The subject of medieval manners must seem to most of my readers something of a contradiction in terms. It is often seen as a barbarous age, largely devoid of the niceties that are the telltale signs of civilization. This view is especially prominent when thinking of banqueting and food. Hollywood has given us images of big-bearded men eating meat off the bone and being served by lusty wenches whose manners are no better. Bones and scraps seem to be thrown over the shoulder to waiting dogs and peasants, with no thought given to the original presentation of portions and no delicacy of touch.
Needless to say, this view is a fantasy. The vast majority of medieval banquets, of which we are aware, were run in a highly ordered fashion with stringent requirements in terms of manners and etiquette. In the monastic world, meals were generally eaten in silence and with strict decorum even extending to elaborate forms of sign language designed to allow easy dining while the ban on noise was maintained. Royal banquets could be rather more raucous, yet this alone is no reason to assume that there were not stringent standards imposed and high penalties to be paid if one transgressed.
Notker the Stammerer, in his life of Charlemagne, relates a tale that is highly illustrative of this point. An emissary sent by Charlemagne is dined at a royal banquet on fish with the King of Greece and his nobles. In an attempt to get as much meat off the backbone as possible, the emissary turned his fish over, an action that was taken as the gravest offence, it being against local custom and therefore the worst of manners. The King ordered the emissary to be put to death for such an insult, but as he is a stranger, he is allowed to make one final request before the sentence is carried out. In a moment of splendid cunning the emissary requests that everyone who saw him turn his fish have their eyes gouged out. As none of the lords were willing to make such a sacrifice, they did not testify against the emissary, and thus he escaped unscathed.
There are several remarkable facets to this tale. The first is that Notker does not seem to feel that there is anything particularly horrendous about such a vicious penalty for a breach in manners. He notes it as being abnormal, but it is clear that such infractions were considered highly insulting and were dealt with in a correspondingly serious fashion. Secondly it seems clear that regional manners were common and that adherence was expected from all present, even if they were from a different land or unaware of the rules and restrictions. However, neither of them does complete justice to the story.
The account is, in its own way, one of barbarism. After all, the death penalty seems a little harsh for a small breach of conduct when eating fish. Moreover, it seems especially vicious when it is applied to a stranger; a man from a foreign land with no knowledge of local customs or law. However, the barbarism is not in the lack of manners, nor in the manners themselves. Indeed, both of these elements seem highly civilized. It is, rather, in the way in which the manners are imposed and enforced. Yet, in a way, is not a regimented society whose harshest punishments are meted out for those minor transgressions of etiquette the peak of civility? As our forbearers were so often told during the Victorian Era, these are the things that separate us from the barbarians.