This project was undertaken jointly by myself and Vandel for the Midwinter Coronation Arts and Sciences competition in the category of 'a carved item'. The table setting had previously been researched for the Stormhold Winterfeast table decorating competition which had a 15th century theme (see previous blog entries). Here is a link to a short YouTube video showing the carving in progress.
Roast lamb broken for a duke’s table
Description: roast leg of lamb, carved in the 15th-16th century English style for a duke’s table as described in The Boke of Keruynge.
Research and photography by Lady Antonia di Lorenzo, carving by Baron Vandel Lynchea (aka Rachel Grimmer and Rohan Davies)
Medieval meat carving
Like most aspects of formal dining, the carving and serving of meat at a medieval high table was a highly specialised task. Unlike contemporary meat carving, where fairly large slices are served to the diner who then cuts them into smaller pieces with individual knives and forks, in the middle ages the carver provided a highly personalised service. Each item of meat or pastry was cut in its own particular way into bite-sized pieces, carefully avoiding any fat, gristle or other undesirable parts, and placed before the diner on trenchers of bread, then seasoned or sauced, ready for eating with fingers or a spoon. Forks were very uncommon in England until well into the 16th century, and if the carver had done his job well, individual knives were not used a great deal either.
Because each type of meat, fowl, fish or bakemeat (pastry) had to be carved in a particular way (each referred to by own distinctive carving term) and served with the correct accompaniments, the carver required a great deal of training and experience. In addition the carver had to exercise his own judgement as to which parts of the meat and how much to serve each diner so as to please them and enhance the dining experience. Male children of the nobility were frequently placed as squires in the household of other nobles, preferably of higher status, to be trained in every aspect of courtly life including table service and body service (assistance with grooming and dressing). The young man would rise through the ranks of panter, butler, waiter, cup bearer, sewer (server) and carver.
To assist these young men there were a number of handbooks written in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such as the Boke of Nurture, the Babees Book, and The Boke of Keruynge. This latter is available with the original woodblock printed text placed side by side with the modern english translation (plus additional explanatory notes and diagrams at the end of the book by food historian Peter Brears), and has been used as the main source for this project.
The carver and his utensils
The carver was distinguished from other table attendants by wearing a white linen arming cloth about 3m long, draped diagonally over his left shoulder and tied at the waist on the right. Carvers would use a set of carving utensils owned by the lord. These consisted of large broad carving knives for setting the sliced trencher bread before the lord and carving the meat, and smaller narrower knives for holding the meat while carving, and for carving smaller birds. Only some meats, such as venison, were required to be held with a knife while being carved. Other foods were held with the thumb and two fingers of the left hand. Some carving sets included large two-pronged forks or a single spike for holding the meat. The whole set had a sheath or carrying case which was frequently embellished with the heraldry of the owner. The knives had elaborate handles of wood or ivory with silver or silver gilt mounts, and the blades were often decorated. A particularly rare set from the 16th century, one knife of which is held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, is engraved with musical notation containing a benediction to be sung before eating on one side and a grace to be sung at the end of the meal on the the other. Each knife has one voice part, the V&A knife being engraved with the tenor part.
The table setting
The table setting we have used is based on the instructions from The Boke of Keruynge and 15th century manuscript illuminations. On a white diapered cloth the diner’s place is set with bread trenchers. The number of trenchers varied according to the status of the diner - this setting has four slices, indicating an archbishop or duke. In the sixteenth century bread trenchers gave way to wooden or metal trenchers. We have chosen to use both to protect the tablecloth. To the left of the trenchers is a 15th century-style knop spoon placed on a folded napkin. To the right is an eating knife, a cup and a salt.
Carving the lamb
Although mutton would have been preferred to lamb in medieval times, lamb was chosen because it was more easily obtainable and also substantially cheaper than venison. The roasted leg was placed on a serving dish opposite the lord for breaking (this is the medieval term for carving a joint of venison, mutton, lamb or beef). The meat is held using a long narrow knife in the left hand, and carved with a larger broader knife in the right hand. The first step is to remove any undesirable parts of the meat from the area to be carved. This includes skin, fat, gristle, burnt bits and (if applicable) any bits with hair or feathers. Next a series of parallel cuts is made into the meat, followed by a second row of cuts at right angles to the first. Then the knife is laid parallel to the surface and the meat sliced off as small chunks, and placed upon the trencher using the tip of the knife. The meat is not touched with the hands. Meat such as venison was often placed on a bed of frumenty to be eaten with a spoon, but for clarity of illustration we have omitted this step. After serving the meat might be seasoned or sauced by the carver. The correct accompaniment for lamb would have been gamelyne/cameline sauce, made with cinnamon and other spices, bread, and wine or verjuice.
After carving, the lamb was eaten by the entrants and several members of the Abbotsford household. These experienced re-enactors provided useful feedback on the results of the carving. This method of carving was found to have a number of advantages over the contemporary method of cutting large thin slices. In addition to avoiding the need for a (non-period) fork in order to eat, it was found that this method of carving was ideally suited to cutting around bones in joints of meat. The meat also tasted better, with the chunks of meat retaining moisture and flavour better than thin slices. All in all, a resounding success.
Wynkyn de Worde The Boke of Keruynge (The Book of Carving) 1508
Published with additional notes and drawings by Peter Brears, Southover Press 2003
P. W. Hammond Food and Feast in Medieval England Alan Sutton 1993
O. Redon, F. Sabban & S. Serventi The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy
translated by E. Schneider, University of Chicago Press 1998
Le très riches heures du Duc de Berry, Janvier Ms 65/1284 fol. 1 v (sourced from the Web Gallery of Art)
La geste ou histoire du noble roy Alexandre Ms. Fr. 9342, fol. 13 (sourced from The Medieval Kitchen)