Of Course It's 'Course'! Remove 'Remove'!

by Dame Alys Katharine (Elise Fleming)

The introduction of "remove" to mean "course" in SCA jargon may be lost in the mists of our history but it is fairly well-documented in the real world. Nowhere in the English-speaking Middle Ages or Renaissance is the word "remove" used to mean "course".

All printed references refer to the "first course" or the "second course" and refer to a collection of dishes, sometimes twenty or more, which were presented to the diners. Dishes were brought in and set on the table. At least at the head table, certain dishes would be carved and served to the feasters. Other dishes would be placed in selected spots on the table. When the course was over all the dishes were taken away.

As the Elizabethan era draws to a close one can see a marked difference in public dining. In the earlier Middle Ages everyone ate in the Great Hall. By the 1500s there are references to "dining parlours" or "dining chambers" where the lord and lady could eat apart from the others. By the late 1600s the dining room began to be the central eating area. While large public feasts were still held in grand rooms on special occasions it no longer was the norm for everyone to eat in one large room. With the change towards more private dining came a tendency towards fewer dishes being served at a meal. Cookery books from the 1690s and on began to include "folding-plates" which showed table settings, precise and symmetrical. England's Newest Way in All Sorts of Cookery, Pastry, and All Pickles that are Fit to be Used (3rd edition, 1710) contains a diagram for a two-course dinner. To quote from The Appetite and the Eye, "...there is even the recently adopted usage of the 'remove' (a dish to be succeeded by another). The circle at the head of the first-course table is inscribed: 'A pottage, for a remove Westphalia ham and chickens.' The pottage was served out to everyone present, and its large serving-bowl or tureen was then removed (emphasis mine). In its place was set the item of meat or fish written in the lower half of the circle. The soup and its 'remove' or replacement marked the first step towards a different division of the courses which led eventually, after the coming of Russian service early in the nineteenth century, to the usual sequence of courses at today's formal dinners."

Additionally, in the chapter "Illustrations in British Cookery Books, 1621-1820" (The English Cookery Book, edited by Eileen White) Ivan Day writes the following regarding table plans: "Their plans reflect the triumph at this high stratum of English society of the new (emphasis mine) French style of regulating a table. For instance, Henry Howards's England's Newest Way of 1703 ... shows how the soup was to be replaced with a remove - the English name for the releveé of French dining protocol."

A "remove", therefore, is just that. It is a dish that is taken off the table after people have been served, with another being set in its place. It is not a "course". The term didn't exist until close to 1700 or even after. It was new in the early 1700s. In no way did it ever exist within the SCA's time period.

So, why should we be concerned about the misuse? For me it is precisely because it is "misuse". What is the purpose of mislabeling a course once one has learned the correct term? I suspect some folk think it sounds more "medieval" but I would submit that after thirty years the SCA should have become more accurate in its re-creation of medieval and Renaissance cookery, not stuck repeating inaccurate jargon. My challenge, and one I would toss to you as persons interested in furthering our studies in cookery, would be to learn what people in our SCA time period really did and to pass that on to non-cooks.

For example, let's look at what really constituted a course? One dish? A meat, a starch and a vegetable? Or something else? How many courses really were served? In Gervase Markham's The English Housewife (1615), he has a section entitled "Ordering of great feasts and proportion of expense" which sets out the type of things to be served at a course. I have seen references to feasts of two courses, and possibly three, but not any more than that. Why? Because so many dishes were expected to be presented in one course! One source mentions that a large variety of dishes were needed because one couldn't expect all the guests to like the same dish! Also, from what I have seen, not all dishes were on all the tables. Cheaper cuts of beef, for example, went to the tables of those of lower station. The head table would receive one-half chicken, or more, per person, while the lower tables would get a chicken dish where it had been cut into pieces and placed with a broth, a grain, etc. The nobles at the head table got more because they sent bits down to people at the lower tables as a mark of favor or special note. (Wouldn't this be intriguing to do in the SCA???!)

Markham finishes his list of all the items to be sent out with this: "Now for a more humble feast, or an ordinary proportion which any goodman may keep in his family..." and Markham lists them. "Sixteen is a good proportion for one course..." I'll make the list complete but brief: beef with mustard; boiled capon; boiled beef; roast chine of beef; roast neat's tongue; roast pig; baked chewets; roast goose; roast swan; roast turkey; roast haunch of venison; venison pasty; kid with a pudding in the belly; olive pie (not of olives, but slices of meat); several capons; a custard or doucets. He continues, "Now to these full dishes may be added in sallats, fricassees, quelquechoses, and devised paste, as many dishes more, which make the full service to no less than two and thirty dishes, which is as much as can conveniently stand on one table...and after this manner you may proportion both your second and third course, holding fullness in one half of the dishes, and show in the other..." In other words, the second and third course would consist of a similar number of dishes but only 16 or so would be edible. Today, we simply don't have the servants to be able to pull this off at most events. Keep in mind, too, that people sat (or stood) at only one side of the table, so there was more room on which to place dishes than we normally have at an SCA feast.

How were courses served, especially to high table? How were the foods presented? Were they garnished and made fancy or did the cooks just send out filled bowls? What is practical or impractical to re-create in today's world? Let's research these questions! As SCA armor, for example, has progressed from Freon cans and plastic barrels to more accurate metal and leather re-creations, so we should be progressing in cookery. It is quite easy to use the term "course" instead of "remove" the next time one is involved with a feast. The printer won't object to printing "course" instead of the inaccurate term! More accurate armor increases the medieval feel of our tournaments. The nicer the armor looks, the more other fighters want to have something like it. The same applies to feasts and cookery. If our feasts have the look and feel of medieval times eventually others will want to do the same and we will have increased our knowledge of how people cooked and ate.


The Appetite and the Eye, edited by C. Anne Wilson, Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

The English Cookery Book, edited by Eileen White, Prospect Books, 2004

'Banquetting Stuffe', edited by C. Anne Wilson, Edinburgh University Press, 1991

Gervase Markham. The English Housewife (1615), edited by Michael R. Best, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986.

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