Your Table is Ready… Once We Get It Off the Wall

At Home in the 16th Century

In humbler [medieval] dwellings, matters were generally about as simple as they could be. The dining table was a plain board called by that name. It was hung on the wall when not in use, and was perched on the diners’ knees when food was served. Over time, the word board came to signify not just the dining surface but the meal itself, which is where the board comes from in room and board. It also explains why lodgers are called boarders and why an honest person— someone who keeps his hands visible at all times— is said to be aboveboard.

Seating was on plain benches— in French, bancs, from which comes banquet. Until the 1600s, chairs were rare— the word chair itself dates only from about 1300—and were designed not to be comfortable but to impute authority. Even now, of course, the person in charge of a meeting chairs it, and a person in charge of a company is the chairman of the board— a term that additionally, and a little oddly, recalls the dining habits of medieval peasants.

Medieval banquets show people eating all kinds of foods that are no longer eaten. Birds especially featured. Eagles, herons, peacocks, spar­rows, larks, ?nches, swans, and almost all other feathered creatures were widely consumed. This wasn’t so much because swans and other birds were fantastically delicious— they weren’t; that’s why we don’t eat them now— but rather because other, better meats weren’t available. Beef, mut­ton, and lamb were hardly eaten at all for a thousand years because the animals they came from were needed for their ?eeces, manure, or muscle power and thus were much too valuable to kill.

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