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The History of Etiquette - Part II

Chateau de Chenonceau (Catherine de Medici)

My visit to the Loire Valley, France

How Table Manners as We Know Them Were a Renaissance Invention

The 16th century was an age of exploration in all senses of the term, a period when colossal advances in art, science, and geography reshaped Europeans’ understanding of the world. In the early 1500s, as explorers probed the New World, some of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance were being created, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, completed in 1512. As the century was ending, the plays of Shakespeare were exploring the human condition, while in Padua, a young professor named Galileo Galilei began to open up the secrets of the solar system.

Historians see close links between the Renaissance outlook and the rapid development of codes of behavior at the table. In her 1954 book The Art of Eating, the American writer M. F. K. Fisher pinpoints a year when the dinners of the European nobility started to become rather more refined affairs—1533 - the year of the wedding between the 14-year-old Catherine de’ Medici (the niece of Pope Clement VII) and the future French king Henry II of France.

Forks, knives, and napkins: These items may be part of a proper meal today, but well-bred medieval Europeans had no use for them—until modern table manners were born in the 1500s.

Catherine was raised in Florence, the epicenter of the growing cult of refined eating habits. Her arrival in France, shocked the Italian noblewoman: “Paris seemed harsh and boorish to the lonesome Florentines. They moped for the gay lightness of their own banquet-halls... Here in Paris many people still laughed jeeringly at the “those Italian neatnesses called forks” and gulped down great chunks of strongly seasoned meat from their knife-ends or their greasy fingers.” Catherine was determined to change such customs, which is why her marriage in that year, changed the table manners of Europe.

The mealtime antics of the French that so appalled Catherine had been the norm in much of Europe for many centuries. During the Middle Ages, most dining tables were simply boards placed over trestles, a practice that survives in the expression “set the table.” The board was then covered with a cloth, on which diners would wipe their hands directly, a custom that seems to have been followed by people of all social backgrounds. Knives, spoons, and cups were shared, and soup was drunk straight from the bowl. Diners used their knives to spear meat from a shared platter and put it either on a board or thick slice of bread, which was usually shared by two people.

Catherine trained the French elites in the art of dining at the table and introduced table service. She taught the French aristocracy to sit at the table and wait for the different individual courses to arrive one after the other in an organized and harmonious way.

It was Catherine who brought new taste to table settings – she introduced forks, already in use in Florence, Murano glass and Faenza ceramics. It was also Catherine who introduced the Court to traditional Tuscan dishes now famous worldwide as French cuisine specialties.

· Salsa Colla (White Sauce) became “Béchamel”

· Onion Soup “Soupe à l’oignon

· Nonna’s Pancakes “Crêpes

· Duck with Bitter Orange “Canard à l’orange” and

· Liver Crostini “Pâté de fois”.

· Merengue Cookies – Macarons

· Profiteroles

The 16th-century search for shared standards of manners was an integral part of the Renaissance concept of personal betterment. Since people increasingly looked down on eating with one’s fingers, all sorts of new dining implements were introduced: plates, fine stemware, and individual cutlery. Napkins were increasingly adopted by the upper classes to protect the delicate tablecloths that decorated the tables, as well as the diners’ own clothes. Initially they were only used for grand occasions, when guests had to show that they knew how to use them properly by placing them on their left shoulder, as etiquette required.

As napkin use spread, so did the use of another implement—the fork, which had to overcome huge initial resistance to establish itself as the third utensil. One of the earliest known forks in Europe belonged to a Byzantine princess, Theodora Anna Doukaina, who traveled to Venice in 1071 to marry the Doge Domenico Selvo. The two-pronged fork she used to put food in her mouth caused a scandal with the Venetians, who regarded themselves as sophisticated. The Vatican’s representative in Venice even suggested it was a diabolical instrument. Even so, fork use started to spread throughout Italy.

When Catherine de’ Medici arrived in France in 1533, she attempted to popularize fork usage. While Catherine did much to Italianize French dining habits, the fork remained rather slow to catch on.

Widespread use of forks did not take root until much later. In 1611, Thomas Coryat, an English traveler who adopted the custom of using a fork when in Italy, wrote how his compatriots made fun of him on his return. It was only in the 18th century that guides to manners required the use of a fork as an individual implement. By this time, writers on etiquette would have struggled to believe how much the fork, napkin, and individual plate had had to fight for their place at the table.

In spite of the general easygoing attitude of the medieval period toward hygiene, table manners were not born in a vacuum. In Italy, the culture that would give rise to Catherine’s crusade for table manners took root in the medieval period itself. Well-born little Florentines, including Catherine, were brought up on the manual Fifty Courtesies for the Table, written by Fra Bonvicino da Riva in the 1290s. Even so, despite such precedents, there is little doubt that Catherine’s arrival in France coincided with a continent-wide Renaissance movement to raise the bar on dining customs.

"With Catherine, Italy offered rich rewards to 16th century France and Europe, in which the Italians were educators not only in the fine arts, but also in refined manners and culinary arts” (Jean Orieux).

Other Noteworthy Contributes that Catherine Brought to France:

  • Catherine brought perfume and fashion to France: she made a striking impression with the splendour of her attire and the spheres she wore around her neck and sniffed at continually. In them was perfume created by her personal perfumer, Renato Bianco, to combat the nauseating stench of the crowd. Renamed René le Florentin by the French, he became the idol of the aristocracy, then unaccustomed to using soap and water. It was said of him that even his underpants were scented!

  • Insecure about her lack of height alongside her handsome husband, she had her shoemakers fashion shoes with 10cm heels, arousing great curiosity!

  • Lacking a wasp waist, she then invented a corset to make it smaller.

  • The only woman at Court to do so, Catherine took part in hunts, riding side-saddle with her skirts flying. To prevent risqué glimpses, she wore men’s caleçons or drawers, and all the ladies copied her.

* Part taken from National Geographic, March/April 2017

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