Wittenwiler’s Wedding Feast II: Setting the Table

Another brief excerpt from Wittenwiler’s Der Ring: Setting up the tables for the feast:

Eating al fresco was not unknown for the upper classes, as seen in the livre de la chasse of Gaston III of Foix, courtesy of wikimedia commons

By now, people should have danced, but the feet could not carry them for hunger. That is why four who would serve at the table went away and said they wanted a soup as was the custom. This was done straight away.

One of them was so gluttonous that he almost died of scalding his throat. He jumped up immediately and banged his fist on the table so that the soup and the bread fell to the ground. Each of them said: “Before I starve, I will pick up the broth from the dirt. And it it were even shittier (noch bass beschissen) – no bite will be left lying.” In truth, this happened! They enjoyed it.

Then each took a sack and spread it out on the grass. Behold, what a lovely tablecloth! It was washed at least once a year for certain. Pitchers served for cups and glasses, so big they could hardly be lifted. They would have had salt and saltcellars if they had thought of them. There were no knives and no cut bread. They brought loaves of barley and of oats – they called for these – and also laid out rye bread. Thus was the table set.

This scene sets the tone for the rest of the feast: crass and unbelievably disgusting. The setup here – dirty sacks spread on the bare soil with only pitchers to drink from and no salt or sauces. It is not entirely improbable that peasants ate like this, but the way it is described makes it a mockery of upper-class tables. Oat and barley bread – the least desirable kind, often produced as feed for horses or dogs rather than people – are served by popular demand, along with the more acceptable rye. Basically, the table lacks the amenities that make proper dining possible. By contrast, consider what an anonymous 1492 poem describes (quoted after Bach: The Kitchen, Food and Cooking in Reformation Germany, chapter 5):

Do not be tardy in setting the table, diligently lay the cloth all around it. Do not forget the saltcellar, and place the schüsselrink (a ring-shaped coaster to hold the serving bowl in place) in the center. Put down a plate for each diner and the spoons in pairs. Place bread, rye and white, together, give it with each plate.

The table is set on a tablecloth – clean, of course. It covers not only the top, but the sides (there is some dispute on how this was achieved, whether there was one or more lengths of fabric). Salt is a must, as is bread, in this case rye and wheat. Each diner receives a plate. That was a relatively new idea at the time – before, sharing plates between two had been customary. Knives and spoons are the implements of choice, forks as yet very uncommon. That is the picture against which we contrast the mud-smeared servants arranging sloshing pitchers on dirty sacks.

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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