One of the most vital features of medieval feasts were trenchers, plates cut from stale loaves of bread and which were used to hold food, salt, and even candles during the feast. Every diner ate off one, and there were even servants whose specific task during mealtime was the carving and presentation of trenchers, the finest and most delicate given to the king or ranking nobility. Used trenchers, full of sauces and covered in bits of food, were given to the festal dogs or presented to the poor, who waited hungrily outside, as alms. Sadly, in today's recreated dinners the trencher is more often than not replaced by the bread bowl, which is a sorry substitution for the real thing.
Bridget Ann Henisch, author of Fast and Feast, reveals these important facts on the trenchers of the Middle Ages:
"After its importance as food, the most useful role bread played at table was as a plate, or trencher. A trencher could be made of many different materials, earthenware, wood, or metal, but well into the sixteenth century it was often made of bread. The word is derived from the French verb trenchier or trancher, to cut, and the plate was made freshly for each meal by cutting off a slice from the loaf. It soaked up gravy, and could be eaten by the diner, tossed to a favorite dog, or tidied away with all the other remains and given to the poor. A clean trencher was prepared once or twice during an elaborate meal as the table was swept clean between each course, the servants removing 'all broke cromys, bonys and trenchours before the secunde cours and servise be served.'
"Any man who ate his own trencher must have been particularly hungry, as the bread used was rather coarse and stale, to make it solid enough for the purpose. The flour was unbolted and the loaf itself several days old: 'trencher bred iii dayes (old) is convenyent and agreable.' The Goodman of Paris adds the information that a trencher should be 'half a foot wide and four inches high.' In texture it was close and firm enough to be used sometimes as a candle holder.
"An ordinary diner made his own trencher after he sat down at the table, by cutting off a slice from the nearest loaf, but the most important people present expected to be served. Once again, the bread bore silent witness to their status. One manual suggests three trenchers for the master of the household, two for his son, and one for the least distinguished at the table. Another, more lavish, proposes four for the lord, 'and soo iii or ii after her (their) degree.'
"To prepare a trencher for someone else was a courtesy. In the Holkham Bible Picture Book, Jesus may be seen, as a young boy, cutting bread for Mary and Joseph. A person sufficiently distinguished to receive several trenchers would find them presented to him on the blade of the server's knife and then ranged before him, sometimes side by side or in a square, sometimes in a little pile. One might be set out on its own to act as a personal saltcellar.
"If at no other stage in a meal, a clean trencher was expected at the very end, when cheese and little delicacies were brought in. The child addressed in The Babees Book is given this advice:
'Whanne chese ys brouhte, A trenchoure ha (have) ye clene On whiche withe clene knyf ye your chese mowe kerve.'
"From these 'dessert' trenchers developed miniature wooden plates, charmingly decorated on one side with flowers and improving texts, of which a few sixteenth and seventeenth examples still survive."
Bridget Ann Henisch, Fast and Feast, pp 160-161
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