The rhetorician Arnobius, in his work "Disputationes contra Gentes," wrote that the pagans were wont to sanctify or hallow their tables by setting salt-cellars thereon. For owing to the fact that salt was employed at every sacrifice as an offering to the gods, and owing moreover to its reputed divine attributes, receptacles containing salt were also held sacred.
Indeed, the salt-cellar partook of the nature of a holy vessel, associated with the temple in general, and more particularly with the altar.
Pythagoras said that salt was the emblem of justice; for as it preserves all things and prevents corruption, so justice preserves whatever it animates, and without it all is corrupted. He therefore directed that a saltcellar should be placed upon the table at every meal, in order to remind men of this emblematic virtue of salt.
The Romans considered salt to be a sacred article of food, and it was a matter of religious principle with them to see that no other dish was placed upon the table before the salt was in position. A shell served as a receptacle for salt on the table of the Roman peasant, but at the repast of the wealthy citizen the silver salt-cellar, which was usually an heirloom, was placed in the middle of the table; and the same custom prevailed in England in mediaeval times.
In a work entitled "Antiquitates Culinarim," compiled by the Rev. Richard Warner, London, 1791, are to be found, reprinted from an old paper-roll, elaborate directions for the preparation of the banquet-table on the occasion of a great feast at the enthroning of George Neville as Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York in the sixth year of Edward the Fourth, A. D. 1466.
After the laying of the "chiefe napkin," the officials of the king's household charged with such duties were directed to bring salt, bread, and trenchers, and to "set the salt right under the middest of the cloth of estate."
Minute directions follow regarding the proper disposition of the trenchers, knives, spoons, and bread, and their exact relations to the salt, which was treated with special deference throughout the ceremony.
The Hon. Horace Walpole published an account of the formalities observed at the "setting" of Queen Elizabeth's dinner-table, as described by a German traveler who was present on such an occasion. After the table-cloth had been spread two gentlemen appeared, one bearing a rod and the other having a salt-cellar, a plate, and bread. After kneeling three times with the utmost reverence, they placed these three articles upon the table and withdrew. Later in the ceremony came an unmarried lady dressed in white silk, and a matron carrying a tasting-knife. The former, having thrice prostrated herself, approached the table in the most graceful manner, and rubbed with bread and salt the plates provided for the guests. After this the yeomen of the guard, clad in scarlet, and each with a golden rose upon his back, entered bare-headed, bringing a course of four-and-twenty dishes. In the households of the English nobility a similar custom prevailed. A rhythmical code of instructions to servants of the fifteenth century required that the salt should always be the first article placed on the festive board after the cloth was laid:--
Tu dois mettre premiérement en tous lieux et en tout hostel
La nappe, et aprés le sel;
Consteaulx, pain, vin et puis viande,
Puis apporter ce qu'on demande.
In the "Haven of Health" (Thomas Coghan, London, 1636) are these verses, quoted from an earlier author:--
Sal primo poni debet, primoque reponi,
Omnis mensa male ponitur absque sale.
A curious little treatise, with the title "How to serve a Lord," specifies how the principal salt-cellar shall be placed:--
Thenne here-uppon the boteler or panter shall bring forthe his pryncipall salte . . . he shall sette the saler in the myddys of the tabull accordyng to the place where the principall soverain shall sette . . . thenne the seconde salte att the lower ende then salte selers shall be sette uppon the syde tablys.
The custom of placing salt upon the table before all else is thought to have originated in the ancient conception of this substance as the symbol of friendship; and indeed no banquet, however elaborate, was complete without it. The salt was, moreover, the last article to be removed from the hospitable board.
It was as though our forefathers thereby intended that the guests, seeing salt on the table, might realize that they were "invited in love and were loved before they came;" and the fact that it was allowed to remain after the other dishes had been removed might serve to remind them that while feasts, like many other good things, come to an end, love and friendship may be perpetual.
Macrobius wrote, in the fifth century A. D., that the ancients did not consider themselves as either welcome or safe at a banquet unless the salt and the shrines of their gods were placed upon the table; the former indicating a cordial greeting, and the latter being a guarantee of protection.
The ancient "Boke of Keruynge" says: "Than set your salt on the ryght syde where your soverayne shall sytte, and on ye lefte syde the salte set your trenchours."
Mediaeval salt-cellars were often elaborate pieces of silver. In Paul Lacroix's Manners, Customs, and Dress during the Middle Ages are illustrations of an enameled silver salt-cellar with six facings, representing the labors of Hercules, which was made at Limoges for the French king, Francis I., in the early part of the sixteenth century. At Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England, is preserved an elegantly wrought silver and golden salt-cellar which belonged to Matthew Parker, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1558.
In the "Art Journal" (vol. xxxix. 1887) is a description of the state salt-cellar of Mostyn Hall, Flintshire, North Wales, which had been recently discovered in an ancient chest. This magnificent piece of plate, which bears the London date-mark 1586-87, is eighteen and one half inches in height and of cylindrical form, surmounted by a vase, and richly ornamented with groups of fruit, foliage, animals, and birds.
In mediaeval England the chief salt-cellar was sometimes in the form of a silver ship, thus suggesting both the briny deep and the craft which sails thereon.
King Henry III. ordered twenty silver salts in the year 1243.
