Feasts and All Their Finery

Elegant Dining in Old Regime France


What was an entremêt?

Both a course in a meal and an ornate spectacle accompanying great feasts.

What do a dormant, a nef and a surtout all have in common?

All three were ornate table accessories.

Is getting drunk good for you?

Once people claimed it was, at least twice a month.

Who was the lion and who beat the dog?

The Duke of Burgundy, Christianity's sworn (but ineffectual) protector, and Mohamed II, who conquered Constantinople.

From "Le Grand on feasts":

"Le Grand ends his three volume survey of French food with some of his most colorful chapters, looking at aspects of luxury dining. He first surveys feasts in general, providing details of two Medieval meals, along with broader views of these in France. Then he describes the different ways of decorating tables,...

His longest chapter here is on the customs associated with meals, starting with the simple concept of eating at set times and moving through some specific customs like “horning the water” and washing one's hands before a meal.... He ends this chapter with a wealth of details on the positions and functions in royal households, closing with a description of the meticulous ceremony at one duke's table.

The last chapter – and the last in Le Grand's work – is the merriest, addressing the entertainments offered at meal times over the centuries. These ranged from the guests themselves singing and telling tales to the ornate entremêts of late Medieval times. He provides detailed descriptions of several of these before ending with an event closer to his own time: the elaborate reception devised by the Prince of Condé for the Dauphin."

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Table of Contents

    • About Le Grand d'Aussy's work
    • About this translation
      • Le Grand on feasts
      • Le Grand's errors
      • A brief glossary

    Feasts and banquets

      • [The Dauphin Humbert's table]
      • Kings' statutes for the table
      • Feasts of the Gauls
      • Feasts of the XVth century
          [The Count du Maine's feast in 1455]
          [The Count de Foix' feast in 1457]
      • Table luxury introduced at Court
      • State of the table among our Kings since François I

      Table decoration for feasts
      • Floral decorations
      • Decorations in portrayed subjects
      • Pyramids of fruit
      • New decorations by Travers
          New paste for the figures
      • Frosted decorations
      • Glass decorations
      • Surtouts
      • Decorations in sand

      Particular customs at meals
      • Meal hours
      • Custom of announcing meals by the sound of a horn
      • Custom of eating in the place where the meal is prepared
      • Custom of washing
      • Of eating two by two
      • [Drinking]
          Of drinking in the same vessel
          Of drinking someone's health
          Of challenging each other to drink
          Passion of the Gauls for wine
          Statutes of Kings and Synods against those who get drunk
          Attitudes on the need to get drunk from time to time
      • Custom of drinking warm drinks
          Burned wine
      • [Chilled drinks]
          Custom of drinking with ice
          Ice houses
          Cooling vessels
          When drinking with ice began
          Saltpeter and camphor used to drink cold drinks
      • [Meal service]
          Custom of changing napkins for each service
          Fruit eaten at the start of the meal; fruit eaten at the end
          Services and orders of meals
          Way of serving
          Piles of meat
          Dishes served by Knights
          By engines
          Flying tables
          Custom of carving meats
      • List of the Table-Household of our Kings
          [Functions in the Household of Philip the Bold]
      • [Ceremony for the Duke of Burgundy's table]
      • Testing of meats and drinks

      Pleasures and diversions of meals
      • Table songs
      • Custom of telling a tale at the table
      • Custom of eating in the streets
      • Salmigondis
      • Pleasures of the Greats / Baladins
      • Combats of gladiators
      • Entre-mêts
          [Charles V's feast in 1378]
          [The Count de Foix's feast in 1457]
          [Philip the Good's entremêts at Lille in 1453]
          [Catherine de Medici's feast in 1565]
          [Louis XIV's feast in 1664]
          [Louis XIV's feast in 1668]
          [The Prince of Condé's feast in 1688]

Samples from the text

The Dauphin Humbert's table

Valbonnais [1651 - 1730] (Histoire du Dauphiné), describes a rule which Humbert II, Dauphin of the Viennois, set in 1336 for his table. Well, this rule is nearly what one would set for a Monastery.

