trenchers................and the square meal story

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robin wood
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trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby robin wood » Sun Oct 14, 2007 10:27 am

Square wooden trenchers are very popular, easy to make, cheap, but does anyone have any securely dated evidence for their use? You know the one about 3/4 inch thick by 7" square with a hollow turned for the food and another small one for the salt. I have yet to see an example from an excavation and of the few that survive in museums (a couple in the Pinto collection, half a dozen loaned by an American collector to Hampton Court) none can be securely dated before the 18th C.

I also often hear the story that such square trenchers gave rise to the term square meal (google "square meal+trencher" for hundreds of repetitions of the story) In fact the etymology of square meal is very clearly recorded as being late 19th century American, ariving at the same time as square deal and fair and square. Had it been common use in 18th C navy speach it would unquestionably have been recorded. Sad thing is despite my best attempts to change the practice HMS Victory guides still repeat the square meal story to 400,000 visitors a year who all enjoy the story and tell their freinds.

So if you use a square trencher and particulalry if you tell the square meal story I would urge you to consider looking into the matter further. And if anyone can find a securely dated axample pre 18th C I would be very interested.



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Postby sally » Sun Oct 14, 2007 10:34 am

This is one that I had no idea about until I read your book a year or so ago. I'd always been told it was a form that went back to the medieval period, but you are quite right, when I read your comments on it I checked my usual sources and didnt find anything to back it up. I've long since dropped it from the 'things I tell people' repertoire, and it would be very interesting to find out what the earliest known example of it is.



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Postby Miel » Thu Oct 18, 2007 2:07 pm

I always understood that the original "Trencher" was a thick slice of square baked bread that was used by gentry folk as a plate would be used today.

The Trencher was used to hold the food as it was served and not eaten until, at the end of the meal, they were gathered together and handed to the poor.

I feel that this is more likely to be where the "square meal" story comes from although, like everybody else and every other speculation, I have no written evidence.


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Postby robin wood » Mon Oct 22, 2007 3:01 pm

thanks for those,

"I always understood that the original "Trencher" was a thick slice of square baked bread that was used by gentry folk as a plate would be used today."

Indeed plenty of writen evidence for this...recipes for trencher bread etc but it is high class minority dining. The misconseption is that the early bread trencher gave over to a wooden square trencher which eventualy gave over to the wooden plate...ref Pinto "Treen" 1969 and most publications on the subject since. What I am saying is there is no conection, that the vast majority of folk ate from bowls not trenchers and that the square trencher with the salt hole is a very rare blip in the 18th century which has become rather a re enactorism.

"I feel that this is more likely to be where the "square meal" story comes from"

No no no put "square meal etymology" into google and along with the spurious versions non of which will cite any evidence you will find many placing square meal firmly in mid 19th C America....these are always the well referenced versions like this http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/square-meal.html

Karen thanks for your images...its common in high class dining scenes to see small chopping boards sometimes wood, sometimes pewter, sometimes square sometimes round but they are always small (maybe 5"square) and thin and we never ever see food sitting on them it is simply a small chopping board...quite unlike the plate for an individual portion of food which re enactors use. This type of thing http://www.igshistoryonline.co.uk/Trips/Trips.htm



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Postby Sue Green » Mon Oct 22, 2007 5:06 pm

Now I have no evidence for this whatsoever but I had always understood the square wooden trenchers to be for naval use. Tables in ships would have a lip around the edge of them and it was my understanding that the square trencher allowed it to rest directly against the lip on the table so it was secure in rough seas.

I suspect I haven't read this anywhere authoritively and it is probably anecdotal but maybe worth further investigating in naval sources?



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Postby robin wood » Mon Oct 22, 2007 5:21 pm

yep that one comes from victory guides too, normally goes along with the unsubstantiated story that the lip was called the fiddle and somehow they get to the saying being "on the fiddle" again its a story that starts with folk doing no research but putting 2 and 2 together to get 5.



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Postby Dave B » Mon Oct 22, 2007 6:34 pm

I'm speculating here, but if trencher comes from the medieval french trencheoir, which in turn comes from the latin truncare, 'to cut shorter' then even where we find the word it probably describes a chopping board not a plate?

