Jean Fouquet and the miniatures of royal banquets

Jean Fouquet and the miniatures of royal banquets

April 24, 2019

Jean Fouquet and the miniatures of royal banquets

Thanks to the miniaturist Jean Fouquet we can see how a royal table was set for a medieval banquet organized on the occasion of a solemn ceremony.

The medieval banquet, offered by Charles V of France, called “The Wise”, in honor of the Emperor Charles IV and his son Wenceslas IV. The miniaturist and painter Jean Fouquet was called to portray this occasion. Born in Tours between 1415 and 1420, he trained at the school of miniaturists in Paris and worked at the French court during the late Middle Ages.

The banquet

The banquet depicted by Fouquet took place a long time before his birth, on 6 January 1378, on the Feast of the Epiphany, and it was held in the great hall of the Royal Palace in the presence of the court and a host of dignitaries. 

The work belongs to a series of illustrations executed by Jean Fouquet around 1460 to decorate the Great Chronicles of France, probably for King Charles VII.

Dining habits 

Jean Fouquet’s work gives us precious insight into the how the table was set for the upper classes. It is thanks to works like this that we can study everyday habits in the Middle Ages and hence those of our ancestors.

In front of each diner there are two knives, a container for salt, a napkin and some bread. The personal salt cellar is an indication of the opulence of the banquet, since salt was still a precious item of value. 

We also discover, however, that the French court has not yet adopted the use of the fork, which was introduced in the Western world around the year 1000 thanks to the Byzantine princess, Maria Argyropoulina, niece of Constantine VII. Used first and foremost as a serving implement and not for personal use (hands were used for eating), the fork (with two or three prongs) did not enjoy the approval of the Church, which even wanted to ban it, given its resemblance to the Devil’s pitchfork. At the beginning of the XI century, Pier Damiani, theologian and reformer of the Benedictine order, goes as far as to brand it a “diabolical instrument” and attributes to its use in the Byzantine court, the death (presumably by plague) of Theodora, sister of the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Ducas.

The fork was only introduced to the French court in the XVI century thanks to Catherine de’ Medici, the wife of King Henry II: the forks that she brought with her from Florence were designed by none other than Benvenuto Cellini.

In the illustration: Banquet of Charles V the Wise. In: Great Chronicles of France, miniature by Jean Fouquet, Tours, approx. 1455-1460. Paris, National Library of France, Department of French Manuscripts, 6465, fol. 444v. (Book of Charles V).


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