For his Sunday and Thursday dinner, the Dauphin wants to be served two pasties, each made of a hen and two chickens.

On Monday and Wednesday, he wants a puree of peas or of broad beans, with two pounds of salted pork; then good tripes, cooked in water. For the second service, two portions (rotulos) of beef and mutton, boiled and served with a warm pepper sauce; and, as a roast, six capons, or six fat hens. (It was then the custom, as I will say further on, to serve on one platter several pieces of fowl and game in a pyramid.)

On Tuesday, instead of soup, he asks for rice with cabbage, beets. turnips and leeks, with a pound of salted pork; half a portion of boiled beef, served with mustard; twelve chickens, or six hens, cut in half; and, for the second service, a portion of fresh pork.

As for supper, he has it consist of ....

The Count du Maine's feast in 1455

The table was decorated with a centerpiece which showed a green lawn, and which, on the edges of its sides, presented large peacock feathers, and green branches, flowered, to which had been attached violets and other fragrant flowers. In the middle of the lawn rose a tower, silvered, with its crenelations. It was hollow, and formed a sort of coop in which had been enclosed different live birds, whose crests and feet were gilded. The central tower of its keep, also gilt, bore three banners, one with the arms of the Count, the two others those of Mlles de Chateaubrun and of Villequier, for whom the feast was given.....

The first service consisted of a civet of stag, a quarter of hare which had spent a night in salt, a stuffed chicken, and a half loin of veal. These two last objects were covered with a brewet of Germany, of gilt toast, of sugar plums, and of pomegranates. These four dishes were assuredly little for a great feast; but, at each end, and outside the lawn, there was an enormous pasty.....

Floral decorations

Before art invented different objects to agreeably decorate the places for feasts, it was necessary to use those which Nature offered to its eyes. Such were in particular these flowers which she has sown with abundance on the surface of the earth; as if, everywhere, she seemed to take pleasure in beautifying Man's abode. From the first times of the Monarchy, one sees this sort of charming ornament used among the French. .....

For several years, we have known another type of floral decoration, which is very agreeable, and for the idea of which it is claimed we owe the Polish. For that, a lump of clay is kneaded, on which is then traced some drawing, such as a number, a motto, a name, arms. In the grooves of this drawing are inserted one or two types of flowers, whose stem has been cut very short. On the rest of the cartridge, other flowers are sown, stripped of their leaves, to form a base and make those of the drawing stand out. Still, one must be careful that these last are of a lively nature, such as corn-flowers, daisies, delphinia, etc. The humidity of the clay is enough to maintain their freshness for several days;....

List of the Table-Household of our Kings

.....Charles VIII, in 1495, had fourteen House Stewards, one a first; eight Pantlers, one a first; nine Carvers, one a first; ten Cup-bearers; seven pantry Officers; seven for cup-bearing; twenty-six for the kitchen; nine of fruitery; and five for sweets and the serdeau. For the Common, there was a first House Steward, nineteen other ordinary House Stewards, thirteen pantry Officers, thirteen of cup-bearing, and twenty-nine for the kitchen.

Philip the Good's entremêts at Lille in 1453

.....In a hall, immense in size, three tables were set, which one could rather call three large theaters, given the number of engines each held. On that of the Duke, which was square, there were four decorations:

1º A church with its bell, its organ, and four Chaunters to sing and to play this instrument, when their role required it.

2º A statue of a naked child, set on a rock, and who, from his little nail, pissed rose-water.

3º A carrick, larger even than those which sail the sea. One saw sailors come and go, carrying goods, climbing ropes, mounting to the scuttle, in a word doing maneuvers, as they would really have done at sea.

4º A fountain which flowed in a meadow. The field was garnished with bushes and flowers. Rocks, strewn with sapphires and other precious stones, served as its enclosure; and, at its center, one saw standing a st. Andrew, whose cross spouted water.....

All text and translations copyright 2013 Jim Chevallier.
Please do not reproduce or post elsewhere without prior permission.

For more about food and bread history, see the blog Les Leftovers


UPDATED: January 4, 2019