The dining room serves a pretty standard purpose in today’s modern household: a convenient room adjacent to the kitchen for…you guessed it…dining. A few people use their dining room daily, but most just use it for special occasions. Instead of gathering for meals in the dining room, nowadays most dining takes place at a dinette set in a small space inside the kitchen (such as a breakfast nook).
This is a setup that has changed considerably over the centuries. Historically, most meals were taken in the dining room, which was often located on an entirely different floor level from the kitchen. In the Middle Ages, you’d be most likely to locate the standard long trestle table (which is described in detail in our last blog post) in the Great Hall—the main room of a royal palace. Well, that is if the home actually had a Great Hall. This room tended to be a notable feature in castles or large manor houses owned by upper class Britons or other European nobility.
The Great Hall was a multi-function room with large chimneys and high ceilings that could comfortably seat the whole household. The family sat prominently at the head of the table on a raised platform, and the rest of the household was arranged in diminishing rank away from them. The typical seating for the long table was benches or unarmed chairs on either side.
The style of the dining room table itself is one thing that hasn’t changed drastically over the centuries. The most common type of table in the days of ‘ole was a large rectangular one with two armed end chairs and an even number of unarmed side chairs along the long sides. These days, there are a plethora of dining room table shapes to choose from, yet the standard rectangle is still what you see the most.
As for the atmosphere in the Medieval dining room, it’s safe to assume that this setting would rarely if ever be silent and formal. With this many people gathered around the table, it would have been a busy, bustling room.
But this all began to change around the 14th century, when property owners developed a taste for more intimate gatherings in the parlor off of the main hall. This increasing desire for smaller gatherings stemmed from a change in the social and political climate. There was a shortage of labor in households, signaling a breakdown of the feudal system. Also, religious persecutions were rampant during this era (under Henry VIII). It became unwise to talk freely in front of large numbers of people; the fewer ears to hear what was being said, the better. So the parlor began to function as the primary dining room, leaving the Great Room to be used only on formal occasions.