Wittenwiler’s Wedding Feast I: Handwashing

This is the first part of the most interesting section of Wittenwiler’s poem Der Ring: The wedding feast. The author lays out all tenets of good conduct and every aspect of nicety by describing the exact opposite. Here, we learn how not to wash our hands:

Front page of Wittenwiler’s poem Der Ring courtesy of wikimedia commons (and yes, I think Bertschi, the dapper fellow on the left, is doing exactly what it looks like he’s doing. It is that kind of poem)

By now, the wedding gifts had been handed over. Women and men went to the table like sows to the trough. Nobody but fro Els (Lady Else) and Farindkuo (“thrust-into-the-cow”, a man’s byname) washed their hands. They had been in such a hurry that they had fallen into the dirt. They needed water, and it was brought to them immediately. Farindkuo pushed in front of Else (I think he felt the wait was too long) and ordered that he should be given water immediately. The servant poured it carefully from above on his sleeves, not into the middle of the basin, holding up his head and thrusting out his legs stiffly. The basin was a wide sieve that had been bought for the wedding.

The maiden Else was unhappy and she also went where the water was poured. Her sleeves were also wet, nobody served her with a towel that should be spread between the clothes and the basin, smoothly in courtly fashion, whenever anyone would wash their hands.

The servants’ fingernails were also long and pointy like icicles. That is why nobody dared to approach and place their thumbs on top of the sieve to lift it. Thus it was left standing on the ground.

Farindkuo had no towel to dry himself, so he used his breeches (pruoch) as his towel. It was wide open. He came on noisily and sat down above everyone else (i.e. at the head of the table).

Fro Els washed her hands for so long, until the second course was served. Oh, when she saw this she regretted it. She had no breeches and did not want to ruin her shift by drying her hands, and to rub them in the air took too long and seemed pointless to her. Thus she came to the table wet and sat on her arse rightaway (auf dem ars gesass). Her feet were not idle: they pushed over pitchers and shifted the tablecloth.

“So, you sow, so, sou sow, so!” (so sau so sau so du so) said her Ochsenchropf (Sir Ox-Gullet) then, “I do not like your fun, it harms us in the stomach.” If the had drunk more, this would have ended in blows, but the matter was settled and the tablecloth spread out again.

This description is designed to evoke the mockery of and trigger disgust in the upper classes of fifteenth-century Germany. Going to the table with unwashed hands was unthinkable, and doing it properly was a social ritual. You held out your hands over a basin held by a servant while another poured a thin stream of water over your hands from above, and you quickly and neatly rubbed it over your fighers. This was no thorough wash. If your hands were actually dirty, you had to get them clean before. After this quick ablution, you dried your fingers on a proffered towel and were ready to enjoy your meal.

Obviously, the servants were expected to be clean and skilful. These, with their long, pointy fingernails and awkward stance, are already on record eating spilled soup from the bare earth and surely would have disgusted any listener at the time as much as they do us. Wiping your hands on your breeches (pruoch Bruche) is a similar breach of taboo. The Bruche was an undergarment that was not meant to ever be visible in polite company.

Of course, every aspect of the company is a disgusting caricature. The titles are wildly inappropriate and the bynames deeply dehumanising. Ochsenchropf means the gullet or dewflap of an ox, but the word Kropf used in human contexts refers to a struma, a common ailment in mountainous regions until the twentieth century. A very exaggerated version of it can be seen on the woman depicted on page one of the manuscript above. Farindkuo may charitably be thought of as a farmworker engaged in veterinary obstetrics, but it should be noted that later fifteenth century sources record chüefigger as an insult aimed at the Swiss.

Heinrich Wittenwiler‘s massive poem ‚Der Ring‘ (the ring) is a somewhat puzzling piece of literature. Most likely produced in Constance around 1408-10, it tells a complex story of love, adventure, and deceit set in a peasant environment exploited for comedy value, but seems to have a genuine didactic purpose, though one often enough achieved by satirically describing the very opposite of desired conduct. In this, it resembles later Grobianic literature. I will limit myself to translating the parts that are relevant to food and table manners, but would advise anyone with enough command of German to read it in its entirety.

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