Another excerpt from the wedding feast in Der Ring: Lady Else, having enjoyed bread, cheese, and wine, is served the second course of roast meat:
Spiegelmais (a server) did not tarry long, poured cider (öpfelgtrank) into the pitcher after his manner, and went to fetch her food. He brought her the roast donkey which she thought noble venison (willprät edel). She drew a loaf of bread against her chest and cut it straight through the middle. Behold, those were some honest slices! She laid them in a proud heap like a stack of firewood. None dared take away the knife from her, so they tore the meat destined for her into pieces. All was hers, and she swallowed (schland) the roast and gnawed the bones. She chewed and gnawed so hard a tooth broke in her mouth. What would be left for the dogs? They were discontent with her gnawing, and one jumped up and took a bone from her mouth, but she kept eating and eating until she had caught up with the other guests.
People and dogs gnawing on bones are so much part of the sterotypical medieval feast it is surprising to see how rarely that kind of thing is actually described. Here, it is made explicit, and the context makes it clear that it’s not approved behaviour. The Wahre Hoveschheit, a book of table manners, states clearly:
You must not gnaw bones like a dog. You must not suck out the marrow like a honey bear sucks his paw.
The other faux pas that is committed here is cutting bread while holding the loaf against the chest. This is a bigger problem than it appears at first glance: Bread was a central element of any medieval meal, and though it was often served in a prepared state, with the crust removed partly or entirely, it had to be cut by the diners. There were no cutting boards as far as we know, and no serrated bread knives of ther kind we rely on today. Cutting bread neatly and precisely under these circumstances is hard. Though upper-class men were generally expected to master the skill of cutting bread held in their hand as part of a broader education of carving at the table, this was not universal practice. Interestingly, the Hoveschheit dedicates an entire paragraph to it:
One custom exists at court that is sometimes harmful; cutting bread holding it in your hands sometimes leads to harm. It happened at a prince’s court that a young gentleman wanted to cut his bread in his hand and cut himself in the hand so badly that he died of the wound. All of his family mourned. Thereupon the prince gave permission to all his court that each man and woman were to cut their bread holding it against their chest. You have the same permission to cut your bread against your chest when you need to. A harmful custom should be changed.
The anecdote is sometimes associated with Valdemar IV Atterdag of Denmark, but it is irrelevant whether or not that is how it happened. Anyone accustomed to eating Brötchen for breakfast knows the risk of slicing into the palm of your hand when cutting them in half. It’s a familiar injury in emergency wards throughout the country. So at least in this regard, Else is on the right side of history.
The donkey meat, a repellent thought to contemporary German audiences, is explained by an event that occurred the previous evening:
They paraded around the village of Lappenhausen that night as well as they could, making noise with drums. Those who could not lodge in a house took the sky for a roof and the street for a feather bed. Behold, they passed up and down all night with shouting so that nobody could sleep, neither in the hay nor in the straw. This continued until dawn. They permitted nobody to carry a candle, and the bridegroom suffered damage that way because he skinned his donkey instead of the cow by mistake and carried the meat into the kitchen. This would never have been known if he had found his donkey in the place where (instead) he saw the skin lying the next morning to his great dismay.
The intenjse, noisy fun on the eve of a wedding that is institutionalised as the Polterabend today clearly has long antecedents. Of course the idea that anyone, least of all a peasant familiar with livestock, would mistake a donkey for a cow in the dark is laughable. Even if that were to happen, it is hard to see how one would go about slaughtering, skinning, and butchering a large animal in the dark. We need to remember that though it has elements of reality, this story is not supposed to be realistic.
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.