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Monday, October 4, 2021

Day 53

Catherine de Medici (1519 - 1589) was born in Florence and at the age of fourteen was married off to the future king of France, Henry II (1519 - 1559). When Catherine arrived in Marseille in 1533, her entourage included courtiers, servants, artists, musicians, dancers, embroiderers, dressmakers, hair stylists, perfume makers, firework technicians, chefs, bakers, pastry cooks and distillers. While her baggage contained artichokes, lettuce, parsley, truffles, forks, fine silverware, glazed tableware and table decorations, which were all unknown in France at the time. Catherine had a miserable marriage, with Henry II favouring his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who was twenty years his senior and held great influence over him during his reign (1547 - 1559). She was also disliked by the people of France and had a bad reputation, encouraged by propaganda and the general suspicion of foreigners. In order to preserve her power as Queen, she established a legion of beautiful women to engage in gathering intelligence from the boudoir of the French elite, known as the “escadron volant” or “flying squadron”. These women were said to be hand-picked for their loyalty to the Queen, their charm and sexual prowess. Although the story of ‘a cunning group of beautiful female spies working for a foreign queen’ has recently been questioned by historians and it is beloved that the queen most likely selected her courtiers for their intelligence, wit and experience. Henry II, was killed in 1559 from a jousting accident, leaving Catherine to become regent on behalf of her 10-year-old son Charles IX and granted sweeping powers. After Charles died in 1574, she also played a key role in the reign of her third son, Henry III. Though what does all this have to do with an image of a table setting? Prior to Catherine’s arrival in France, the dinner table would have only been set with spoons, knives and a single fork for carving. With fingers, spoons and slices of bread having been the formal way to consume food. Catherine introduced the fork to the French table, which in turn influenced the English which in turn influenced the English - although not until the seventeenth century.