Medieval banquets, in a strange way, were really a celebration of the food more than the actual person or event for which the banquet was held. Medieval banquets were held for many occasions; however, that is not to say they were necessarily held often.
Certain religious or church holy days were almost always celebrated with banquets, as were important weddings and funerals. Much less significant occasions were also sometimes celebrated with a banquet, such as saints' days or celebrations of harvest. Most medieval banquets were open to an entire town, so the celebration required a significant amount of food and preparation, even if it were a single family hosting a banquet for a son's coming of age. Occasionally a town would hold a tournament of some kind, and the banquet would then be held to host the participants, as well.
Medieval banquets were full of specific protocols about where guests were to sit, how and when food was served, and how food was to be eaten. The one thing that was not so predetermined was the entertainment, though of course every banquet had it.
Seating was generally in a U-shape, with the head table (the middle of the U) raised on a platform of some kind (thus the modern dais). This is where the highest-ranking members of the banquet party would sit, and this table was often covered with a cloth, unlike the two side tables. Everything at the head table was nicer and better and first. For example, the head table had an actual salt cellar, usually quite ornate; the side tables had little piles of salt sitting on pieces of bread for people nearby to share.
The actual food was the main event of the banquet, prepared in many courses and brought out in a grand display. The general order of the courses was similar to a modern multi-course meal, though medieval banquets in certain countries (like Italy) sometimes offered as many as twenty courses.
A blessing was usually asked before and after the meals. In the halls of royalty and nobles, the chaplain fulfilled this duty.
In general, the first courses consisted of appetizers and soups, the middle courses were meat or fish, and the final courses would have been fruit, sweets, or even certain meats. The strict adherence to Lent during this time meant that fish was a staple of the medieval feasters.
The in-between courses (the entrenet) were some kind of spectacle--often presented with a flourish from the minstrels and musicians who would later provide the entertainment. Perhaps it was as simple as a crest carved into the dough of a crust, but the dish may have been more elaborate and ornate. One account, for example, describes a roast duck, brandishing some kind of a wooden, foil-covered (inedible) sword sitting on top of a roast pig. These marvelous displays were the middle courses and taken straight to the head table.
After the lengthy meal, all the tables (or at least the side tables) were removed to make way for the entertainment, something virtually every medieval banquet had. The entertainment varied from traveling troubadours to jugglers, acrobats, and actors who produced a play. Sometimes, the clerics of the town would read scripture (though of course this was followed by something much more lively and generally appealing). In any case, the banquet-goers were nearly always active participants in the festivities, singing, dancing, or doing whatever else was available for them.
Many places re-create this medieval feast experience for modern audiences.
Word Origin and Meaning
late 15c., from Fr. banquet (15c.; in O.Fr. only "small bench"), from O.It. banchetto, dim. of banco "bench;" originally a snack eaten on a bench (rather than at table), hence "a slight repast between meals;" [today] the meaning has entirely reversed. (Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary)
What is a banquet? Contemporary dictionaries define a banquet as "a lavish and sumptuous meal; feast" (Collins English Dictionary). Other writers, like Constance B. Hieatt writing for Gale Cengage, define it by inference as being something near or more than 160 people yet not as few as forty or sixty people, which is only a "fairly lavish" meal. So in seeking the "how" and "when" of Medieval banquets, the proportional contrast between banquet and lavish meal must be kept in mind. It is interesting to also keep the origin of the word in mind and to wonder if current meaning might have originally come form a bit of sarcasm: "I'm having a bit of a banquet served, won't you come? Just a few people ... heh hem ... perhaps 160 or so ...."
By how was it "arranged," we'll take it you mean "organized" in regards to numbers of courses, kinds of dishes within courses, beverages, who was served, how serving was done, order of food service, seating arrangements, table settings, and protocol. When banquets were arranged has less detail to the explanation. As in present times, in Medieval times banquets, meals for close to or more than 160 persons, were reserved for particularly special occasions such as weddings, coronations, victory celebrations, visiting dignitaries of high station or great prestige, and High Holy days and some especially significant saint's days, such as the patron saint's day for a king or for a town or village. Banquets were not frequent occurrences though lavish feasts might occur much more often as occasions for entertaining friends, family, dignitaries and visitors.
Table Setting and Protocol
Not all dishes (as in a particular food prepared in a specific way) that were offered were served individually; some were served collectively with two to four persons being serving from common serving plates called "messes." At the table for dignitaries, called the high table, messes that were served were shared between two persons while at the lower tables, for socially lower ranked guests, messes might serve four people. Hosts would set and adorn both high and low tables with their best gold and silver plate. At each guest's place would be a slice of bread with salt piled on it for their own use since salt, a precious commodity, was kept to the right-hand side of the host's place and distributed on bread slices for individual guests. Along with the salt-bread would be a napkin, or serviette as they were (and someplaces still are) called, a knife and spoon. Forks were not used, instead, fingers, spoons and bits of bread were used. The use of bread as a utensil is still prevalent and was strongly in force through the 1950s when the custom began to wane. Meat and fish were individually served on "trenchers" of coarse bread at each guest's place setting. Goblets, in place at the table--called the "board"--for each guest were most commonly made of wood or cow horn, not glass, or of silver or gold; banquets would be the time for the silver and gold to shine on the board. Sweet wine would be poured with the "openers" before the first course was served.
