Daily Archives: November 7, 2009

The History of Modern Policing.

These days when we’re in trouble, our first instinct is to pick up the telephone and dial 000, 999, 911 or any other emergency number and to request ‘Police’ from the list of emergency services available. It’s quick, it’s easy and we’re assured that trained professionals are on the other end of the line, ready to do what they have to do, to protect ordinary citizens such as you and me.

In terms of history, however, the idea of a professional group of people whose sole job it is, to protect, serve, detect and prevent crimes, is a pretty new one. The world’s first real police-force which looks anything like what we would be familiar with today, only came into existence in 1829! Before then, police as we imagine them to be, just didn’t exist. So, where did the idea for a police-force come from and how have police-forces changed over time?

Before the Police.

Before modern policing came around in the second quarter of the 19th century, law-enforcers usually consisted of soldiers, city watchmen, guards or other people of authority or military experience. As late as the 1700s, modern police had not yet arrived on the scene. So, who was around to keep the peace?


For hundreds of years, the only real ‘law-enforcers’ were known as watchmen. A watchman was a man who was paid by the government of the city in which he lived, to patrol the streets after dark. His job was not actually to prevent crimes, but to ensure that curfews (which were imposed in most medieval cities at sundown), were enforced. He was to arrest anyone who was out-of-doors after dark without a legitimate excuse. A watchman was usually lightly armed, if he was armed at all. He might have a flaming torch or a lantern, and a club or stick for self-defense, but that was it. Wandering dark, unlit streets at midnight was a dangerous way to make a living, but curfews had to be enforced.


These days if there’s a public riot, police-forces send in their riot-squads, armed with shields, shotguns, batons and tear-gas. 500 years ago if there was a riot, soldiers would be sent in to quell the violence. And they didn’t always use humane crowd-control methods, either.


Guards in ancient cities who watched and manned gatehouses or defensive walls might also be used to keep law and order in a city, although this wasn’t strictly their job, which was to protect the city against unwelcome outsiders.

While all these people were persons in positions of power and authority, their jobs were not actually to actively persue criminals, their job was to keep the peace. They were around to uphold existing laws, to break up riots and to settle disputes amongst people, but they weren’t there to be called upon if, for example, someone had broken into your house and robbed you, and nor was it their job to try and track down criminals who had murdered someone or done some other crime.

The Emergence of Policing.

The 18th century, in England, at least, saw the rise of the first police-style law-enforcers. They came in two forms: one legal, one not-so-legal.


A thief-taker was not a policeman. Think of him as an amateur private-investigator or a bounty-hunter. If, in the 18th century, your house was broken into, or you were mugged in the streets and had something stolen from you, a thief-taker (for a small fee), would attempt to track down the person who had stolen your property, probably by scouring the underworld and meeting up with contacts to try and strike a deal to get your goods back.

The Bow Street Runners.

The Bow Street Runners were a group of men who worked for the magistrates’ courthouse located in Bow Street, London, England. The Runners were the brainchlid of a pair of brothers, Sir John and Henry Fielding. Henry was a famous novelist and a JP (Justice of the Peace). His younger half-brother, John, who suffered from eyesight problems and who eventually went blind, was the magistrate of Bow Street. Despite his blindness, John Fielding must’ve had incredible hearing and memory, becuase he was reputed to be able to recognise up to three thousand different criminals, purely by the sounds of their voices. The brothers formed the Runners in 1749 and so was born London’s (and possibly, the world’s) first professional crime-fighting force.

The job of the Runners was not to actually arrest people, however, or to necessarily uphold the law. The job for which they were paid, was the apprehension of criminals who attempted to skip their court-dates (and possibly flee justice). The Runners were dispatched, and reported to the magistrate’s courthouse in Bow Street, providing information on criminals, such as who they were, where they were, and what crimes they were being arrested or charged for.

Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, London.

The Metropolitan Police Service.

More commonly-known today as ‘Scotland Yard’, the Metropolitan Police Service (‘the Met’), was the world’s first official, professional police-force. It was the idea of Sir Robert ‘Bobby’ Peel, who convinced the British Parliament that there should be one professional crimefighting, crime-prevention organisation to watch over London. The 1820s saw the rise of the Industrial Revolution. The explosion in London’s population, and subsequent skyrocketing crime-rate, had made it clear to Sir Robert that the Bow Street Runners, thief-takers and watchmen were either overwhelmed or outdated and had to be replaced with something more effective. The Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829 and the Metropolitan Police Service was formed later that year.

Early Policing.

The first ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ who appeared on the streets of London, starting on the 29th of September, 1829, were true groundbreakers. These police-officers were the first kind of a new lawman whom nobody had ever seen before in their lives. The original police uniform was navy blue, with a stiffened top hat, to protect the officer against blows to the head. Policemen were armed with truncheons, primative handcuffs, and rattles for calling for backup. Navy blue was chosen for the uniform because red too-closely resembled the uniform worn by the British Army (famously known as the ‘redcoats’). Blue, on the other hand, more readily blended into the London streetscene.

British police traditionally do not carry firearms. Early on in the Met’s history, some fifty flintlock pistols were purchased for use by police-constables in ‘special circumstances’, but these were rarely used. At any rate, advancing firearms technology in the the 1830s and 1840s quickly made the flintlock pistols obsolete when the first revolvers appeared towards the middle of the century.

Today, British police are famous, world-over, for their distinctive headgear. The ‘Custodian’ helmet was introduced in 1863 as a more suitable replacement to the top hat, then in use. They have remained the official headgear for London police-officers ever since.

The current model of the Custodian helmet, worn by London policemen today

Cops on the Beat.

For over 100 years, ever since the world’s first policemen took to the streets in 1829, one of the most enduring images of the modern police-force is the ‘beat-cop’, the friendly, neighbourhood lawman who walks around the neighburhood, making sure that everyone is safe. ‘Beat-cops’ as they were called, survived a surprisingly long time, well into the 1960s, until they were gradually phased out. Some police-forces still have beat-cops, but they’re rather rare today. Those forces which do, usually protect smaller communities, such as villages and towns, instead of large cities.

But what is a ‘beat’?

A policeman’s ‘beat’ was his area of patrol, usually a couple of blocks. His job was to walk around the block or blocks assigned to him, at a specific time, for a specific length of time, usually one hour. This kind of patrolling soon became known as ‘pounding the beat’. Pounding the beat was boring at the best of times. At the worst of times, it mean chasing after someone who had broken the law. At the end of your beat, you would report back to your local precinct, where another policeman would be sent out to relieve you.

If you were out on the beat and you spotted a crime, what action did you take?

In the earliest days of professional policing, you took out your police-rattle and swung it around through the air. The rattle was shaped much like the ones you might see at sporting-matches today. The point of swinging your rattle was to alert nearby officers that a crime was in progress and that you required backup. Rattles were mediocre backup-calling devices at best. On a clear day in open country with favourable winds, a rattle could be heard for about 500 yards. In the middle of a city filled with bustling people, shouting, chattering and the rattling and grinding and rumbling of horse-drawn carriages, a rattle was pretty poor choice for a backup-instrument.

The Police-Whistle.

All cops on the beat have a police-whistle! You see them in old movies and on period TV shows and stuff like that. This may surprise you, but until the 1860s, most police-forces did NOT have police-whistles. Before then, whistles were seen as children’s toys, not crime-deterrents. The failings of the police-rattle, however, caused police-officals around the world to do some serious thinking. A backup-system was no good if there was no-one around who could hear it. They needed something better. The whistle was the answer. In tests done in open country, it was proved that a good whistle could be heard for twice as far as the loudest rattles available, with an audiable radius of up to 1,000 yards!

In 1883, a man named Joseph Hudson created what is probably one of the most famous whistles in the world. Made of brass and plated with nickel, the Metropolitan Police Whistle is the classic police-whistle. About three inches long, pealess and easy to hold, this whistle answered everyone’s prayers. The Met whistle’s size made it easy to store on an officer’s uniform. It’s cylindrical shape made it easy to hold and its split chamber and two sound-holes let out a shrill, ear-splitting ‘chreep!’ which could be heard for blocks in every direction! Anyone hearing the distinctive trill would know at once that something bad had happened.

The Metropolitan Whistle was standard-issue to all London (indeed, all BRITISH) police-officers from 1883 until they were finally retired nearly 100 years later, in 1975.

Having blown on your police-whistle, you, as an officer, could expect backup to arrive in a matter of minutes. It’s generally believed that in London, the policemen had the beat-system down so perfectly that at any place in the city at any time of the day or night, there was always a policeman within whistling-distance who could be at your service within 15 minutes.

Early Police-Equipment.

Apart from the famous Metropolitan police-whistle with an earsplitting, audiable range of one kilometer, which was assuredly going to get someone’s attention in an emergency, what other pieces of equipment did a policeman carry, ‘back in the good old days’?

The Met Whistle (of course!)
Three blasts of a Metropolitan Police Whistle. You actually have to blow quite hard to get it to sound like it does in the movies, but as this was meant to be heard for a kilometer in every direction, that’s not surprising.

Haitt-Darby handcuffs.

A service-pistol (if allowed).

Smith & Wesson Model 10 Military & Police Revolver; formerly standard-issue to most police-departments. Some forces still use these today


The ‘nightstick’ got its name because originally, policemen carried two kinds of batons; the longer ‘daystick’ and the shorter ‘nightstick’. In close-combat with criminals, policemen found that the shorter, more compact and easily-handled ‘nightstick’ was a better weapon, and so started carrying them permanently

Call-box key.

With the rise of telephones and telecommunications in general, at the start of the 20th century, policemen could also use police callboxes to summon backup or to report a crime. The callbox key was used to unlock the box to either pull an alarm-lever, or to gain access to a telephone with a direct line to the nearest precinct

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Posted by on November 7, 2009 in General History


Pen Profile: The Flattop Parker Duofold (1921).

The 1920s. The ‘Roaring Twenties’, a decade of money, new invention, new fashion, new styles and…new fountain pens. Arguably, the most famous fountain pen of the Roaring Twenties was something that was just as bright and flashy as the decade which made it king: The Parker Duofold. While perhaps rather boring-looking today and a bit…bland…the Duofold was revolutionary back in the 1920s.

Pens of the Period.

In the early 1920s, the majority of fountain pens were still made of a material called hard-rubber, also known as ‘ebonite’. Ebonite was alright for making fountain pens with, but it had a fair few problems. It was brittle, it came in only three colours (red, black or black & red), and it was rather hard to make something so boring look appealing-enough for people to buy it. Back in the 1910s and 20s, pen-makers tried to jazz up black hard-rubber pens by having them wrapped in gold or silver patterns, or by ‘chasing’ them. ‘Chasing’ was a process whereby a really hot metal stencil was stamped onto newly-made pen-barrels. This process gave the pen a nice, wriggly pattern on it. But back then, these were the only ways you could dress up a pen.

Apart from that, most pens were still lever-fillers, or eyedropper fillers. The Parker Pen Company which came up with the Duofold, wanted something different. Something that didn’t have a lever sticking out of the side of the pen, something which wasn’t black, or chased or swathed in metal. It wanted something new, to welcome in a prosperous decade of jazz, bootlegging and skyrocketing crime-rates…

The Birth of the Duofold.

The original Parker Duofold was born in 1921. An employee at the Parker Pen Company in Janesville, Wisconsin, USA, came up with the idea that the company should try something totally different. Their newest pen would be big, it would be bold, it would have the newfangled ‘button-fill’ system and instead of being black, it would be bright, fire-engine red. Well…actually it was called ‘Chinese Red’ at the time. While the button-fill fountain pen (an invention of Parker’s) was not particularly new in 1921, it had the advantage over rival pen company, Sheaffer’s ‘lever-filler’ in that the filling-button could be capped by a ‘blind-cap’ at the top of the pen, completely hiding the filling-system from the user’s eyes, creating a cleaner-looking pen. Parker big-wigs were a little nervous about all this, espcially the idea to make the pen red. They knew from experience that dyes in the rubber-making process tended to make the finished product rather brittle, and that was saying something, considering how weak hard rubber could already be. What was even scarier was the price that this new pen would be sold at: $7.00.

Seven dollars is piddlesticks today, but 80 years ago, you could buy dinner for your entire family for seven dollars. It was NOT a sum of money to be sneezed at, again, another thing for the company executives to be worried about. How could a pen so expensive possibly sell?

Despite everything, despite all their misgivings, the Parker Duofold, affectionately named the ‘Big Red’ due to its size and heft, was an instant runaway success! The American public loved the new pen for its size, ink capacity, easy-to-use and discreet filling-system and of course…it’s colour!

The Duofold Hits the Shelves.

When the Duofold came out, it was big, red, expensive, succesful and…bandless. Really early Parker Duofolds (if you can find them), came without a gold cap-band around the lip of the screw-down cap. This was a big problem. As I said, hard rubber is prone to cracking and splitting. Without a cap-band on the pen to strengthen it, the lid could just crack in half like an egg, if an overenthusiastic writer screwed the cap on too tightly, or posted the pen too forcefully. Within a couple of months of release, the Duofold was withdrawn and reissued with a nice, fat gold cap-band on it. These Duofolds, because of the size and thickness of the band, were called “raised-band” Duofolds.

As the years went by, the Duofold started coming out in a wider variety of designs. The original ‘Big Red’ (called the Senior model), was followed by the Junior model (which was a half-inch shorter), followed by the Lady’s Duofold (with a ringtop instead of a pocket-clip), followed by the Duofold Special (which was Senior-sized, but was thinner in barrel-diameter). The biggest change came in 1926.

Pens Play with Plastic.

In the mid-1920s, a new material arrived on the production-line. It was strong, versatile, mouldable and it was called…celluloid. Celluloid was to pen-manufacturers what a truckload of Lego blocks is to a little boy who’s used to playing with wooden blocks. All of a sudden, pen-designers could whip out all kinds of new colours and patterns and shapes and suddenly, a whole new world of design-opportunities was open to creative and artistic pen-makers. The first pen-company to jump on the celluloid bandwagon was Sheaffer in 1924. Not to be outdone, Parker started producing its Duofolds in all kinds of wonderful new colours. First in Lapis Blue (a blue and white pattern), then mottled green, then in 1927, yellow.

Yellow was bold, bright, beautiful…and brittle. Yellow Duofolds were made from 1927 until 1929, but they would barely have been made for one month if George Parker, the company head, hadn’t insisted on them. The problem was that the yellow dye used in the plastic made the resultant pens incredibly brittle, even moreso than the hard-rubber which the celluloid replaced! Today, yellow Duofolds command very very high prices. Finding one in mint-condition is tricky, and when you do, it won’t be cheap.

Duofolds continued to change. In 1928, the first and last time that two-bander models were produced, saw the introduction of vest-pocket and women’s fountain pens with three cap-bands instead of the usual two and regular-sized fountain pens with two thin bands instead of the usual one thick one.

In 1929, with the Art Deco movement gathering steam, the original Duofold made one final change in design: It became ‘streamlined’.

Previous to 1929, the Duofold was very angular and tubular. The cap and barrel ends cut off in sharp, right-angles. In 1929, these right-angles were changed to smoother, more sloping ends, which saw them being transformed…in a manner of speaking…to something more in-style with the coming of the 1930s.


Posted by on November 7, 2009 in Fountain Pens and Typewriters


Living in a Castle – What was it Like?

Apart from being fortresses, apart from being places of safety for the commonfolk if their land was under attack, a castle was also a home. Castles built in more peaceful parts of Europe could actually be quite grand and magnificent; they were the mansions in rich neighbourhoods, of their day. But what was life actually like in a castle? Who lived there, what did they do, what was the food like and what happened on a daily basis? While many castles were indeed massive, being small cities in themselves, what were they like to live in?

Who Built and Primarily lived in Castles?

This is obvious. The king and queen, right? Well…yes and no. Certainly, the king or queen would have lived in a castle or a palace, and certainly one of great size and grandeur, but there are dozens, hundreds of castles all over Europe. Crowned heads of France, Germany, Poland, England and all the other countries in Europe, couldn’t possibly live in all of these, did they?

No, they didn’t. The truth is that the majority of castles were never built for a king or queen or any other reigning monarch. Most castles were in fact built for noblemen! In the days when it was still customary for a king to lead his troops into battle, charging on ahead with his standard, or remaining at the rear, directing his forces on the battlefield, the king rewarded especially brave or couragous soldiers or knights the best way that a king could back in those days. He gave the knight with the big balls a nice, fat chunk of land. As Gerald O’Hara says in ‘Gone with the Wind’, “Land’s the only thing worth fighting for, worth dying for! Because it’s the only thing that lasts!” Once a deserving warrior had been given his plot of land, he was allowed to do what he wanted with it. Less ambitious noblemen (since a knight was made an earl or a baron after his services to the king), might build a manor house. Those who desired to build a castle, however, had to get written, signed and sealed permission from the king. It was illegal to build a castle without the king’s permission. Once permission (and funds) had been granted, however, building could go ahead.

Since there were obviously more noblemen and knights than kings, it’s easy to see now, why the main occupants of a castle were not actually the members of a royal family, but more likely, the members of a noble family, comprising of the lord, his lady and any children or relations, along with servants and any close friends and colleagues.

What was it like living in a castle?

Even when it wasn’t under attack, living in a castle was hectic, noisy and they were often packed full of people. Despite what you might think, a castle was not the most comfortable of places to live, even in a castle that was built primarily as a home, instead of as a defensive structure. Castles were large, dark, draughty and cold. Windows were often small, with wooden shutters or (if the nobleman could afford it), leadlight glass-panes. Glass was expensive back in the medieval period, so most castles did without glass in their windows. Most rooms would have had massive fireplaces. Without central heating, this was the only way to warm up a room during winters where it could drop to several degrees below freezing.

Much of the furniture or decorations which one generally associates with castle chambers actually served double purposes. Tapestries were big, pretty cloth pictures which depicted famous events or people, but they were also there to keep the heat in and to stop it escaping through the walls, like a form of insulation. The enormous, four-poster beds which one associates with grand bedchambers didn’t have those hanging curtains and canopies around them just for decoration or privacy. When the sleeper went to bed at night, the curtains were closed to keep out draughts and keep in the heat.

What about answering calls of nature? Well, the usual callbox, the modern toilet, didn’t exist back in the 14th century. Instead, you either used a closed stool (which was a special seat with a bucket underneath it), or you used a privy, which is a seat with a hole in it. Waste going through the closed stool (which is where we get the term ‘stool’ to mean ‘feces’) was collected in the bucket, which was then removed, emptied, washed and replaced. Waste which passed through the seat of the privy (which was an early kind of toilet), ended up in one of two places. If the castle had a moat around it, the waste probably ended up in there. If it didn’t have a moat, or if the privy was located somewhere without access to the moat, bodily waste ended up in the cesspit at the very bottom of the castle. A cesspit is an early kind of septic tank.

Lighting in castles was either natural sunlight, or the light given off by candles or an open fire. As a result, castles were often very smokey. It took at least three or four candles to produce enough light to really read or sew or do anything else by. Any chandler who took up residence in the castle (a chandler is a candlemaker) was bound to make a pretty good living out of it.

What about washing up and bathing? This may come as a shock to most people, but regular bathing as we know it today, did not exist until the very late 19th century. Certainly in the 13, 14 and 1500s not many people bothered with it. Firstly, work was so hard and manual and labour-intensive that you would build up a sweat the moment you got out of the bath-tub, so bathing was seen as a waste of time. Secondly, the trouble of running a bath back then just didn’t make it worth it. There was no running water. If you wanted a bath, and especially a hot bath, you had to boil the water yourself, over a fire, you had to lug it upstairs to the bathtub, fill the bathtub, get the tempreature right, put the soap in (if you had any), stripped naked, got in, washed, got out, dried, put your clothes back on and then you’d have to bail out the entire bathtub by hand with a bucket! It took so long it just wasn’t worth it! And certainly people didn’t brush their teeth, either. Wealthier people had a type of tooth-powder which could be scrubbed and scraped around the gums and teeth, but it was not particularly effective.

Castle Residents.

Apart from lords, ladies, earls, barons, dukes, kings, queens, princes and princesses, who else might have lived in a castle? This isn’t everyone, just everyone I could remember:

The Priest.

Especially grand castles (such as Windsor), would have its own chapel. If the castle had a chapel, it was certainly obliged to have its own priest. Often, the priest was one of the few people who knew how to read and write.

Ladies in Waiting.

A Lady in Waiting was a lesser noblewoman, who waited (that is, served) the queen. They were her companions, assistants and confidants. Women’s clothing of the medieval period was often so elaborate that it was impossible for wealthy women to either dress or undress themselves.


People gotta eat. A castle, especially a royal one, could have dozens, even hundreds of cooks. There would be one or two head chefs, with up to 200 underlings who did everything from carting food, preparing ingredients, stirring pots or cleaning stuff up. The lowest person in a castle’s kitchen was a fellow known as the turnbroach, also known as a spitboy. These two titles pretty much sum up what his job was: To turn the spit. The spit was a long, metal pole with a crank-handle on the end. Meat (beef, chicken, pigs and any other meat that required cooking) was spiked onto the spit and put up on a rack above or next to the fire. The turnbroach’s job was to turn the spit and cook the meat. It was an incredibly boring and amazingly hot job. A castle kitchen could have nearly a dozen (or more!) fires, cooking stuff. They were incredibly noisy, smokey and VERY VERY hot.


Can’t have a castle without guards! Guards and soldiers lived at the castle to protect it in times of danger. When the castle was safe, guards would patrol the walltops, keep a lookout, and control entry or exit to the castle by manning the gatehouse. Guards were on watch all day, and usually did their work in shifts.

Gaoler and Turnkey.

The goaler (sometimes called a dungeon-master) was the man who looked after the castle’s dungeon, or prison-cells, if the castle had any. The turnkey (usually there were more than just one), were regular dungeon-guards. As their title suggests, their main job was to…turn keys, to unlock and lock the cell doors.


The castle gong-scourer or gong-farmer was at the very bottom of the castle heirachy of residents and his job was quite literally, the pits. The cesspits, that is. The job of the gong-scourer was to shovel out the…ahem…contents, of the castle’s cesspits and remove it from the premises. This was a terrible job to do and gong-scourers would have smelt horribly, especially in the middle of summer.

Castle Food and Dining.

The kitchen was an important part of a castle, as it is the important part of any residence. Chefs and cooks had a lot of work to do. King Henry VIII’s court could number up to 1,000 people…and they ALL had to be fed. What was food in the medieval period like?

There were of course, the staples. Bread, cheese, meat, fish…but what kinds of bread, meat, cheese and fish, and where did it all come from?

Any meat served in the castle was likely to be duck, goose, chicken, beef or pork. If the lord of the castle went hunting and managed to shoot down a game-bird such as pheasant, that was eaten as well. Bread was just…bread. But it looks a bit different from what we’re used to. Medieval bakers didn’t have baking-tins, so their loaves of bread came out shaped like circles, instead of the long, rectangular loaves that we’re used to today. Bread was baked in massive, brick, open-fire ovens. Cows and chickens provided the castle with milk, butter, cream and eggs. Grains such as wheat or barley were crushed and ground up in massive water-powered grainmills and the resultant flour was stored in sacks or barrels in the basements.

What about drinks? Well, most people back then would have drunk either beer, ale or wine. Any water for drinking was usually drawn from wells inside the castle, but most people preferred to stick to alcohol. Why? Because don’t forget that the main source of water in a castle was from the moat (if it had one), and all kinds of nasty things such as human excretment went into the moats. You don’t drink out of your toilet. It was common-sense. Drinks like beer, wine and ale had no water in them, so they were considered safer to drink. Everyone back then drank beer or ale, even the children! In fact, some brewers brewed a special ‘children’s ale’ for kids to drink.

So, what was mealtime like? What was breakfast, lunch or dinner like?

Most meals would have been taken in the Great Hall, the main chamber of the castle. The royal or noble family usually sat up on a dais (a platform) at the far end of the room, which gave them some privacy, but also allowed the lord or king to watch over his subjects while he ate. Food was brought in by servants and when each dish was put down, it was customary for each servant to take a mouthful from his presented platter, to show that it was not poisoned. In royal courts, the royal food-taster would do this for them. The food-taster might have had a wonderful diet with all the great food he could nibble on, but he would have lived in constant fear that someone would try to kill the king or queen by poison in their food or drink.

Despite what you might think from movies or cartoons, in the medieval period, most people did not actually eat from plates with cutlery as we know it today. Instead, everyone was given a thick, wide slice of bread, called a trencher. The trencher was your plate. You dumped all your food on top of it and ate off of there. And table-manners should be observed, of course. In the Medieval Period, if you had to clear your throat for whatever reason, it was rude to spit into a cup or a bowl or even into a handkerchief. Instead, the expected thing was for you to hock it right out onto the floor!

If you ate food off of a slice of bread, did you use cutlery? Not really. Most people would have eaten with their hands, but you were also usually given an eating-knife and a spoon; forks had not yet come to the table in medieval Europe.

Grand feasts and parties are often associated with castles and mealtimes, and certainly when a king was on a progress (tour) of his kingdom, any castle he stopped at was expected to throw a grand banquet in his honour. Extra care was put into food-preparation; cakes and pies were moulded into special shapes. There were even special ‘presentation pieces’ which were there purely to be looked upon as works of art, and not to be eaten!

Of course, not everyone ate from bread trenchers. Wealthy people could afford plates and bowls made from gold, silver or pewter. As times went on, even the more common guests at banquets were eating out of plates made of wood, but the term ‘trencher’ still remained.

Condiments served with meals were usually pepper and salt. Salt in medieval Europe was so prized that only the wealthiest of people could afford to add it to their food. It wasn’t easy to get salt back in those days, which was what made it so expensive. It’s because of this rarity that we get the phrases “worth his salt” or “below the salt”.

At the end of a meal, once everything had been served and put away, you would pick up your trencher (that big slice of bread), which would now be covered with gravy and sauce and bits of meat and fish and other yummy things, and eat it! If the king or lord of the castle was feeling generous, as an act of charity, he would implore his guests and diners, not to eat their trenchers at the end of the feast. Instead, they would be gathered up and given as alms to hungry peasants and beggars who lived outside the castle in the village nearby.


Posted by on November 7, 2009 in Medieval Period


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