked extra for plates makes sense when you think about it. Especially plates made from wood were so cheap, that they were used by even the poorest peasants. A little wealthier peasants and especially knights would use tin plates.
Both wooden and tin plates could easily be washed in a bucket full of water with some added ash and a piece of cloth. By the way. Tablecloths and napkins were also used at medieval banquets.
Cups made from glass or even silver were also common in the households of knights, but even in the household of wealthy peasants. Since the High Middle Ages, glass had become a lot more affordable so cups and glasses made from green or brown glass were quite affordable and pretty common.
And cups made from silver were not only used to drink from them. Since silver was the main currency, these cups also served as a money box. That is actually supported by medieval regulations from different cities. These regulations state that ownership of one silver cup per person was tax-free!
Ok, so plates that were either made from wood or tin were used throughout the Middle Ages by both knights and peasants. But these plates only had a rather small diameter of 10-12 cm (4–4,7 in). So how was food served in the Middle Ages?
Interestingly, the way food was eaten and plates were used in the Middle Ages didn`t differ that much between knights and peasants.
In general, it is important to not think of a medieval meal in the way that everybody gets his plate with his meal on it. Instead, several serving plates were put on the table. Each person could then arrange his plate from these serving plates. So in a way, the way medieval people ate is similar to modern-day Indian, Asian, or Arabic eating habits where different components of the meal are served on separate plates and everybody takes what he wants.
Granted, combining different foods from several plates on your own plate does not sound like the food that we most commonly associate with medieval (peasant) food.
However, our imagination of medieval peasant food as bland, tasteless, and low in calories is little more than a misconception. Do you want to find out more about the surprisingly good diet of medieval peasants? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But for now, I would like to turn towards the cutlery that was used in the Middle Ages and the myth that forks were not used because they were seen as a sign of the devil.
Medieval Cutlery – Were forks used in the Middle Ages?
Today’s cutlery consists of a knife, a fork, and – if necessary – a spoon. But especially when it comes to the use of forks there are a lot of misconceptions about the Middle Ages.
Generally, the way that people in the Middle Ages ate (having the different components of the food on serving plates on the table and taking food from there on their own plate) also influenced the necessary cutlery.
The main part of cutlery in the Middle Ages was the knife, which was a personal belonging.
Spoons did exist but were only occasionally needed. Forks did also exist but were not used for eating. Instead, forks were used when cutting the meat which was then served in bite-sized pieces on a plate that was put in the middle of the table. The knife was then used to bring these bite-sized pieces from the serving plate to the own plate.
So no, people in the Middle Ages did not avoid forks as a sign of the devil. The reason why forks were not used in the Middle Ages is that meat and other foods were served in bite-sized pieces. These were eaten with a knife so there was no need for a fork.
I hope I was able to bust some of the modern-day myths surrounding medieval tableware.
Another common idea about the Middle Ages is that peasants worked all day long and never had any free time. Do you want to find out whether or not that is true? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Ernst Schubert: Essen und Trinken im Mittelalter (2006 Darmstadt).