For a long time, the habit of washing with two, three or more people in the same basin is conserved. Here is a passage from a satire about Henri III of France’s mignons:
“After they were all seated at the table, a big, gilded, silver basin with a matching vase were brought, and in it water where irises had soaked, with which they washed their hands.” This passage also shows that perfumed water is still being used for the washing of hands.
It is an honour to associate someone with this act of cleanliness, or at least an act of friendship or of politeness.
Monconys reports: “We went to dine at the home of Mr de Mayence, who had Monsieur the Duke [de Chevreuse], travelling companion of the author, wash with him in the same basin before and after the meal.”
In the Historiette which he consecrates to Mr du Bellay, Tallemant shows us the wife of this gentleman refusing to “wash” with a certain Mme de la Troche and signalling to a family member to replace her, to make sure that that lady did not wash with her.
At supper the Grande Mademoiselle is reluctant to wash with the King, then with Monsieur. But this is a show of deference. For the King, she is unable to accept, because His Majesty is so imposing.
It is not rare to see two men “wash” together, and before a woman. This is not considered impolite. It is the custom. Just as two people eat from the same bowl, without anyone thinking it strange.
In the Roman de Perceforet, after having described the magnificent pomp of a banquet shared by eight hundred knights, the author adds: “and there was no-one who did not have a lady or a virgin at his bowl”.
This custom only disappeared completely in the XVIIth Century. Viollet-Le-Duc remarks however that, in the XVIth Century, “in sumptuous meals, it can be seen that each guest has his own soup bowl”.
By delicate consideration, care is taken to associate two guests having a mutual liking for each other.
In Ivanhoe, Walter Scott shows us Richard Coeur-de-Lion, back from his crusade, at the humble home of the Hermit, plunging his hand into a venison pate and leaving the imprint of his fingers in it.
This habit of putting the hand in the serving dish is not completely gone by the XIXth Century. Baron Oscar de Wateville assures us of having known in his childhood some people who, respecting good manners, ate salad with their fingers.
In certain French provinces, still at the beginning of the XIXth Century, during grand dinners, the prettiest woman is asked to mix the salad “with her beautiful, white hands”, and it is an homage, an honour that cannot be refused.
The habit of two people eating together from the same bowl, and several people from the same serving dish, means that the hands need to be clean, and it is easy to understand the exclamation of Montaigne, declaring that it would be difficult for him not “to wash on arriving at table and on rising”. But it must be said that in Montaigne’s time, if you wash your hands before and after meals, you also have no qualms about wiping your fingers on the edges of the tablecloth while you are eating.
Fingers are wiped with a towel and, in modest families, on the tablecloth. In winter, when important people are invited, care is taken to give them a pre-heated towel. In the better homes, the towel is changed at each course, but this custom is starting to fall into disuse in Montaigne’s time.
It will be even worse when an instrument with two or three prongs, known as a fork, starts to be used. From that day forward, people consider that they no longer have to wash their hands.
As long as they have to eat with their fingers, they have to keep them clean. This precaution becomes useless once food can be carried to the mouth without being touched.
Fifth part tomorrow.