In my irritated previous post about Doomsday Book, I failed to mention that one of the things I’m very much enjoying about the book is the lovingly detailed picture of life in medieval England, which at one point involves a concept entirely new to me (and a new sense of a familiar word). The domineering mother-in-law sends out for sugar, saying “We have none for the subtlety nor the sweetmeats.” Subtlety? Turns out that’s a term the OED defines thus: “5. Cookery. A highly ornamental device, wholly or chiefly made of sugar, sometimes eaten, sometimes used as a table decoration. Obs. exc. Hist.” (The first citation is from The Form of Cury, the early cookbook I wrote about back in 2003: “It techiþ for to make curious potages & meetes and sotiltees.”) Wikipedia tells us it’s the older English term for what is more commonly known as an entremet. And there’s a detailed description in The Penguin Companion to Food (see this post):
While medieval diners ate, at formal meals, they observed the spectacle that was performed between courses. The course was called a met; the activities between courses were therefore the entremets.[…] The contemporary English term was ‘soteltie’. (The subjects, however, were not always subtle, as when a woman in childbirth was depicted as a soteltie for a wedding.)
There were two basic types: the plainer was a setpiece, made of anything from pastry or butter to wood and canvas; the more elaborate ones (entremets mouvants) included automatons or live participants. They were amalgams of song, theatre, mechanics, and carpentry, combined to convey an allegorical fantasy or even a political message.
The execution of a series of entremets for important festivities occupied large numbers of people. The preparations for the entertainments at the wedding of Charles the Bold brought craftsmen to Bruges for weeks at a time—painters, sculptors, carpenters, and wax modellers by the dozens. The banquet entremets displayed the ducal wealth; their imaginativeness revealed the mentality of a culture. At the Feast of the Pheasant, for example, Philip the Fair was trying, at least ostensibly, to induce his guests to join him on a crusade to rescue Constantinople from the infidel. Assuming leadership of a crusade, traditionally the role of the Holy Roman emperor, would have enhanced Burgundy’s claims to higher political status. A programmatic entremet was enacted to stimulate enthusiasm. A giant Saracen entered, leading an elephant (the chronicle unfortunately does not tell how it was contrived). Seated on the elephant was that excellent knight, co-organizer, and later chronicler of the feast Olivier de La Marche, playing the role of the captive Eastern Church. He wore a long white gown and sang, in a falsetto voice, a moving plea to Duke Philip.
The line between entremets made to be eaten and for allegorical purposes was not strictly observed. At Charles the Bold’s festivities a course at one meal consisted of some 30 pies, each enclosed in a silk pavilion and each bearing the name of a walled town under Charles’s rule. The visual effect was that of a military encampment; the message was clearly a statement of Charles’s military strength. A more pastoral, poetic conception appeared at the last of these wedding feasts. Thirty platters were made up to look like gardens, each with a golden hedge surrounding a different kind of fruit tree; each tree bore the name of a ducal abbey. Around the trees were figures of peasants harvesting the fruit while others held baskets with candied spices and fruit for the guests to eat. Other entremets at these festivities were more fantastic: a court dwarf rode in on the back of a lion and was given to the bride, Margaret of York, to whom he sang a song and presented a daisy (in French marguerite); they were followed by a dromedary ridden by Indians who released live birds to fly around the hall. There were also automatons and a whale containing musicians.
I had no idea dinners were so exciting in days of yore.