In the room containing the crown jewels, in the Tower of London, are to be seen eleven magnificent golden salt-cellars, the oldest dating from the reign of Elizabeth. Of these the so-called state salt-cellar, which is a model of the White Tower, was presented by the city of Exeter to King Charles II., and was used at coronation banquets.
Descriptions and illustrations of old English saltcellars of different epochs are to be found in a volume entitled "Old English Plate," by Wilfred Joseph Cripps, M. A., F. S. A., London, 1886; and in "Old Plate," by J. H. Buck, New York, 1888. In the former work mention is made of a magnificent salt-cellar, "in the form of an olifaunt," the property of John, Earl of Warrenes, in 1347; and another, "in the shape of a dog," belonging to Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, in 1380.
From an early period until the close of the seventeenth century, the rank of guests at a banquet in wealthy households, as in the halls of country squires, in England, was indicated by the situation of their places at table with reference to the massive silver centre-pieces which contained the salt, sometimes called the "salt-vat" or "salt-foot."
At the head of the table, which was called the board's end, and "above the salt," sat the host and his more distinguished guests; and during the reigns of Henry VII. and VIII. it was enjoined upon the ushers to see that no person occupied a higher place than he was entitled to. Probably no penalty was imposed upon guests who unwittingly selected a more honorable seat than their rank warranted, other than removal to a lower position. But in the less civilized era of the eleventh century, the laws of King Canute provided that any person sitting at a banquet above his position should be "pelted out of his place by bones, at the discretion of the company, without the privilege of taking offense."
In a book called "Strange Foot-Post, with a Packet full of Strange Petitions," by Nixon (London, 1613), the author says in reference to a poor scholar:--
Now, as for his fare, it is lightly at the cheapest table, but he must sit under the salt, that is an axiome in such places; then having drawne his knife leisurably, unfolded his napkin mannerly after twice or thrice wiping his beard, if he have it, he may reach the bread on his knife's point.
The "Babees Book" (1475) says: "The salt also touch not in his salere with nokyns mete, but lay it honestly on the Trenchoure, for that is curtesy;" and the "Young Children's Book" (1500) contains this passage: "It was not graceful to take the salt except with the clene knyfe; far less to dip your meat into the salt-cellar."
Joseph Hall, in his "Satires" (1597), speaking of the conditions imposed by a gentle squire upon his son's tutor, says that the latter was required to sleep in a trundle-bed at the foot of his young master's couch, and that his seat at table was invariably "below the salt."
Again, in a volume of "Essayes," by Sir William Cornwallis (1632), occurs the following:--
There is another sort worse than these, that never utter anything of their owne, but get jests by heart, and rob bookes and men of prettie tales, and yet hope for this to have a roome cibove the salt.
Quite apropos to our subject are the words of an old English ballad:--
Thou art a carle of mean degree,
Ye salt doth stand twain me and thee.
The following passage from Smyth's "Lives of the Berkeleys" refers to Lord Henry Berkeley, who dwelt in Caludon Castle, near Coventry, in Warwickshire, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, and may serve to illustrate the importance of the central salt-cellar as a boundary:--
At Christmas and other festivals when his neighbors were feasted in his hall, he would, in the midst of their dinner, rise from his own, and going to each of their tables, cheerfully bid them welcome; and when guests of honor and high rank filled his own table, he seated himself at the lower end; and when such guests filled but half his board and those of meaner degree the other half, he would take his own seat between them in the midst of his long table near the salt, which gracious considerate acts did much to gain the love that his people had for him.
And in commenting on this passage a recent writer remarks that his haughty wife, Lady Katherine, highborn and beautiful and clever though she was, could hardly be imagined as sitting "below the salt," out of consideration for the feelings of an inferior.
In the houses of well-to-do farmers among the Scottish peasantry in the latter part of the eighteenth century, a linen cloth was sometimes spread over the upper portion of the dinner-table, where sat the farmer and the members of his family. Quite commonly, however, a chalk-line divided this end of the board from the lower portion where the hired laborers were seated; and in the more pretentious households the salt-dish served as a boundary.
In "Nares' Glossary," vol. ii. p. 763, under the heading "Above or Below the Salt," the writer comments on the invidious distinctions formerly made between guests seated at the same table, and quotes as follows from Ben Jonson's "Cynthia's Revels" in reference to a conceited fop:--
His fashion is not to take knowledge of him that is beneath him in clothes; he never drinks below the Salt.
The Innholders Company still adheres to the custom of indicating rank and social position at table by means of a handsome salt-cellar of the time of James I., to which is assigned the responsible function of dividing, the Court from the Livery at the Livery dinners; the latter occupying the seats corresponding to those of the retainers in the old-time baron's hall.
Among the Puritans in New England "the salt-cellar was the focus of the old-time board." Our ancestors brought with them from beyond the sea, not only the ideas regarding table etiquette prevalent in the old country, but also such tangible vanities as silver plate. Miss Alice Morse Earle, in her book on the "Customs and Fashions of Old New England," says that the "standing salt" was often the handsomest article of table furniture, and mentions among the belongings of Comfort Starr, of Boston, in 1659, a "greate silver-gilt double salt-cellar." Early in the eighteenth century these ponderous silver vessels were superseded by the little "trencher salts," of various patterns, which are still in use.