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The first napkin was a lump of dough the Spartans called 'apomagdalie', a mixture cut into small pieces and rolled and kneeded at the table, a custom that led to using sliced bread to wipe the hands. In Roman antiquity, napkins known as sudaria and mappae were made in both small and large lengths. The sudarium, Latin for "handkerchief," was a pocket-size fabric earned to blot the brow during meals taken in the warm Mediterranean climate. The mappa was a larger cloth spread over the edge of the couch as protection from food taken in a reclining position. The fabric was also used to blot the lips. Although each guest supplied his own mappa, on departure mappae were filled with delicacies leftover from the feast, a custom that continues today in restaurant "doggy bags."
In the early Middle Ages, the napkin disappeared from the table and hands and mouths were wiped on whatever was available, the back of the hand, clothing, or a piece of bread. Later, a few amenities returned and the table was laid with three cloths approximately 4 to 6 feet long by 5 feet wide. The first cloth, called a couch (from French, coucher, meaning "to lie down") was laid lengthwise before the master's place. A long towel called a surnappe, meaning "on the cloth," was laid over the couch; this indicated a place setting for an honored guest. The third cloth was a communal napkin that hung like a swag from the edge of the table. An example can be seen in The Last Supper by Dierik Bouts (1415-1475), which hangs in Saint Peter's Church, Louvain, Belgium. In the late Middle Ages the communal napkin was reduced to about the size of our average bath towel.
The napkin had gone from a cloth laid on the table to a fabric draped over the left arm of a servant. The maitre d' hotel, the man in charge of feasts, as a symbol of office and rank, draped a napkin from his left shoulder, and servants of lower rank folded napkins lengthwise over their left arms, a custom that continued into the eighteenth century. Today in the United States, the napkin is placed on the left of the cover. But in Europe, the napkin is often laid to the right of the spoon.
The napkin was a part of the ritual at medieval banquets. The ewerer, the person in charge of ablutions, carried a towel that the lord and his honored guests used to wipe their hands on.
The Bayeux tapestry depicts a ewerer kneeling before the high table with a finger bowl and napkin. The panter carried a portpayne, a napkin folded decoratively to carry the bread and knife used by the lord of the manor, a custom that distinguished his space from those of exalted guests. The folded napkin was placed on the left side of the place setting; the open end faced the lord. The spoon was wrapped in another napkin, and a third napkin was laid over the first and second napkins. To demonstrate that the water for ablutions was not poisoned, the marshal or the cup bearer kissed the towel on which the lord wiped his hands and draped the towel over the lord's left shoulder for use.
"If napkins are distributed, yours should be placed on the left shoulder or arm; goblet and knife go to the right, bread to the left." Erasmus, De Civilitate Morum Puerilium, 1530
By the sixteenth century, napkins were an accepted refinement of dining, a cloth made in different sizes for various events. The diaper, an English word for napkin, from the Greek word diaspron, was a white cotton or linen fabric woven with a small, repetitious, diamond-shaped pattern. The serviette was a large napkin used at the table. The serviette de collation was a smaller napkin used while standing to eat, similar to the way a cocktail napkin is used today. A touaille was a roller towel draped over a tube of wood or used as a communal towel that hung on the wall. It also meant a length of fabric laid on the altar or table to enclose bread, or a cloth used to protect a pillow or draped decoratively around a lady's head.
By the seventeenth century, the standard napkin was approximately 35 inches wide by 45 inches long, a capacious size that accommodated people who ate with their fingers. Essentially, napkins were approximately one-third the breadth of the tablecloth. However, when the fork was accepted by royalty in the seventeenth century, the napkin fell from use among the aristocracy and neatness in dining was emphasized. According to Ben Jonson, "Forks arrived in England from Italy 'to the saving of napkins.'" German-speaking people were reputed to be such neat diners that they seldom used a napkin.
The acceptance of the fork in the eighteenth century by all classes of society brought neatness to dining and reduced the size of the napkin to approximately 30 inches by 36 inches. Today, the napkin is made in a variety of sizes to meet every entertainment need: large for multicourse meals, medium for simple menus, small for afternoon tea and cocktails.
The French court imposed elaborate codes of etiquette on the aristocracy, among them the way to use a napkin, when to use it, and how far to unfold it in the lap. A French treatise dating from 1729 stated that "It is ungentlemanly to use a napkin for wiping the face or scraping the teeth, and a most vulgar error to wipe one's nose with it." And a rule of decorum from the same year laid out the protocol:
"The person of highest rank in the company should unfold his napkin first, all others waiting till he has done so before they unfold theirs. When all of those present are social equals, all unfold together, with no ceremony."
Fashionable men of the time wore stiffly starched ruffled collars, a style protected while dining with a napkin tied around the neck. Hence the expression "to make ends meet." When shirts with lace fronts came into vogue, napkins were tucked into the neck or buttonhole or were attached with a pin. In 1774, a French treatise declared, "the napkin covered the front of the body down to the knees, starting from below the collar and not tucked into said collar."
Around 1740, the tablecloth was made with matching napkins. According to Savary des Bruslons, "Twelve napkins, a large tablecloth and a small one, comprise what is called these days a 'table service.'"