From knives to napkins. . . Who would have thought?
Really, entre nous, wouldn’t our history classes have been infinitely more interesting if our teachers had talked about the rounded blades on knives (and yes, the omni present pointed ones were also used for self-defense), overbearing mothers and now, napkins?
Also, at least in university, wouldn’t it have been great fun to examine the role of mistresses throughout history? Ah the mistresses, power through influence.
Never mind. Today we shall take a look at the origin of napkins. Like everything I’m discovering these days while I’m out and about doing interviews, that simple piece of cloth has a fascinating back story.
In my conversation with Albane de Maigret, an expert on the history of culture, custom and les bonnes manières, she told me that napkins are a “relatively new invention.” (You will note that historians tend to use the word “recent” quite loosely — a few hundred years here, a few hundred years there. . .)
Prior to the 16th century napkins as we know them did not exist. The tablecloth or the large swath of material that covered a dining table also doubled as a napkin. Diners simply wiped their hands, and presumably their mouths, on the cloth that draped over the table into their laps.
Like the Cardinal de Richelieu, who found teeth cleaning at table with a pointed knife to be distasteful, Henry III of France (1551 – 1589) considered the secondary use of the tablecloth quite unsavory. His mother was, after all, Catherine de’ Medici a woman with a reputation for exquisite refinement. (We should talk about her in the future.)
Back on subject. . . King Henry, a man of delicate sensibilities, according to Albane, proclaimed that huge pieces of cloth were to be tied around the neck of dinners to not only protect their clothes, but also the tablecloth, and thus the napkin was born. The cloths were so large, she told me, that they literally covered the entire body leaving the arms free, but amply covering below the knees.
Tell me, did you know about the history of napkins?