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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Posy Trenchers

Object 27 - Victoria Jackson explains the practical and symbolic use of trenchers in Shakespeare's day.

Victoria Jackson is a Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at Birmingham University.

This night in banqueting must all be spent.

-Troilus and Cressida V. i. 43.

One of twelve posy trenchers in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections. It reads 'O death yi/power is great I/must confese I often/wish that it were/lese'
One of twelve posy trenchers in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections. It reads 'O death yi/power is great I/must confese I often/wish that it were/lese'

Known as ‘trenchers’ or ‘roundels’, this set of twelve elaborately decorated wooden plates was probably used at a banquet to hold food.  Each trencher is painted on one side with brightly coloured lacework designs, stylized fruits and flowers, and doggerel verses.  Sets of painted trenchers were used in the banquet course, which took place after the main-meal had finished, and was usually held in a hall or large room designed or used specifically for banqueting.  The nature of a sixteenth-century banquet is somewhat unclear, but we do know its purpose was not to satisfy the stomach as guests would have just eaten the main meal, but rather to delight the eye.  It was an affair of pageantry, informal entertainment, and leisurely consumption.  During the banquet, a trencher would be placed in front of each guest, the painted side facing down, and on each, delicacies such as finely made sweet-meats, exotic spices, sugar confectionary, and ornate marzipan sculptures would be served.  After these were consumed, guests would turn their trenchers over to reveal the imagery and verses on the painted side, which could be then read aloud to the table.  This action would assume a certain knowledge from the reader: he/she would be expected to not only identify what the image and verse signified, but presumably would be expected to discuss those concepts in greater depth.

Another posy trencher from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections. This one reads 'Who in his/life is voide of/care. Shall in ye/end have simple/fare.'
Another posy trencher from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections. This one reads 'Who in his/life is voide of/care. Shall in ye/end have simple/fare.'

Interestingly, most verses found on trenchers touch on the moral concerns of daily life and employ admonitions against covetousness, gluttony, or profane swearing while the virtues of benevolence, sobriety, or patience, are usually encouraged in the reader.  Not surprisingly, verses often incorporate biblical passages.  Therefore, in addition to being beautifully decorated objects intended for social entertainment at a banquet, trenchers may have also conveyed important truths and acted as prompts for more serious contemplation.  In a book published in 1531 the English author Thomas Elyot reflects this idea when he advises homeowners in decorating the interior of their houses:

his plate and vessaile wolde be ingraved with histories, fables, or quicke and wise sentences, comprehending good doctrine or counsailes...that they which do eate or drinke havyng those wisdomes ever in sighte, shall happen with the meate to receive some of them... wherby some parte of time shall be saved, which els by superfluouse eatyng and drinkyng wolde be idely consumed. 

For Elyot, wisdom and good counsel could be gained from objects inscribed with biblical or sententious verses.  Most importantly, they provoke virtuous conversation and save time that would otherwise be spent overindulging in ‘superfluous eating and drinking.’  Painted trenchers reminded diners of the way to salvation, while their images carried various moral lessons.  Within the context of the spectacular and often fantastical banquet, trenchers imparted weightier moral considerations and conveyed practical wisdom in a brief but compelling manner.