Quistrouns and knaves: the kitchen servants of medieval England

This month’s blog post is about the words used to describe kitchen servants in medieval England, and how they could also be used as insults.

Ein Bäcker mit seinem Lehrling beim Brot backen.

Between the early sixteenth and the nineteenth century, these kitchen servants were referred to using the word ‘scullion’. The OED online defines a scullion as:

‘A domestic servant of the lowest rank in a household who performed the menial offices of the kitchen; hence, a person of the lowest order, esp. as an abusive epithet.’

There is evidence that calling someone a ‘scullion’ could be an insult, albeit a relatively mild one, as can be seen in the brilliant quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2:

‘Away you scullian, you rampallian, you fustilarian’. Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2. ii. i. 61

However, ‘scullion’ is not attested until the early sixteenth century. The earliest attestation of the word dates from around 1515, and is found in The boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux: ‘Squylyons of ye kechyn’.

So what were the words that were used to describe kitchen servants before the sixteenth century in England, and were they used as insults? The Bilingual Thesaurus of Medieval England lists three words for kitchen servants that were used in England between 1100 and 1400. Two of them (‘knave’ and ‘quistroun’) are from Middle English and one (‘cuistron’) is from Anglo Norman, or Anglo French as it is sometimes referred to, the variety of French spoken in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The Middle English word ‘knave’ comes from Old English ‘cnafa’ (possibly derived from the Mercian word ‘cneafa’).There are various recorded references to the word ‘knave’ to describe a kitchen boy/cook’s servant or scullion in Middle English, the earliest being from Ancrene Riwle, dating from around 1230:

‘Beon bliðe iheortet ȝef ȝe þolieð danger of sluri, þe cokes cneaue [Tit: cnaue; Nero: knaue], þe wescheð & wipeð disches i cuchene’. Ancr. (Corp-C 402), 192/3.

The latest citation we have in the Middle English Dictionary is from around 1500, from a text called Octavian:

‘The kokes knaue, þat turneþ þe spyte, Upon þy wyf he hath begete On of þo two’. Octav (2) (Clg A.2).

‘Knave’ was a widely used word that had wide applications. In addition to kitchen servants it could be used to refer to male infants, peasants or labourers, and crucially, wastrels, or good for nothing rogues.

The following two quotes, from Cleanness by the Pearl Poet and Lydgate, illustrates this well:

‘He wonded no woþe of wekked knavez..For harlotez wyth his hendelayk he hoped to chast’. Cleaness IMEV 635; Manual 2.II.4.

‘And so thestat of politik puissaunce Is lost wher-euer knaues haue gouernaunce’. Lydgate FP (Bod 263).

So, like ‘scullion’, ‘knave’ could be used as an insult. However, the two uses of the ‘knave’ seem to be more differentiated than the two uses of ‘scullion’, which appear to overlap more, possibly because of the heavily stratified nature of medieval and early modern society. In other words, calling someone a scullion was insulting because the meaning of ‘scullion’ became extended, from someone who performs menial jobs in a kitchen to someone who is, as the OED definition of ‘scullion’ has it, ‘a person of the lowest order’. Whereas, to call someone a knave, in a pejorative sense, was to imply that they were dishonest, unprincipled, cunning, unscrupulous; even a villain. So although you could refer to a ‘cook’s knave’, when ‘knave’ was used as an insult, it arguably carried a much stronger pejorative sense than ‘scullion’.

Middle English ‘quistroun’ and Anglo Norman ‘cuistron’, are actually the same word, in that the English word was borrowed into the lexicon from French. The Middle English Dictionary suggests that the primary meaning of ‘quistroun’ was ‘a cook’s assistant or errand boy, scullion’. It could also be used to refer to: ‘a page, lowly servant, knave; also, a sutler, camp follower;’. The quote below from Octavian illustrates the culinary usage:

‘Sche segth a boy, loþly of face, A quysteroun..And seyde, ‘Hark, þou cokes knaue.’ Octav. (2) (Clg A.2). 154

The Anglo Norman equivalent ‘cuistron’ is also defined as a scullion or a cook’s boy in the Anglo Norman Dictionary, and various quotes illustrate this usage, such as the following quotes from Gaimar and Bibb Roth (G):

‘Sa niece mesmariee ad; Il la dunad a un garçon Ki Cuaran aveit a nun; […] Cil Cuaran esteit quistrun Mes mult esteit bel vadletun’  Gaimar 103

‘Va t’en, quistroun, ou toun havez (M.E. fleyshhock) Estrere le hagis del postnez’ Bibb Roth (G) 1035


A quistroun/cuistron/knave at work on the right.

Again, this word doubled up as an insult, in both languages. In French, there is the following quote about ‘bastard cuistrons’, from the Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330-1500):

Cuistron bastard. “Vil bâtard” : Questron bastard, je te occiray (Precef. IV, R., 608).

Meanwhile, in English, there is a reference to the ‘foulest quisteroun’ in Ywain:

‘I sal hir gif to warisowne, And of þe foulest quisteroun, Þat ever ȝit ete any brede, He sal have hir maydenhede’. Ywain (Glb E.9) 2400

And a glowing description of the beautiful God of Love, who was ‘lyk no knave, ne quystroun’ in the Romance of the Rose:

‘This God of Love of his fasoun Was lyk no knave, ne quystroun; His beaute gretly was to pryse’. RRose (Htrn 409) 886

What’s more, these insults were not just reserved for people, or used for the purposes of comparison in relation to gods. There are two quotes in the Middle English Dictionary that refer to the ‘whel of quistrounes’, which was a contemptuous epithet for the wheel of Fortune:

‘So þe qwele of qwistounes [read: qwistrounes] ȝoure qualite encreses, Þat noþir gesse ȝe gouernour no god bot ȝour-selfe!’ Wars Alex (Ashm 44) 4660


The ‘qwele of qwistounes’

This last quote suggests that the pejorative sense of Middle English ‘quistroun’ was relatively established and well known, at least by the later medieval period, which is when the text it is taken from was written.

So it is clear that before ‘scullion’ came along in the sixteenth century, there were already words for kitchen servants in both Middle English and Anglo French that doubled up as insults.

That’s it from this month’s blog. Thoughts or comments welcome!


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