The Well-Set Table in France

Furniture and Settings for Meals

From the Gauls to the Eighteenth Century


When is a salt cellar like a boat?

When it's part of a nef, which was often shaped like a boat.

How did dressers get their name?

They were originally used to dresser - set out - plate for display.

How many tiers was a countess allowed?

In the fifteenth century, three, when she was displaying plate during her lying-in.

What was made with petunse?

Porcelain, at least in China.

From "An overview of Le Grand d'Aussy on furniture and settings for meals":

"Having reviewed food and drink in the previous chapters, Le Grand begins in the middle of his third volume to explore the furniture, utensils and other objects used to serve these. In the process, he not only itemizes the different objects and materials involved in food service, but provides histories of several of France's more important industries.

He begins with the Gauls, who were variously said to sit on hay or dog skins. The Romans introduced lying on couches, but the Franks preferred sitting upright on stools and benches. Still, hay did not disappear; like grass, it was later strewn about rooms.

A long section on table linen follows this, with a glimpse of the curious habit of “slicing the tablecloth” and a look at the production of linen in France. Le Grand then reviews lighting from hand-held to artificial, oil-powered candles, before briefly discussing utensils. Curiously, though the fork is generally considered to have come to France in the seventeenth century, one fourteenth century king had a number of them in his treasury.

Drinking vessels evolved from horns and – by some reports – human skulls to more elegant ware. Though Le Grand does not discuss this until later, earthenware would also have been used (as well as wooden goblets, which he does not discuss)....."

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Table seating

Possidonius writes that the Celts took their meals seated on the ground on hay, having before them very low tables. According to Strabo, the Belgians ate, for the most part, laid out on sorts of beds. Finally, if one is to believe Diodorus of Sicily, the Gauls used, as seats, dog or wolf skins. These testimonies of ancient Authors do not agree any more than many others, already previously cited. To reconcile them, it must be said that they concern different parts of Gaul. Nonetheless, if one must choose between the three Writers, I would most willingly trust Possidonius, who, having traveled among the Gauls, could have seen with his own eyes the custom in question. His testimony further agrees with that of Caesar who says that, in the army, the Gauls normally sat on hay.

Table beds

Such were, from the start, the Nation's first seats. Soon the Romans, established among them, taught them about the sort of beds which they used for their meals. In some regions, they might have adopted this custom; and in fact I find still some examples of this in the Fables of the XIIIth century, when they want to show us certain little pleasure parties. One also reads in the Monk of St. Gall, the story of a magnificent meal which a Bishop gave to two Great-Officers of Charlemagne, whose favor he wanted to gain; and in which the Prelate was seated on feather cushions. But these examples are rare. From the start, the Gauls felt the inconvenience of a fashion as awkward as it was uncomfortable; they substituted, for beds, wooden seats and stools, on which they ate seated, and which they covered with a rug to make them softer....

Greenery in festive places, in apartments and churches

As in winter, people tried to keep warm with straw, in summer they tried to keep cool with grass and leaves. The walls and fireplaces of apartments were also decorated with green boughs. The Count of Foix, says Froissart, entered his bedroom which he found all bestrewn, and full of new and fresh greenery, and the surrounding walls all covered with green branches to make the place cool and sweet-smelling; because the weather and the air outside was marvelously hot. Brantôme recounts how Bonnivet lying, a certain night, with one of the Mistresses of François I, suddenly the King, who was not expected, came knocking at the door and alarmed our two lovers. Then, the question was where the gallant could hide most safely. As it happened, it was the summer, branches and leaves had been put in the fireplace, as is done in France. By which the Lady advised him to jump into the fireplace, and hide in these leaves all in his nightshirt.

