One of the First Polish Poems Was a Table Etiquette Guide

The first non-religious sample of long-form written Polish language is a poem giving some genuinely sage advice: wash your hands before dinner.

medieval feast
Photo: British Library, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

“O Lord, grant me understanding,
So that I could say something important
About the bread table.”

Does this sound to you like some kind of crazy guide/medieval poem crossover about table manners? Because it is. Originally in old Polish (still legible, though challenging, to the modern reader), it is more than just another old poem – it is the oldest known non-religious text written in Polish and not in Latin, as the custom had it.

Manners at the bread table

It dates back to the early 15th century, both the pinnacle of knight culture and a time of legal and military struggle thanks to the imperial advances of the Teutonic Knightly Order. While the epoch is considered the epitome of courtly manners, the reality was somewhat different than Hollywood fantasy, and knights needed some advice on how to take part in public festivities. The poem “At the Bread Table,” or “On Table Manners,” allegedly authored by Przecław Słota, answered the call.

Why knights, though? It is because, obviously, literacy in 15th-century Europe was a privilege, as was even listening to a poem recitation. This included participating in feasts, which starkly contrasted with peasant cuisine, limited to groats, cheese, and simple vegetables, all served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon.

Because of the common feasting, the privileged groups were educated on table manners, in the form of a poem:

  • seat more important people closer to the table’s center (of attention);
  • wait to eat until everyone’s seated;
  • don’t bite off more than you can chew;
  • gentlemen should serve the ladies;
  • don’t eat with dirty hands;
  • and last but not least, hangovers be damned (“No one will be cheerful in the morning, / But once he sits at the table, / He will forget all worries.”)

Monument of Polish Table Manners

This list is not complete and, written in far from modern language, depicts table behaviors that are still considered transgressions to this day. “On Table Manners” describes them via an anti-example, creating the figure of a really ill-mannered feast participant, clearly ridiculing his behavior.

Pioneering in many aspects, including being among the first poems to be signed in any way by its author (identifying himself as Słota or Złota, which may or may not be a name of certain Przecław Słota, a country official at the time), the text is among what is called “monuments of the early Polish language.” But we came to know it only quite recently when notable language historian Aleksander Bruckner, in 1845, found the codex containing it in the St Petersburg Library. Bruckner would copy and publish it in 1891. The original book later came to Poland but sadly was destroyed during World War Two.

Parts of the relatively short text are now in the school curriculum, and Poles take certain pride that one of their oldest written text underlines the importance of table manners – even as a caricature.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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