There are many things I have done and several things I would love try where it comes to setting up an Elizabethan era Feast, some of these being very easy to document while other items being things we must draw on from either later or unusual sources.
First off, I am going to talk about seating and then food and then table settings. Basically we need to go back and fourth because each is going to affect the other. Of course with seating, it is going to not just be dependent on the meal and who is dining as it also affects the type of room it would be served in. For instance, if we were to have a more private dinner, which had grown in popularity, it wasn’t going to be held in a large hall full of people who have no direct impact on you. The difference between a feast and a more intimate dinner is going to look like the difference between:
If you are in the SCA or are hosting a larger function, you meal is most likely going to play out like either of the two latter scenes. This being with a head table either being long or short with people only sitting at one end and a series of other tables in the same room either only seated on one side or both sides. If you are assembling a smaller audience, a somewhat large squared or circular table may sit everyone there where you would be seated round the table with the food being placed to fill the center.
Sideboards or dressers, if you have them, come in handy as we need places to store water, cups, food and places to carve/prepare dishes for serving. A place to wash one’s hands is also a good gesture as it was part of good table manners, though this is not always easy to provide. Items like towels and napkins as well as multiple table clothes to dress the tables, allowing clean ones in between courses, as well as voiders and table scrapers will come in handy as well when going for the whole effect. This is not something people can expect to happen quickly, though it would be practiced enough that it should go smoothly. Remember, these are not just processes but are things that were attached to specific jobs that people would carry out. Even a carver should be well versed in his art as there is a different way to serve out and cut each animal and sometimes this would be to the request of a certain gentleman or woman.
For the tableclothes on the tables, they would be linen in either in a plain or figured weave, they could even be in a damask fabric though typically they would be white. Napkins were much the same and would typically range around 38 inches by 27 inches with varying but similar numbers. These would then be folded neatly on the table for which the variety of folds would then be only limited by the the staff and time the host could afford… this being, one would not go into elaborate table settings for a small family meal. On the table, one would set trenchers, or at this point what we would be seeing is generally plates with pewter seeming to be quite popular and either round or square, though square not being as easy to find today. From what I do gather, cups would be brought full to you and the sharpness of your knife would be your own responsibility as a guest.
Below: images of dessert trenchers, usually round and wooden which was painted on one side, sometimes with a rhyme or riddle.
On sitting at the table, if you were lucky, you might get a chair, though more likely, you would be sitting on a bench or quite possibly standing if you were younger, though I have seen plenty of examples of higher benches for children to sit on.
So, what would you be likely to have served to you? As written by Markham “Summer afford what winter wants, and winter is master of what Summer can but with difficulty have”, season will play a large part in your diet and he further explains about the humble feast being “for the entertainment of his true and worthy friends, it must hold limitation with his provision, and the season of the year”. He then moves to list 16 dishes of food that are of substance and not empty for show, these being all roasts, boiled meats and baked meats/foods including the frequently mentioned “Brawne and mustard”, “boiled capon”, “Chewets”, baked “venison” and “custard” (baked of course).
His ordering a feasts is spread out in a very detailed way but there are various examples of far more simpler arrangements out there, it is just usually a matter of interpreting them and knowing not all people thought his method was best. For my own use, I took these and broke them down into a simpler layout to work with, but if you were going to deal with over 20 different dishes, it would be worth while to follow a more complicated layout. Mine is as follows:
- Sallets (grand, green, boiled, small compound) or (simple, preserved, for show)
- Fricases (simple, compound)
- Boiled Meat (hot then cold), (simple broths, stewed broth, boiled fowl)
- Roast Meat (could be reserved or some served at 2nd course)
- Baked Meat (could be reserved or some served at 2nd course)
- Carbonadoes (broiled, fried… being simple and then compound).
- Mainly Roasts (these going in order of lesser wild fowl to lesser land fowl then greater wild fowl to greater land fowl)
- Baked Meats (these in order of Hot baked meats to Cold baked meats)
- The table can then be filled with Sallets, Fricases and Quelquechoses.
A Banquet afterwards would have even daintier dishes of things made of sugarpaste and marzipan along with other candies/comfits, preserves and fruit pastes. Some of these items would be to help with digestion though it seems the English table was no stranger to gluttony and drunkenness with reports claiming one while others claiming it as hospitality. Either way, to truly show off, one would have an excess of these things available including a table of fancy sweets at the end which was probably more for show than substance.
So now we have the types of courses, with two courses seeming to be written about more often though feasts were not always limited to two, and the possibility of a banquette to follow. We know they types of dishes that could be served, here there could be one of each kind but more likely there would be a variety of any type. There might not be more than a few salads but the same feast might have 5-6 different roasts and 4 different baked meats/pie. With the similarity of dishes, various writers planned out a way to set the table so that a diner would be less likely to end up sitting behind too many of the same sort of dish. To do this, a baked meat would not be set by another baked meat but rather something different such as a salad or a boiled meat. If there were several salads, simple salads would be separated on the table from compound salads and so on. So if we had the fictional meal: 1-Brawn, 2-compound salad, 3-simple salad, 4 another simple salad, 5-chicken in white broth, 6-longworts, 7-fricassee of rabbit, 8-Florentine, a long table could be set like this: 2, 5, 3, 7, 8, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5, 3, 7, 8, 6, 4, 1. In the middle of a large square or circular table, it gets more jumbled but the theory still plays out.
Now, on a few fiddly points, some dishes are served out a certain way, this means some items are more compound than others, this meaning that they would have several ingredients to create a whole while others are simple with separate components. Dealing with modern dining has driven in hard habits that do not translate well to the period dining room, such as with the last period feast I attempted. One of these is dealing with allergies, where I instinctively served the sippets separate rather than under the dish that was supposed to be served on top of them. This is clearly the type of thing we will have to figure out as we go and decide what is more important in any given situation, attention to authenticity or making concessions. Of course, I do feel in this case that it is one we can make without ruining the over all effect, in fact the route I would like to choose with this in the future is to create one with (because it really should have time to soak in) and one without as to provide a meal for many diners rather than just one, and that is a perfectly period mind set when it comes to creating the Elizabethan era Dinner.