Table of Contents

    • About Le Grand d'Aussy's work
    • About this translation
    An overview of Le Grand d'Aussy on furniture and settings for meals
    • A brief glossary

    Furniture and utensils for meals
    • Table seating
      • Table beds
      • Stools and benches
    • Tables
      • Rugs for meals
    • Hay and straw
      • Straw in Churches and Colleges
      • Greenery in festive places, in apartments and churches
    • Tablecloth
      • Napkins
      • The custom of slicing the tablecloth
      • Manufacture at Rheims for table linen
      • Damasked and worked linen
    • Torches and candlesticks
      • Custom of lighting rooms for festivities with candles held in hands
        • Candle [bougie]
          • Candles with wicks
        • Colored candles
        • Candle [chandelle]
        • Oil candlesticks
      • [Utensils]
        • Spoons
        • Knives and forks
      • Drinking vessels
        • Horns
        • Human skulls
        • Cups
        • Hanaps
        • Vessels for water and wine
      • Nef, or Cadenas
      • Dressers
      • Flowing fountains
      • Earthen pottery
        • Faience
          • Works of Palissy
          • Faience factories established by Henry IV
          • Repairing faience
        • Madre
        • Porcelain
          • Saxon porcelain
          • Discovery made in France
          • Establishment of a factory at St. Cloud
          • Réaumur's experiments
          • Chantilly porcelain
          • Sèvres porcelain
          • Glass porcelain
        • Crystal glass / Glassworks under the first Race
          • French XIVth century glass
          • In the XVIth
          • In the XVIIth
          • In the XVIIIth
      • Precious stones
      • Crystal
      • Mother of pearl, jasper, marble
    • [Metals]
      • Tin and lead
      • Copper
        • Tinning
      • Varnished sheet metal
      • Silver
        • Mines of Gaul
        • Mining undertaken since the XVth century
        • Abundance of silverwork in France under the first Race
        • Kings' statutes on the subject of silver and gold plate
        • Luxury of silver in France under the third Race
        • Silverwork in the camps and the armies
        • Presents of silverwork given by Kings to Ambassadors
        • Silver given as gifts to well-placed people
        • Given to Churches
        • Convent treasures
        • Kings' treasures
        • Presents of silver made to Kings by their subjects
        • By municipalities
        • By monasteries
        • By conquered cities
        • By Sovereigns their allies
      • List of the plate of Charles V
        • Enamels
        • Custom of putting arms or marks on silver
      • [Closing thoughts]

Some samples from the
List of the plate of Charles V

General inventory of Charles the Fifth of all the treasures he had of gold as of silver. That is, crowns, helmets, plate, church ornaments, and other things encrusted with stones; and also jewels, fully worked plate of gold and silver, being from Chateaus, Hotels and Oratories of the said Lord, in his Chateaus of Meleun-sur-Seyne [Melun-sur-Seine]; from the Vincennes woods, from the Louvre, from St. Germain-en-Laye, from his Hotels of St. Pol in Paris, of Beauté-sur-Marne, and elsewhere; and also ornaments and plate which are continually carried with him; and with that of all the Chapels, chambers of embroidery and tapestry of the said Lord; which inventory was begun to be made by the said Lord the XXIth day of January in the year MCCCCLXXIX, etc.

No[te]. I omit here everything to do with crowns, reliquaries, church ornaments, rings, and jewels, etc.

Silver Plate.

Four dozen very large platters.

Twelve dozen small ones.

Twenty dozen bowls (sort of plates).

Five shaving bowls.

And what is more an infinity of justes, hyders, quarts, pots, pints, ewers, coquemars, alms bowls (a), hanaps, cups, comfet-boxes, basins, vessels, etc.

(a) So were called a piece of plate in which the Sovereign's Officers threw, during his meal, some pieces of meat to give the poor.

Gilded Silver Plate

Twenty nefs.

The great nef of King Jean, having at each end a castle, and, all about, towers, weighing..... 70 marks.

Twenty-five flagons.

Two other flagons representing in relief the nine Worthies... 197

Fifty basins.

A basin bearing the arms of France.... 35

A shaving bowl with fleurs-de-lis sculpted on the rim... 14

Four dozen large platters.

Six dozen small.

Four large tarred and enameled platters, each weighing....10

Two old fruit plates, having each on their edges three closed fleurs-de-lis in the style of arms..............

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


UPDATED: January 5, 2019