by Dame Alys Katharine (Elise Fleming)

In today's modern world, most of us have never been exposed to a truly formal dinner party, complete with servants offering the food and dishing it out for us. Our experience is with "family-style" service - put the dish on the table and let the diners pass it down. Indeed, this is the most common style of serving food in the SCA. However, in much of the SCA's times and places, the king and queen dined elaborately and formally. Those who served food to the royalty often were of high station themselves, dukes, barons, earls. As the Middle Ages progressed, the rules for serving in the great houses became ritualized and codified. By the 1500s, there were several books printed on how to serve and carve for the high table.

Our SCA kings and queens do not expect the servers to go on bended knee, kissing the napkins and tablecloths before placing them on the table in a complex ritual. The royalty does not expect elaborate hand washing rituals before the meal, or that a trusted vassal will taste the food. In general, most of the people seated at high table do not complain about how they are served, even if they have to cut a pie into pieces themselves. Underneath the glittering coronets and exquisite clothing sit modern folk who are used to serving themselves. And, their servers are just modern folk who are used to putting a dish down and letting the feasters divide and pass it.

The purpose of this article is to encourage you to approximate some of the serving methods which will make dining easier and more regal for those seated at your event's high table. More than one feast organizer has placed a whole joint of meat before a royal person and expected that person, with dags and tippets, to lean over the table and carve the meat him or herself. Or, the server has placed a dish down and walked away, not noticing that one half of the table never received any of it. It was passed down one side and then left at the end of the table. While we are egalitarian, it is jarring to our recreation of the Middle Ages to say "Excuse me, Your Majesty. Would you ask the good baron to ask the baroness to please pass the armored turnips?"

So, what would be an appropriate way to serve head table Royalty? Some considerations...

** As you probably know, high table is served first. Many groups have brought the food forward with flair - holding the dishes proudly and high, walking in unison, wearing tabards or other livery, bowing before approaching the Royalty.

** Have servers just for high table, which most groups already plan for. The question becomes how many servers should you have. Obviously, one is a bare minimum. If you have two sets of Royalty, two to four servers are better. The logistics become that the King and Queen are seated together but the Prince is next to the Queen and the Princess is next to the King, if They are the only Royalty present. If you have only one server, s/he is obliged to keep switching sides of the table and walking in front of the King/Queen repeatedly in order to serve in order of precedence. With two servers, each takes one side of the table.

Depending on the types of dishes to be served, you might consider using pairs of servers - one to hold the dish while the other dishes it out. This avoids having to place the dish down on a possibly crowded high table (decorations, candles, flowers, gifts, or personal items belonging to the Royalty) where the server would then have to dish up the soup, rice, salad, etc., and lift it up and over onto Their Majesties' plates. This is very awkward and "spillable".

** With Royalty, the highest-ranking person is served first and so on down the order of precedence. If you have both the King and Queen or Prince and Princess at the table, you generally offer the dish to the woman first, then to the man. While this might not be truly medieval, our modern sensibilities usually prompt the King/Prince to say something like "Serve Her Majesty/Her Highness first, please." If you are uncertain, hold the dish between them and ask if you may serve Their Majesties.

** Please do not just put the dish down on the table in front of the Royalty and walk back to the kitchen! The Royalty should not have to pass the dish! This is a formal dinner. And, if there is only one dish (rather than one per side) the logistical problem becomes how to get the dish down to both sides of the table. For "regular" people at the end of the table, it is embarrassing to have to pass the word down through the Baron(ess), Prince(ss) and other high muckety-mucks to ask the King to please pass the peas or herbed butter. This is why two servers are better for the formality of high table.

** Hold the dish so the Royalty can reach it. Tell the Royalty what the dish is. ("This is 'Poulet au Moutard', a boiled chicken with mustard sauce.") Then, say something like "May I serve you some or would You like to help Yourself?" Be sure there is a serving utensil for each dish! Please do not expect the Royalty to have to use Their own fork/spoon to dish up the item. Cut off slices of the roast; cut the chicken into pieces. Please do not expect the Royalty to cut up a leg/thigh piece or slice something from a roast. It is very awkward to do that across a table and it is something that as a host, you should do for Them.

** If you want to serve a whole chicken, peacock, boar's head, etc. to high table, there are two options. First, you can show the fancy dish with great flourish and then announce that you will take it back to the kitchen for carving. Or, you can have someone who knows how to carve do so at high table. Again, please do not just put the chicken, pork roast, etc. on the table and expect the head table guests to slice off pieces.

** In much of SCA's period, the king would send down choice bits of food to guests that he wished to honor. If there are some special high table dishes that haven't been consumed, one of the servers might ask the senior high table guest if he (or she) would like to share the dish with any of the feasters. Remember that the royal guests are modern folk in disguise and may not be aware of this custom. It is one way that you can help the Royalty appear generous as well as adding a bit of medieval flair to the dinner.

** If space permits, place a small table near high table onto which you can put the dishes once you have served them. One of the servers should be stationed at the table to bring back foods for a second helping. If you have a server stationed there, the high table diners can beckon the server back to the table if something is needed. This table is also a good place to keep additional beverages.

** Plan ahead when inviting Royalty and bring one or two extra sets of feast gear for the guests that the Royalty may invite to high table.

** Be sure there is adequate lighting so that your guests can see the marvelous food you have prepared. Dim, candlelit halls were a Victorian "inspiration". The medieval hall was lit as brightly as was possible with candles and torches to show off the wealth and power of the host.

** When the feast is concluded, remove the Royalty's tableware and wash it. Give it back clean to the chamberlain or the retainer who is assisting. While it isn't expected that you wash the dishes for the other high table guests, it is certainly a courteous and thoughtful thing to offer.

** The retainers will have their own plans for dinner. Often one or two will stay to assist the Royalty while the others eat feast or go out to dinner. Discuss what, if anything, your group might like to offer to those who stay to help the Royalty. Sometimes the retainers are offered the leftovers from the dishes after they are removed from high table. Sometimes the Royalty will offer bits of dinner to the retainers standing behind them. If you are aware that these people may not have time for their own dinner, you can offer them the option of having food when the dishes are removed from high table.

Having Royalty attend your event can be a challenge as well as great fun. Just remember that they should not cut up food (pies, meat) on the serving dishes and that you should serve them, rather than have them pass the dishes themselves. Put a little pomp into serving feast and they will think that they have been treated "royally".

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