For all three cultures-- Christian, Jewish and Moorish-- handwashing at meals was an essential ceremony.
Christians commonly washed ceremonially before eating and after eating, and often between courses. Muslims also washed before eating. The requirement to wash before eating in Judaism is commemorated in the Passover question, "Why do we wash two times on this night, but on all other nights only once?" Handwashing is still part of the observant Jewish meal. Jewish handwashing before the meal is traditionally performed with a blessing, and immediately followed by the blessing over the bread; Muslim handwashing also has an appropriate prayer. Christian meals in period were concluded with a blessing/grace (rather than begun with one, as is now customary).
At the beginning of the meal, at least, the handwashing is mostly ceremonial-- books of manners from medieval times admonish diners to come to the table with clean hands and no dirt under their fingernails: "Loke thyne hondis be wasshe clene, That no fylthe on thy nayles be sene," says Little Children's Little Book , circa 1480. Obviously, since diners ate parts of the meal with their hands and might share their trenchers with others, cleanliness was very important. (Muslims went further, designating the right hand for 'clean' activities and the left for not-clean ones.)
I have not found much information about Muslim or Jewish handwashing ceremony in period, but Christian ceremony is fully documented.
De Nola, 1529, gives a description
of how to do handwashing:
"On the Mode and Manner in Which One Must Offer Water for Washing the Hands:
The servitor must give the hand-washing to his lord in this manner. Put a pitcher full of water upon a font or a large silver platter, and some very well folded towels upon the said pitcher which extend to the edges or brim of the font. And the steward goes before with a towel on his shoulder. Arriving in front of the lord's table, and making his reverence, the steward takes the towel which is upon the font, and spreads it upon the table in front of the lord, and sets the font from above upon the towels, and with the font from below, where the water comes, he gives hand-washing to his lord. And when he has washed, he then lifts the fonts, putting one upon the other, and the steward spreads upon the lord's hands the towel which hangs from his shoulder, and removes the others which were spread upon the table for the fonts.
And similarly the cupbearer can give the hand-washing, holding up a font or a wide-brimmed plate in his right hand, and the towel over the edge of the font or plate and upon the right shoulder, and the pitcher of water in the left hand. And the steward and the cupbearer, arriving at the table and making their reverences, do as is said above; this is understood to be for persons who are not of very high rank."
In practical terms, this means that our servers will visit your tables and ask you if you wish to have your hands washed. A bowl will be held out; you will place your hands over the bowl, and the server will pour water over your hands. You will then be offered a towel to dry your hands with.
Our servers are wearing 'towels' draped over their shoulders as is considered customary for servers in most books of manners. However, individual 'towels' will be offered to participants in this feast to alleviate modern concerns about germs.
In some cases, in period, handwashing was performed with perfumed waters, scented with herbal infusions, essential oils, hydrosols from distillation (such as rose or orangeflower water), or whole botanicals. If perfumed water is being used, your server will tell you.
More information about ceremonial handwashing is available online: