The 16th Century was a transitional period when England was developing into a modern nation state. However for everyday common people life was relatively unchanged since the Middle Ages and their manners and eating habits were highly influenced by age-old superstitions and Catholic rituals. At this time the vast majority of the English population lived in the countryside and therefore most peoples’ lives revolved around agricultural farm work. Rural society was strictly hierarchical and everyone knew his or her place from the landowners to the labourers. However when it came to eating dinner everybody came together in a convivial atmosphere, united by their love of food.
The Tudors only had one main meal per day. Breakfast and supper were sparse affairs, which usually consisted of scraps. All farm workers worked from sunrise until sunset and so dinner at midday (the word ‘lunch’ did not exist) was an event of great importance.
When dinner was announced everybody gathered in the farmhouse and assembled around the ‘board’ in social order, with the Master at the top and the labourers at the end. The men would take off their hats out of deference to the Master and the ladies would make sure their ears were covered so that they would not hear the whisperings of the Devil (unfortunately in this era women were still blamed for the Fall thanks to Eve).
The board was a large banqueting table where dinner was served. However it was not a ‘table’ as we know it. A modern table’s surface and legs are fixed together. A board is different in that the surface was rested on wooden trestles so it could be disassembled to make additional floor space. This was important in Tudor households where living spaces were often at a premium. The board was essential to Tudor life and consequently we have inherited many common phrases from its importance.
For example when everybody gathered around the board at dinner the Master of the House might ask his labourers about conditions on the farm. The resulting conversation would be known as a “Board Meeting”. The Master himself would sit on a chair while everyone else sat on stools. That made him the “Chairman of the Board”. When he paid his labourers at the end of the each day he would place the money visibly on top of the board so that everyone could see there was no financial wrongdoing.
This ensured that everything was “above board”. If it was a Sunday, the day of rest, then the board might be turned over and on its underside would be games scratched into the surface for people to play. These would be known as “board games” Finally the Master might have guests come to stay at his house and he would traditionally offer them “Bed and Board”.
Once everyone was gathered around the board, each person would remember their manners before food was served. Contrary to popular belief the Tudors were punctilious about manners to an obsessive degree. Forbidden practices included swearing, talking with your mouthful, and no belching or farting. Another aspect of being “above board” was to ensure that the men did not secretly grope the women sat next to them. Therefore everyone’s hands had to be visible. However, you could not lean your elbows on the board. As the surface was not fixed if everybody leant on one side of the board then it might tip and the food would fly everywhere. Even today it is considered bad manners to “put your elbows on the table”.
Once manners were checked it was time to get out the napkins and cutlery. Napkins were placed over the shoulder, as it was believed that was where the Devil sat. By flicking the napkin over your shoulder you were hitting the Devil in the face. Similarly, when people today spill salt they often throw it over their shoulder. This habit comes from the tradition of throwing salt into the Devil’s eye. You could also not use cutlery with your left hand as it was considered that Satan controlled it. Left-handed children were beaten to correct their ‘sin’.
The Tudors did not provide cutlery at dinner and so everyone carried their own sets. This consisted of a knife, pricker and spoon. Knives had the same sharpness of a modern Stanley blade and were used for outdoor cutting tasks as well as eating. Therefore eating from your knife was extremely dangerous and even today we are encouraged not to lick our knives. A pricker was a small knife designed to pick up food.
Forks did exist but they were status symbols that were usually presented as part of a set. The spoon was the most personal cutlery item. Everyone was given a spoon at their Christenings by their godparents who acted as their financial sponsors or “spoonsters”. People who had good quality spoons were referred to as having been “Born with a silver spoon in their mouth”. Most middling people owned a spoon made of horn but if you were poor a wooden spoon was common. Today the wooden spoon is a famous booby prize in competitions.
Finally, after grace was said, it was time to eat. Tudor dinner normally consisted of three courses and sometimes more depending on the occasion. Farm labourers needed at least 5,000 calories a day to work on and it was in the landowners’ interests to feed them well. Starters would consist of pottage and bread. Pottage was a vegetable stew that was cheap and filling. It mainly consisted of root vegetables but spices were sometimes used for flavour and if meat was found in the pottage it was considered to be “pot luck”. The bread was typically dense and usually wholemeal. White bread was considered to be a great delicacy. Potatoes were known in Elizabethan times but they were thought to be poisonous and so bread was the most consumed carbohydrate.
The main courses were surprisingly varied. There were pies, pasties, salads, casseroles, quiches and cheeses. Risottos were eaten as a treat (rice was given the grand name of “Rice of Genoa”) and every household served root vegetable dishes such as spiced steamed cabbage or leeks in cheese sauce. Meat was eaten on Sunday and was usually pork or mutton. Chicken was considered to be expensive as they were far more useful for their eggs.
Fish was very important in the Tudor diet. By law people had to eat fish three days a week on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Wednesdays and Fridays were religious fish days, which were a Catholic hangover tradition. Saturdays were government fish days when the state demanded that everybody eat fish to support the coastal fisherman who acted as naval reserves in times of invasion. At Christmas goose was eaten as the main meat. Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I attempted to introduce turkey at Christmas but the English stubbornly stuck to goose for centuries afterwards.
The final course was dessert, known then as “subtleties”. Fruit pies were common, especially with apples. However there were also custard tarts, biscuits, flans, blancmange and plum puddings. Sugar was used but it was so expensive it was sprinkled on top of the dishes to be “a feast for the eyes.”
Aside from the courses there was always ale to drink. Water was unsafe and so everyone drank “small ale” which had a very weak alcohol content. Children were weaned on it; the expression “toddler” literally means a small child who “toddles” about after drinking ale. Cider was considered a poor man’s drink and wine was an expensive product that was mainly consumed by the wealthy.
The food that was served in a rural household meant that ordinary people were nutritionally superior to the wealthy. Whereas the aristocracy lived on a diet made up of wine, red meat and sugar, the commoners had a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, fish, wholemeal bread and sugar as a treat. Today this would be considered to be very healthy.
Once everyone had eaten this daily banquet, the Master of the House would stand up and leave the table. This would be the sign that dinner was over and the labourers would go back to their work presumably full as a tick.