You’ve probably never really thought very much about it, but the tablecloth has an extremely long history and has been a popular and highly valued household item for nearly 2000 years, without ever falling from favor.
The earliest proof we have of the existence of tablecloths, is drawn from the work of a poet named Martial who died c.103 AD who mentioned them in his writing, so tablecloths are believed to have come into use in Europe in the first century AD. Prior to this high-ranking Roman households are thought to have possessed tables that were exquisitely carved and therefore too ornate and beautiful to be covered by cloth! By looking at early artwork that still survives, it appears that the very first cloths appear to have been very plain and used simply for catching mess and wiping up spills.
The Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742 – 28 814), who, it is reported, used a tablecloth made of asbestos. His guests would sit with him to have dinner and then he would have the table cleared before throwing the cloth into the fire where it would amaze all observers by refusing to burn! He used this trick in order to convince his barbarian guests of his total supremacy and infallible powers.
After this, tablecloths gradually became more popular, particularly among European nobility and aristocrats. However by the fifteenth century, every household apart from the very poorest would have used a tablecloth of some description, even if it was hessian sack. The middling folks (there was no middle class at the time) would have had plain, cheaper cloths while the poor would have used hemp cloth and the destitute would have had no table coverings at all.
During the Medieval period, it was de rigueur to use the finest linen tablecloths. The linen had to be as white as possible. The higher ranking you were, the whiter your tablecloths were expected to be. This is because conspicuous consumption was the order of the day. If you think about it, this was a time long before chemicals, washing machines, dryers and irons, so you had to employ lots of people to keep your household linens clean. By having the freshest, whitest tablecloth you possibly could laid out on your dining table, you were effectively saying, “Look at me. I have lots of money! I have lots of workers!”
At the time linen was a hugely valuable commodity that cost a great deal of money. It had to be harvested, handspun, bleached and then hand-woven into cloth by a Master Craftsman. It was then bleached and calendared. During its existence it had to be carefully looked after in terms of washing and pressing. Linen was so valuable in fact, that it is present in wills and probate inventories right up to the twentieth century, and was seen as a family heirloom. Households often kept their linen on display, either in a linen press, or stacked somewhere where it could be seen by visitors. As ironing was not widespread until after the late Middle Ages, a smoothed tablecloth was also a sign of a well-run household.
These early tablecloths were sometimes decorated with borders, fringes and stripes. The richest households had tablecloths made to fit specific tables, however, tablecloths had to be of a fixed width based on the width of the loom that wove the cloth, so larger tables would have to be covered with several tablecloths at once.
On the highest ranking table ‘surnapes’ were used to cover the main tablecloth, just like the table toppers we use today. ‘Sanaps’ were also used as an additional covering. These ran the length of the table and were the precursor of our table runners today. As grand houses competed against each other for the richest looking table settings for their amazing feasts, these sanaps became increasingly ornate, decorated with lace and embroidery. These extremely wealthy households would often have a servant whose job it was to ceremoniously cover and uncover the table.
Unfortunately we have much smaller households these days, and all the chores may well fall to you. But as you cover and uncover your table, setting it to look as attractive as possible, remember that you are part of an illustrious history of nobles and aristocrats, and show off your table with pride!