Item 7, Stans Puer ad Mensam: Introduction


1 For Russell’s text, see Furnivall, Babees Book, pp. 117–99.

2 For further discussion of the significance of service in this period, see the introduction to the following item, Dame Courtesy.

3 On the question of bodily intimacy within the close quarters of late medieval townhouses, see Riddy, “Looking Closely.”

4 For the Rules, see Oschinsky, Walter of Henley, pp. 388–407. See also Wilkinson, “Rules of Robert Grosseteste Reconsidered: The Lady as Estate and Household Manager in Thirteenth-Century England.” For the Middle English translation of Grosseteste’s regulations for his own household, see Furnivall, Babees Book, pp. 328–33. For a survey of all of Grosseteste’s works on these subjects, see Thomson, Writings of Robert Grosseteste, pp. 149–50 and 158–59.

5 For the Lanercost Chronicle’s anecdote concerning Grosseteste’s meticulous table manners, see Gieben, “Robert Grosseteste and Medieval Courtesy-Books,” pp. 47–48.

6 On the relationship between the redactions of Stans Puer ad Mensam, see Gieben, “Robert Grosseteste and Medieval Courtesy-Books,” pp. 56–62.

7 For a brief discussion of Lydgate and his Middle English verse, see the introduction to Right as a Ram’s Horn (item 2).

8 Jonathan Nicholls prints a different, closer Middle English translation of Stans Puer; see “Unpublished Courtesy Poem.”

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Item 7, Stans Puer ad Mensam: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

The title of this poem, taken from its Latin source, loosely translates as “The Child at the Table.” Table manners were a subject of considerable importance to anyone seeking a reputa­tion for courtesy in the later Middle Ages. The Mass’s ceremonial meal of bread and wine was the central daily ritual of the Church, and meals were the most important ritual of the household. It was a place where the household’s social hierarchy, wealth, and meticulous organization were displayed and celebrated. While works such as John Russell’s Book of Nurture describe the demanding roles played by the household staff at mealtimes, Stans Puer ad Mensam discusses the equally rigorous set of expectations governing the diners.1 In addition, Rate’s copy of this poem has added stanzas on walking in the street and going to bed.

As an ideal and a code of behavior, courtesy encompassed a wide and varying set of charac­teristics, developing over centuries from origins in aristocratic courts and monastic settings. The ideals of courtesy might encompass class-based values of the nobility or more basic, broadly shared ideas of conduct, but Stans Puer ad Mensam has two specific concerns: the observance of social hierarchies and cleanliness, particularly at the table.

Hierarchy was an inescapable feature of medieval life; a finely graded consciousness of social rank governed virtually every activity in every sphere. As this text suggests, defer­ence to social superiors could take many forms but was advisable in every situation. By the time Ashmole 61 was copied, the challenge may have been in recognizing the proper order of a social hierarchy that was becoming increasingly complex. An urban elite grew richer, gentry families merged with merchants and professionals, and the middle rank of society became a broader and more diverse category of artisans and tradespeople. Yet older ex­pectations of service and deference remained in place. Young people were expected to serve their elders, and inferiors served their betters, all the way up the chain of the household ranks and into the world beyond it. Included in this structure, as Rate’s version makes clear, are families: children must serve and obey their parents. But service, including the daily tasks of carving or assisting the lord as he washed before meals, was not simply a ritual act of submission; as both courtesy literature and historical records suggest, service performed with diligence and elegance could raise one’s status.2 Courtesy thus reinforced the hier­archy of status and enabled progress up its ladder; provincial gentry and urban bourgeois were accordingly eager to embrace its strictures.

Cleanliness, though long a way of differentiating refined landholders from the grubbier men and women who worked the land, had pragmatic reasons for its importance. In an age before the fork, when diners shared dishes in close quarters while wearing clothes that represented a substantial portion of their income, eating cleanly must have been appre­ciated.3 At the same time, filth of one kind or another must have been always near at hand; scholars have suggested that the many prohibitions against spitting on the tablecloths or in the dishes indicate that the floor was an acceptable target. Dogs, burning candles, run­ny noses, and a considerable amount of drink posed other challenges. Cleanliness could be partially assisted by the important rituals of washing that surrounded the meal, and it also extended to the careful management of the body before, during, and after mealtimes.

Stans Puer ad Mensam discusses these matters with the kind of direct advice seen in other varieties of conduct literature; rules are certain, and the language shares this certainty. The text presented here derives from a poem attributed to the thirteenth-century bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste. A noted theologian, Grosseteste is also the likely source for The King and His Four Daughters (item 26), and was the author of several treatises about house­hold management, including the Rules written for the countess of Lincoln that sur­vives in both Latin and Anglo-Norman versions, and regulations for his own household surviving in both the Latin original and a Middle English translation.4 His personal inter­est in etiquette was recorded in a contemporary chronicle, and it is not surprising that a bishop should be the author of a popular treatise on manners.5 Grosseteste would have dined fre­quently with the elite of both the Church and the gentry, and both circles required polite behavior from those who hoped for advancement.

Grosseteste’s Stans Puer ad Mensam survives in several redactions and in at least eleven manuscripts, which suggests that despite the many similar Latin works available, his had last­ing appeal.6 Perhaps the bishop’s reputation attracted readers, and Stans Puer ad Men­sam certainly attracted translators. Among others, John Lydgate made a popular Middle English translation of Grosseteste’s work, known by the same title.7 Lydgate’s translation is not partic­ularly close, but Rate’s version introduces even further variation, adding a sig­nificant number of new stanzas and doubling the poem’s length.8

Manuscript Context

In subject matter and in many details, this text closely resembles the item that follows it, Dame Courtesy (item 8), with other strong connections to the conduct literature preceding it, How the Wise Man Taught His Son and How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter (items 3 and 4). The feasting scenes in Sir Corneus, Sir Cleges, and Sir Orfeo (items 21, 24, and 39) offer a sense of the rules prescribed by Stans Puer ad Mensam in action, and Lydgate’s The Dietary (item 31) often appears alongside his version of this poem in other manuscripts as another (medi­cal) per­spec­tive on dining. Rate’s version of Stans Puer ad Mensam strengthens the advice about honoring one’s parents and following bourgeois ethics of hard work and respect­ability; these virtues reappear throughout the manuscript.


As noted, Rate seems to have used Lydgate’s poem as a foundation but has significantly altered and enlarged it, producing a unique text preserved in no other manuscript. Where Lydgate’s version is in rhyme royal stanzas, Rate’s version is in quatrains rhyming abab, with some 8-line stanzas rhyming ababbcbc or ababcbcb. Several others are defective in some way. The entire product suggests that Rate composed this by means of rolling revision, attempt­ing to alter the form and content of Lydgate’s poem with mixed success. Further evidence for Rate’s involvement can be found in the following item, Dame Courtesy, which shares a number of lines and phrases with this text and which also may be the product of Rate’s revision of another work.

Printed Editions

Furnivall, F. J., ed. Queene Elizabethes Achademy. Pp. 56–64. [Prints Ashmole 61’s version.]

Lydgate, John. The Minor Poems of John Lydgate. Pp. 739–44. [Edits the more com­mon version, collating most of the surviving manuscripts].

Reference Works

NIMEV 1694; see also 2233.
MWME, 2160

See also Amos, Arditi, Brentano, Coss, Gieben, Hennisch, Jeanneret, M. Keen, Mennell, Millett, Nicholls (1982 and 1985), Oschinsky, Riddy (2003), Schirmer, and Visser in the bibliography.

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