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Although tablecloths and napkins were occasionally used at banquets in ancient times, it was only when people began regularly eating at a table that they systematically covered it with a cloth and, later, started to routinely use napkins. Throughout antiquity, meals were eaten while stretched out on couches or beds, and it was not until the Middle Ages that the sitting position was adopted in the West. Today, the position is even more vertical as humanity, ever pressed for time, eats standing up, indeed while walking, at any time of day.

It was during the Merovingian dynasty, between AD 500 and 700, that people began ‘sitting down’ to a meal, as demonstrated by the existence of certain chairs; but the practice only became truly common with the advent of feudal society. Until the late Middle Ages, tables consisted of planks being placed on trestles, covered with long ‘diaper cloths’ (the generic term used for any piece of table or personal linen). The medieval lifestyle was still marked by a certain nomadic spirit, and such inexpensive ‘tables’ could be left behind when place of residence changed. Planks and trestles would simply be rebuilt elsewhere. The table of the feudal lord and his family would then be ‘set’ in the main room of the castle, where the diners would sit on the benches, all on the same side of the table. These modest furnishings could then be removed when not in use.

The table was seen as a distinct piece of furniture only with the building of the magnificent Italian Renaissance residences that also required permanent cupboards and beds. It was not until the end of the 18th century that tables used solely for meals made their appearance, thanks to the fashion for intimate dinners launched by Louis XV in his apartments at Versailles.

Right into the late Middle Ages, tablecloths were used only for feasts and banquets, not on an everyday basis. It was probably during the 5th century, according to mosaics discovered at Ravenna, that the first tablecloths were used for liturgical repasts. It was also at this time that the ‘mantle’ or mantelium, which originally meant ‘hand-cloth’ or towel, began to signify tablecloth.4

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