Menu: if you’ve got it… flaunt it

In 1491, Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara in northern Italy, threw a feast for his son’s wedding. Among the highlights of this culinary extravaganza was a series of elaborately designed sugar sculptures. Yet before the guests could tuck in to them, attendants picked up the sweet artworks and promptly threw them into the diners’ laps. Not to worry: another round of similar treats was served immediately.


To modern eyes, this may seem like a strange way to treat wedding guests. Yet the duke was making a statement: that he had the wealth to throw away eye-wateringly expensive delicacies and, in the blink of an eye, replace them with more of the same. The duke’s prank may strike us as extravagance at its worst, yet it shines a light on to medieval attitudes to feasting.

For the elite, food was seen as a tool for flaunting wealth and power – and, as such, serving (or merely displaying) highly elaborate dishes was a feature of banquets in the Middle Ages. The 14th-century English cookbook The Forme of Cury includes recipes for chickens dressed as knights and a cockatrice – a mythical dragon-like creature, in this case created by combining body parts from a pig and a cockerel. “Take a whole roasted cockerel, pull his guts and skin him all in one piece, save for the legs,” run the instructions. “Take a piglet, cut him in half from the middle downwards. Sew them firmly together.”

Other dishes might demonstrate that the host was dialled in to new tastes and trends – for example, the growing influence of Arab or other cuisines seen in foods and ingredients such as pasta or aubergine.


Music: flutes, bells and trumpets

In the comical Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, the Carl (a giant) hosts a feast at which his beautiful daughter appears to perform music for the guests: “First she played the harp, then sang songs of love and of Arthur’s knights all the while, how they together met.” Seated at the table are three knights of the Round Table. Their presence at the banquet transforms the daughter’s song from a piece of entertainment into a commentary on her father’s guests.

Musicians, shown in a 14th-century illumination, were a staple of courtly feasts (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Musicians, shown in a 14th-century illumination, were a staple of courtly feasts (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

As that literary episode indicates, music and feasts went hand in hand. At the wedding feast thrown by Ercole I d’Este for his son in 1491, for example, guests were serenaded by trumpets, carnival songs and dances. To add to the pageantry, the Greek god Apollo appeared with his lyre to sing to the newly-weds.

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In 1450, a banquet hosted by Francesco Sforza to celebrate his arrival as duke into Milan featured trumpets, flutes, bells and a choir dressed in white singing the host’s name. Like the food, this music was intended to demonstrate – to all who would listen – the host’s refined tastes.


Guest list: singing spies and unruly strangers

In 1429, heralds and musicians attended a feast in the powerful Iberian kingdom of Castile. As with many of the jamborees put on in the Middle Ages, the banquet offered local elites the opportunity to shape power dynamics, as well as to engage in diplomacy with foreign nobles. But on this occasion, not all of those welcomed at the feast were entirely honest about their motives for attending. Among the musicians was a spy collecting information for the kingdom of Aragon, then ruled by Alphonse V.

As the interloper at the feast demonstrates, inviting strangers came with risks. A section in the 13th-century treatise On the Properties of Things, by the Franciscan thinker Bartholomaeus Anglicus, includes a section on the importance of ensuring the safety of guests. Medieval guides to courtesy – etiquette for the upper classes – feature instructions for elaborate rituals designed to test guests to prove that they know how to conduct themselves at feasts, and won’t ruin the entire thing by getting drunk and behaving badly.


Pageantry: diners with a stomach for the fight

In 1454, Philip the Good, the formidable Duke of Burgundy, hosted a banquet. As Philip was a noted man of culture, and one of Europe’s most powerful figures, his guests would, perhaps, have expected something spectacular from the gathering – and that is exactly what they got. The banquet – known as the Feast of the Pheasant – is famed for its elaborate pageantry.

The duke himself, we’re told, was served at his table by a two-headed horse ridden by two men sitting back to back, each holding a trumpet, and then by a monster, consisting of a man riding on an elephant. Next, so one of the duke’s officials reported, “came a white stag ridden by a boy who sang marvellously, while the stag accompanied him with the tenor part”.

The duke himself, we’re told, was served at his table by a two-headed horse ridden by two men sitting back to back, each holding a trumpet

If these descriptions are anything to go by, no one who attended the Feast of the Pheasant would forget it in a hurry. Yet this event was far more than a mere assortment of fabulously rich aristocrats letting their hair down and their imaginations run wild. Drill down in to the detail of the feast and it soon becomes apparent that Philip had an agenda.

He hosted the banquet with one specific aim in mind: to promote a crusade against the Turks, who had taken Constantinople a year earlier. It’s for this reason that, as well as the stag and two-headed horse, the guests were treated to the sight of an elephant “carrying a castle, in which sat Holy Church, who made piteous complaint on behalf of the Christians persecuted by the Turks, and begged for help”.

A painting of 1454’s Feast of the Pheasant, a culinary extravaganza with strings attached (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
A painting of 1454’s Feast of the Pheasant, a culinary extravaganza with strings attached (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece were accompanied into the feast by two damsels who asked the duke to make a crusading vow. Philip, naturally, obliged; crucially, so did his noble guests. Philip the Good wasn’t the only medieval leader to host a feast in order to drum up support for a military venture.

Edward I of England used his wedding banquet in 1254 to encourage his lords to invest in his conquest of the rest of Britain. The king’s actors dressed as characters from popular literature (figures like the Loathly Lady, who appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale), asking for martial help in military flashpoints such as the Welsh Marches.


Art: feasts for the eyes

By the mid-15th century, the finest feasting had evolved into something of an art form. And that art extended to the building in which the banquets were staged. When Tristan Sforza – son of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan – got married in 1455, the wedding feast took place in a custom-built pavilion decorated in gold and silver. The Sforzas weren’t the only clan to turn a feast into something resembling an art installation. During the banquet for the d’Este wedding of 1491, the streets of Ferrara were decorated with images of gods and tapestries, and participants were dressed in costumes designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

In the medieval collections of London’s V&A Museum are wonderful examples of tableware, including a dragon-shaped candlestick and a pitcher designed to look like a griffin. Artefacts like these reflect our ancestors’ fascination with marvels: objects imbued with the strange or the mythological. This art was important for cultivating the noble image of the host – especially if the host wasn’t actually noble.

During the banquet for the d’Este wedding of 1491, the streets of Ferrara were decorated with images of gods and tapestries

The Franklin, one of the protagonists in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is wealthy but he’s no aristocrat. And so he invests in lavish clothing, accessories and feasts to compensate for his apparent lack of breeding. However, as Chaucer’s commentary demonstrates, social climbing was often frowned upon, and feasts could lead to accusations of excess.


Storytelling: epic battles between good and evil

In the medieval mind, the banqueting hall could be a battleground between the forces of darkness and light. Feasts play an important role in medieval romances, and many Arthurian tales contain episodes involving interactions between valiant knights and their enemies. The most famous of these, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, dating from the late 14th century, begins with a fabulous Christmas banquet in an Arthurian court.

Here, we’re told, “the feast was the same for full 15 days, with all the meat and the mirth that men could devise, such clamour and glee glorious to hear: excellent noise at day, dancing at night”. The party’s merrymaking is interrupted by the Green Knight, who entangles Sir Gawain in a dangerous game – one that will play out when the Green Knight hosts Gawain at another Christmas celebration. Gawain’s fate now depends on his ability to prove himself a worthy guest to his deadly host.

Such clashes between good and evil provided medieval aristocrats with an opportunity they couldn’t resist – to perform these stories at their own banquets and, in the process, cast themselves as beacons of virtue in a cruel world. Ercole d’Este had a poem told at one of his feasts that compared him to his namesake, Hercules, and depicted his rise to glory.

Plays performed at banquets thrown by King Alphonse V depicted episodes such as the defeat of Morgan le Fay, a sorceress in Arthurian legend. For Alphonse, these tales offered a double benefit. They equated his name with the winning of honour, and sent a message to his guests, the lords of the Aragonese court, that these nobleman should follow the code of chivalry upheld by fictional knights such as Sir Gawain. A code that, happily for Alphonse, unified the nobility around the king.

Charlotte Palmer is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham


This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine