Dining etiquette was a big deal in Medieval Europe. Large feasts were conducted with a rigid structure that allowed the dishes to be elegantly displayed, so they could be admired by guests. This spurred on customs like pre-meal handwashing, and having a dedicated food taster to sample a lord’s food or drink before they ate to check that the vittles weren’t poisoned.
With innovation in book printing allowing the production of mass-produced guides to manners starting in the middle of the 15th century, books like 1477’s “The Book of Curtesye” by Frederick James Furnivall laid out the etiquette for knights. It was followed, half a century later, by Count Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 etiquette guide, “The Courtier.”
But the word ‘etiquette’ as we know it actually comes from the French word for ticket, “étiquette.” In the 1500s, Spain modeled their concept of “etiqueta” after the French, but they expanded the definition to include courtly conduct. In an interesting twist, this in turn made it back to France, who adopted the meaning, and then to English in the mid-1700s — only English speakers used it to mean any set of acceptable behavior, not just when one was at court.
It was in the 1600s that the cult of manners reached its apex. As royal wealth grew, particular customs flourished as aristocrats looked for elaborate rituals to flaunt their riches and fill their hours, otherwise marked by luxurious idleness. Much of the formal dining structure we follow now originated in the decadent court of King Louis XIV in France — where extravagant daily feasts set with increasingly elaborate cutlery and china created a standard for the ‘service à la Française,’ similar to what we would call ‘buffet style’ dining today. Oh, and nobles would gather around just to watch the royals eat. We may not set up actual buffets at home to serve our food, but we still use forks, knives, and drink from our own cups.
Records of the growing formality in table manners can be seen in the way dining was depicted in artwork of the Renaissance through the Victorian era. Cutlery, which wasn’t widely in use until at least the 18th century, is shown off in exquisite detail in many of these paintings – whether of upper-class home life or grand public feasts. Though it may seem like a small thing, the idea that you shouldn’t eat food with your hands has had one of the strongest impacts on Western dining culture. As with many old-fashioned customs we’ve adapted from 17th or 18th dining etiquette, it speaks to a formality and a certain level of removal from the base animal practice of eating that still affects us to this day.