In a painting by the 18th-century French artist Chardin, two young children are sitting down to eat. Their table is set in the kitchen of a great house, with pots and pans hanging on the walls, but it is elegantly laid. There is a cloth on the table, and two grand chairs for the children to sit at as they use their silver cutlery under a maid's supervision. It is 1740, and they are learning to eat. Or rather, they are learning table manners.
Where does food end and etiquette begin? Table manners define the meaning of a meal. Eating is a physical need, but meals are a social ritual. The 150th anniversary of Mrs Beeton's book Household Management this autumn draws attention to this weird and wonderful world of manners. In many ways it is a very modern book: Mrs Beeton's recipes and kitchen tips are the kind of thing you still get in cookery books today. Maybe her language is a bit clinical: there's a chapter on how to cook "quadrupeds". But the one thing that truly places the book in the past is its advice on table manners.
At a dinner party, "the lady begins to help the soup … commencing with the gentleman on her right and on her left, and continuing in the same order till all are served. It is generally established as a rule, not to ask for soup or fish twice, as in so doing, part of the company may be kept waiting for the second course." The complex rules set out by Mrs Beeton still exist (at a formal hall high table at an Oxbridge college, say), but even at the smartest restaurants, the rigorous order of Mrs Beeton's dining table is rarely preserved nowadays.
It was, in fact, the culmination of hundreds of years of changing manners. The children learning their table etiquette in Chardin's 1740 painting are in the avant-garde of a cultural revolution. Cutlery, as opposed to eating with your fingers; sitting up straight in a high-backed chair; these were innovations in the way people defined themselves at table in 18th-century Europe. New meals were even invented specifically as occasions for polite manners: the English tea time dates from the 1700s and is richly illustrated in paintings by Hogarth and Devis. They show the stylised rituals of pouring the tea and holding the delicate porcelain cup.
Europeans in the middle ages had had little ceremony when it came to food. Their manners consisted of making sure they didn't get too greasy when tearing meat with their fingers. Chaucer's 14th-century Canterbury Tales portrays an elegant prioress as a mistress of medieval manners: "At meat well y-taught was she withal; She let no morsel from her lips fall, Ne wet her fingers in her sauce deep; Well could she carry a morsel and well keep That no droppe ne fell upon her breast."
This is the height of British table manners five centuries before Mrs Beeton. And Chaucer, of course, is laughing at this over-refinement.
Go back thousands of years to the early Homo sapiens who lived at Cheddar Gorge, and gnawed bones found in the cave suggest the kind of mealtimes that were enjoyed here. Oh, some of those gnawed bones are human by the way. And a cup formed from a human skull has also been found.
The rich courtly gear of a Saxon king found at Sutton Hoo, meanwhile, includes a massive cauldron and drinking horns, suggesting the importance of feasting to our ancestors. But there is nothing to indicate any refinement – there is no Sutton Hoo toothpick. Only in Renaissance Europe do paintings and artefacts reveal the dawn of table manners: just to contemplate the extreme beauty and fragility of a 16th-century Venetian wine glass is to realise how sophisticated the parties were where such miraculous ware was used.
Today, it might seem as though we have returned to the sloppiness of medieval feasting, or even Cheddar Gorge. Barbecued wings and legs eaten with your hands, burgers, crostini, pizza. The finger foods of the world merge in a great casual banquet, often eaten in front of the TV. Only at restaurants is some semblance of high dining still maintained. And yet, in truth, the rise of table manners shapes our lives as firmly as it did those children painted by Chardin. We still see straight-backed chairs and laid-out cutlery as essential to a "proper" meal. We still drink out of individual glasses. We may go to Starbucks instead of rushing home for a traditional English tea, but the consumption of a latte is a stylised act.
As Mrs Beeton said, all creatures eat, but "man only dines". Etiquette changes radically but it always exists. In manners as in recipes, we are not so far as we might think from her well-regulated world.
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