Domestic Life

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter XXXII. ...continued

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The inventory of the household effects of Lord Grey, taken in 1540, affords us ample information on the subject of dress and household effects. The list commences with "eight tun and a pype of Gaskoyne wine," and the "long board in the hall." A great advance had been made since we described the social life of the eleventh century; and the refinements practised at meals was not the least of many improvements. A bord-clothe was spread on the table, though forks were not used until the reign of James I. They came from Italy, to which country we owe many of the new fashions introduced in the seventeenth century. In The Boke of Curtosye there are directions given not to "foule the bord-clothe wyth the knyfe;" and Ben Jonson, in his comedy of "The Devil is an Ass," alludes to the introduction of forks, and the consequent disuse of napkins:

"The laudable use of forks,
Brought into custom here as they are in Italy,
To th' sparing o' napkins."

The English edition of the Janua Linguarum of Comenius, represents the fashion of dining in England during the Commonwealth. The table was simply a board placed on a frame or trestles, which was removed after the meal to leave room for the dancers. Old Capulet's hall was prepared thus:

"A hall! a hall! give room, and foot it, girls!
More light, ye knaves, and turn the table up."

The head of the table, where the principal person sat, was called the "board-end;" and as one long table was now used instead of several smaller ones, the guests of higher and lower degree were divided by the massive saltcellar, placed in the centre of the table. Thus, in Ben Jonson, it is said of a man who treats his inferiors with scorn, "He never drinks below the salt." The waiters, after settling the cloth, placed the spoons, knives, forks, bread, and napkins beside the trenchers. The butler served out the drink from the cupboard, the origin of our modern sideboard. The "cobbord," erroneously supposed to have been like our modern cupboard, is specially mentioned amongst Lord Grey's effects. Lord Fairfax, in his directions to his servants, written about the middle of the seventeenth century, says: "No man must fill beer or wine but the cupboard keeper," and he should know which of his "cups be for beer and which for wine, for it were a foul thing to mix them together." There was another reason, however, for this arrangement—much "idle tippling" was cut off thereby; for as the draught of beer or wine had to be asked for when it was needed, the demand was not likely to be so quick as if it were always at hand. There were also cups of "assaye," from which the cupbearer was obliged to drink before his master, to prove that there was no poison in the liquor which he used.

The cupboard was covered with a carpet, of which Lord Grey had two. These carpets, or tablecovers, were more or less costly, according to the rank and state of the owner. His Lordship had also "two chares, two fformes, and two stooles." Chairs were decidedly a luxury at that day. Although the name is of Anglo-Norman origin, they did not come into general use until a late period; and it was considered a mark of disrespect to superiors, for young persons to sit in their presence on anything but hard benches or stools. The Anglo-Saxons called their seats sett and stol, a name which we still preserve in the modern stool. The hall was ornamented with rich hangings, and there was generally a traves, which could be used as a curtain or screen to form a temporary partition.

The floor was strewn with rushes, which were not removed quite so frequently as would have been desirable, considering that they were made the repository of the refuse of the table. Perfumes were consequently much used, and we are not surprised to find "a casting bottel, dooble gilte, for rose-water," in the effects of a Viceroy of the sixteenth century. Such things were more matters of necessity than of luxury at even a later period. Meat and pudding were the staple diet of the upper classes in 1698. Wright [5] gives a long and amusing extract from a work published by a foreigner who had been much in England at this period, and who appears to have marvelled equally at the amount of solid meat consumed, the love of pudding, and the neglect of fruit at dessert.

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[5] Wright.—Domestic Manners, pp. 465, 466: " Oh! what an excellent thing is an English pudding! Make a pudding for an Englishman, and you will regale him, be he where he will."