Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
The Stepped Buffet/Credenza: Rank and File, Ordine and Assemblage
Beth Holman, Bard Graduate Center

My paper will discuss the organization and contents of stepped displays of vessels and plates on sideboards, called buffets in northern Europe and credenzas in Italy. I will analyze the physical aspects of these display buffet/credenza in relation to surrounding spaces and people, and offer strategies to apprehend aspects of its social and symbolic meanings.

Since at least the fourteenth century, precious vessels and dining services arranged on the steps of a sideboard or buffet were important features of domestic and ceremonial display, particularly at banquets and receptions. They were depicted in paintings and manuscript illuminations, described in chronicles, and referenced in treatises on household management and splendor. Yet there has been little exploration of the various roles and cultural meanings of the stepped buffet/credenza. In general, it has been seen merely as an ostentation of material wealth and thus as a reflection of the financial status of the owner. Certainly, this was an important function; eyewitnesses to banquets often estimated the worth of silver and gold vessels displayed on multiple levels of a sideboard. I will propose, however, that the stepped buffet/credenza also expressed other social values, taking as my starting point its intrinsic physical nature - that is, as objects lined up in horizontal rows that are staggered vertically. I suggest that this arrangement of “rank” and “file” was commensurate with notions of ordine, a central concept of both household management and social/political authority. I will adduce aspects of the buffet/credenza’s siting, setting, and arrangement in comparison to the staging of people and furnishings at banquets and receptions. Finally, I will suggest that the objects on the buffet/credenza embodied corporate or group identity, i.e. assemblage as assembly. Thus, as embodiments of cultural, social, and political significance, the stepped credenza/buffet and its components were major features of the ritualized domestic setting.


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