The protocol for a banquet began with handwashing before being seated. Servants presented bowls of water and hand drying towels, offering both to each guest (in later England and Europe, handwashing basins were laid at each guest's place setting). After washing, the host, hostess and honored dignitaries approached their seats first. At a banquet, there would be many tables (remember the number of guests is around or more than 160) with a high table across the top of the room and additional tables, as needed, down both sides of the room; the tables in this order formed a square-cornered U shape. Guests followed those seated at the high table and were shown their places at the lower tables. Today, name cards are placed to tell each guest where they are to sit while servants showed Medieval guests their way since seating was very strictly arranged by order of social rank, with it being a severe breach of protocol (and law in many cases) to take the wrong place.
Guests were shown to their seats after washing their hands at the entrance of the Great Hall [then were seated at] Buffets--these were a series of wooden planks with a number of stepped shelves. The number of shelves indicated rank! The more shelves the higher the rank. The 'Stepped Buffets' were covered with rich drapes and assembled for use at Banquets and Feasts. The Nobles' finest plates of gold or silver were displayed on the 'Buffet' and servants served [guests] from them. (Middle Ages Food for a King, LordsandLadies.org).
Those of highest social rank were seated to the right and left of the host and hostess at the high table, with other guests in descending rank seated to their sides and at the lower tables; the individuals of lowest rank were at the bottoms of the two descending arms of low tables. A Christian prayer for a blessing on the food preceded the serving of any food or wine. Protocol required that the banquet begin with a liquor aperitif served with fruits and small meats or fish. Protocol equally required that the banquet be ended with a sweetened, spiced wine, fruit, wafers and cheese. An closing prayer of thanksgiving and a second handwashing ended the banquet and led to the table being cleared.
Method and Order of Food Serving
Trays of covered or uncovered serving dishes, some of enormous size and weight, were carried in by porters or footmen from the kitchen, which was, of necessity, a great deal distant from the banqueting hall (this can be seen in period productions set in castles or estate manor houses). After the aperitif course came the pottages; these are meat or vegetable soups and stews. Medieval Catholic ritual required certain days to be fish days with no meats. On these fish days, salted fishes and fish pastries followed the pottages, otherwise, on meat days, boiled or roasted fowl and meat followed. These were not the exotic fowls and meats, like peacock and wild boar, but the commonplace ones like hen and calf. The "delicacy" meats, often roasted wild fowl, meat or fish, followed the commonplace and were accompanied by a variety of other side dishes.
The final course consisted of dishes that were sweet or rich, like tarts and mince. While some menus extant from the period contain variations on this order of service, like the menu for a banquet given by Walter of Bibbesworth that served pottages after the substantial meats, this is the generally accepted grand scheme of the expected order and is also set forth in two guides used in the period: Modus Cenandi and Liber Cure Cocorumhat. While each course might have many dishes in it, it is equally true that each course might have only one or two dishes in it. In all service orders, the final course is consistently the sweet and rich, wafer, fruit and cheese categories that we know as dessert (e.g., cheesecake, fruit-filled cannelons, mince meat pasty). Recalling that Medieval banquets both begin and end with Christian prayer, there is some thought that the use of wafers originally had a connection with the Last Supper Eucharist ceremonial, though, over time, the wafer became part of elaborate delicacies aimed at delighting the senses. The final course, as is true for all courses, was served to the high table first and the lower tables last according to highest rank (host and hostess, honored guests) followed by lowest rank (those seated furthest away from the high table on both sides of the hall).
Beverages, Dishes, Courses
Beverages were almost as varied by type as they might be today and were a combination of ales and various wines. The banquet was begun with aperitif (opener), and the sweet wine Grenache has survived in some medieval records as being common. Ales would be served with the lighter courses, like the small fish and pottages, while richer wines would be served with the substantial meat courses. The final course would return to sweet wines that were spiced and sweetened.
According to French cooking historian Legrand d'Aussy, some dishes from an authentic banquet given in 1455 by the Count of Anjou were civet of hare, a loin of veal "covered with a German sauce, with gilt sugar-plums, and pomegranate seeds," roe-deer pie and "hard-boiled eggs, covered with saffron and flavoured with cloves," and "plums stewed in rose-water" (Middle Ages Food for a King, LordsandLadies.org).
One tradition illustrated the possible disparity between the high and low tables; it was a three course banquet meal for the high table with a corresponding two course meal for the lower tables. Each course might have one, two, fifteen or twenty-two dishes served, so a course really bore no correspondence to quantity of food. Similarly, the difference in course number between high and low tables had no correspondence to the elegance and extravagance of the dishes since either or both might have extraordinary delicacies like Caudel Ferry, a Medieval boiled dessert delicacy of flour, wine, honey, egg yolk, saffron and ginger served in a "messe" (common serving dish).
Caudel ferry. Tak flour of paynedemayn and gode wyne & drawe it to gyder, do therto a grete quantite of suger cypres or hony claryfied, & do ther to safroun, boyle hit & whan it is y boyled alye it up with yolkes of ayroun & do ther to salt & messe hit forth, and lay ther on suger and poudour gynger. (Caudel ferry, MedievalCookery.com)
While the general number of courses varied quite a bit from country to country, since the number of dishes varied widely within courses, the differences between courses reflects cultural conceptualization more than it reflects cultural appetite or gastronomic satiation. French and English banquets often had four courses, with multiple dishes in each. Italian and German banquets had between eight and twenty courses, with two dishes in each in Italy and one dish in each in Germany. Subtleties, or entremets, were elaborate specialties often of the confectionery kind that were celebratively brought out to mark the end of a course, wisely done since there might be such a long parade of dishes in each course. These subtleties, or entremets, depicted beasts, fowl, or personages and might be of marzipan, pastry or sugar.