Back to exhibition

VocalEyes - New Place

Elizabethan Posy Trencher, 1597.



"This night in banqueting must all be spent."
[Troilus and Cressida Act V, Scene 1]

Posy trenchers, or "roundels", were small decorative plates used during a banquet. In Elizabethan and Jacobean times, the homes of the wealthy often had rooms specifically designed to hold a banquet. Banquets represented excess, luxury and wealth, and included food such as jellies, sweet cheeses, spice cakes, conserved fruits and flowers, sugar-candy and fine cakes.

This Posy trencher is one of a set of 12 which were kept in a circular pasteboard box covered in black vellum and lined with paper. It's dated 1597. It measures 13 centimetres in diameter, made from sycamore wood and elaborately decorated with painted design on one side. A central inner ring, about 4 centimetres across, sprouts curling stems out towards the rim. To the sides, these end in colourful painted buds - like white tulips specked with red. Amongst them flame shaped leaves. At top and bottom are fat little five-petalled flowers, white, red and yellow. Within the central ring is a hand written rhyme. This one reads:

‘Hee that climes higher than hee should.
Is like to fall lower than he would.’

Posy trenchers would have been used for the banquet course, which was usually right after the main course. This course was not to fill up the guests, as they had already eaten, but rather it was to delight the eye. A trencher would be put in front of each guest with the painted side down. It would be filled with sweetmeats, ornate marzipan or sugary sweets and once the food was eaten, the trencher would be turned over to reveal the verse and the imagery and be read aloud - like a Christmas cracker but without the crack.

Most of the verses found on trenchers contained a moral lesson; either warning against the sins covetousness, gluttony or profanity, or encouraging the virtues of benevolence, sobriety, or patience. Another trencher in this set recalls Polonius giving advice to his son in Hamlet:

"Be neither dumbe, nor give this tonge the lease
but speak thou well or heare, and hold yi peace"

Posy trenchers might also incorporate biblical passages. So as well as being beautiful decorative objects intended for social entertainment, they also conveyed important truths, promoted discussion, or acted as prompts for more serious contemplation.