than a napkin." ~ Mae West
I am just on a roll...and that is what the first napkins were...a lump of dough the Spartans called 'apomagdalie', a mixture cut into small pieces and rolled and kneaded at the table, a custom that led to using sliced bread to wipe the hands.
According to my research, Romans had fabric napkins. The sudarium, Latin for "handkerchief," was a pocket-size fabric earned to blot the brow during meals taken in the warm Mediterranean climate. The mappa was a larger cloth spread over the edge of the couch as protection from food taken in a reclining position. And you thought those pics of reclining feast were made up, didn't you?
The fabric was also used to blot the lips. Although each guest supplied his own "mappa", on departure "mappae" were filled with delicacies leftover from the feast, a custom that continues today in restaurant "doggy bags."
In the Middle Ages, the finer touches were gone...wipe your mouth on hand, your sleeve, some bread if available. Later, a few amenities returned and the table was laid with three cloths approximately 4 to 6 feet long by 5 feet wide. The first cloth, called a couch (from French, coucher, meaning "to lie down") was laid lengthwise before the master's place. A long towel called a surnappe, meaning "on the cloth," was laid over the couch; this indicated a place setting for an honored guest. The third cloth was a communal napkin that hung like a swag from the edge of the table.
In the late Middle Ages the communal napkin was reduced to about the size of our average bath towel. Eventually, the napkin was draped over the arm of a servant...the maitre d' hotel was born. He was in charge of feasts, and, as a symbol of office and rank, he draped a napkin from his left shoulder, and servants of lower rank folded napkins lengthwise over their left arms, a custom that continued into the eighteenth century. Today in the United States, the napkin is placed on the left of the cover. But in Europe, the napkin is often laid to the right of the spoon.
Medieval banquets maintained ceremony for the wealthy. The ewerer, the person in charge of ablutions (think clorox wipes), carried a towel that the lord and his honored guests used to wipe their hands on. The Bayeux tapestry depicts a ewerer kneeling before the high table with a finger bowl and napkin.
The panter carried a portpayne, a napkin folded decoratively to carry the bread and knife used by the lord of the manor, a custom that distinguished his space from those of exalted guests. The folded napkin was placed on the left side of the place setting; the open end faced the lord. The spoon was wrapped in another napkin, and a third napkin was laid over the first and second napkins. To demonstrate that the water for ablutions was not poisoned, the marshal or the cup bearer kissed the towel on which the lord wiped his hands and draped the towel over the lord's left shoulder for use.
So, as the holiday season comes upon us...as we start to gather to celebrate the harvest, if you want to impresss the guests, we have some nice unused napkins...many of them are vintage linen...
And, if you have a maitre d' in your household, I have some unused vintage huck towels that would be quite nice draped over an arm...
Once again we are truly woven into ancient history...