A fellow researcher at the Freemason's Lodge sent me this reference last week, dating from the 1720s. (Thanks, Andrew.)
But lest this makes you believe that Masonic feasts were all about indulgence, I found this very angry letter that seems to paint a somewhat different picture. Addressed the Grand-Master of the society, it was written in May of 1791, shortly after the annual feast.
I have receiv’d your very polite letter and in return, am to inform you that when I followed my senior to the table every chair was taken, except ONE and that of Right belonged to brother Lewis. Not any person would make room for me, and I was reduced to the disagreeable situation at the end of the Table, where the Dishes were to be handed over my back, for 200 people, and a door continually opening at any head by which I got a violent cold and have been very ill.
Such treatment, I may say such rudeness to a Man near 70 years of age who hath been 25 years a loyal Officer and a laborious Servant to the Society, and who never was accustomed to scrambles for a Chair, was too mortifying and too degrading. It did not become me to trouble the Grand Master with a complaint at that time or to enter into altercation with any person. If you saw me in that uncomfortable place, you had authority by your office to have placed one in any proper Seat.
I was necessitated to leave the hall before the second course was brought on, being unable any longer to bear the crowd of servants at my back. this has determin’d me to withdraw from a society, where I was treated with such disrespect....
Guess there's always a crotchety kill-joy in the pack. But it made me wonder what exactly was going on at these dinners, and how the experience of dining might change over time. By 1813, the "festive board" –– ie. the party –– and the Masonic ritual had been separated entirely. Are these dinners gradually becoming more civilized? And if so, why?