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Postby gregory23b » Mon Oct 22, 2007 8:34 pm

Tranch - slice?


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Postby robin wood » Wed Oct 24, 2007 12:16 pm

trencher
from Anglo-Fr. trenchour, from O.N.Fr. trencheor "a trencher," lit. "a cutting place," from O.Fr. trenchier "to cut"



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Postby Grymm » Thu Nov 01, 2007 2:11 am

It says it here so it must be true, the king wouldn't lie
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Re: trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby Replicawarehouse » Sat Mar 16, 2013 8:23 am

See Abingdon County Hall museum. Wooden trenchers; Post-Medieval: 1980.96.1365-7. Several square wooden trenchers said to date from 1500-1556 and purchased for official use in 1556. Photo and information by googling Abingdon County Hall Museum Town Plate wooden trenchers.



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Re: trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby Phoenix Rising » Sat Mar 16, 2013 6:07 pm

Not sure of the history of them, but as I work at sea I can tell you that 'fiddles' have nothing to do with plates of any kind. 'Fiddles' are in fact bars that can be placed across the top of galley stoves to secure pots and pans from moving - in this day and age they are adjustable.

As for the term 'on the fiddle' - this may refer to sailors who are making splices in ropes, the peg which is used to open the strands of the rope and allow it to be intelaced is called a 'fidd'



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Re: trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby Brother Ranulf » Sat Mar 16, 2013 7:36 pm

Bread in 11th and 12th century contexts is generally not for eating from but a normal and integral part of the meal, probably sliced or pulled apart:

- The Ramsay Cartulary gives lists of foods issued to those involved in harvest-time, including "second rate bread of wheat and rye" and "billings" (small loaves) issued along with ale, cheese, herrings, pottage, water, fish and meat. These were consumed in the fields, so there were no tables.

- The Burton Survey lists food served at Christmas including "plenty of bread and broth . . . each man entitled to a fine white loaf and a good helping of meat"; these were the farming peasantry being treated by the lord of the manor.

- Alexander Neckham (De Nominibus Utensilium, about 1180) states that vegetables were brought to the table on a platter or large trencher (the word is glossed as a cutting board) . . .it was customary to serve two pieces of bread at a time.

Twelfth century images always clearly show bread as round, often marked with a cross, just like this one from the Hunterian psalter:

hunt feast1.jpg


The monastic sign languages used throughout the medieval period all include a general sign for "bread": place the tips of the thumbs and first fingers together to form a circle, "since bread is made in that shape". Good quality wheat bread adds the sign of a cross made with the right forefinger on the left palm.


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Re: trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby Brother Ranulf » Sun Mar 17, 2013 1:08 pm

Just to take things on to the late Middle Ages, here is an illustration from the manuscript Royal 14 E. IV, f.244v produced at Bruges in the late 1400s, showing John of Gaunt (Duke of Lanscaster) entertaining the king of Portugal. The bread is still clearly round and each diner has bread set to his right, with extra bread along the front edge of the table near the serving men. In front of each person is a square wooden platter or trencher which seems to serve as a plate - they are the same colour as the wooden bowl in the centre of the table:

john of gaunt banquet.jpg


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Re: trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby gregory23b » Tue Mar 26, 2013 7:20 pm

There are a fair few images of trenchers, possibly metal or wood in late medieval illustrations.

Some food historians suggest that the bread trencher had quite a short time frame despite being added to later manners books, I will need clarification on the reasoning behind that one after the easter weekend.


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Re: trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby Sophia » Mon May 20, 2013 9:55 am

There are details and sources for Trencher Bread in Brears, P. 'Cooking and Dining in Mediaeval England' - hope this helps!


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Re: trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby Marcus Woodhouse » Sat Jun 01, 2013 12:44 pm

At last! A post worthy of interest, thank you!


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Re: trenchers................and the square meal story

Postby Colin Middleton » Fri Jun 21, 2013 1:15 pm

I'm pretty sure that I saw some in the displays at the new Mary Rose museum last week (dip in the middle, but no 'salt hole'). Obviously they're reproductions, but I'd have thought that they'd have properly researched them. They also had the flat board type too.

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