The Medieval Review 00.02.15

Laszlovsky, Jozsef, ed. Tender Meat Under the Saddle: Customs of Eating, Drinking and Hospitality among Conquering Hungarians and Nomadic Peoples. Medium Aevum Quotidianum, Sonderband VII. Wein: Krems, 1998. Pp. iv, 178. ISBN: 3-901-09410-5.

Reviewed by:

Nora Berend
Goldsmiths College

The volume contains seven articles that have been given as papers at a conference organized by the College of Commerce, Catering and Tourism, the Society of Old Hungarian Culture and the Department of Medieval and Postmedieval Archaeology, Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest, Hungary. The articles have been translated into English by Alice M. Choyke and Laszlo Bartosiewicz. The book deals with various aspects of the eating habits of pastoral nomads of the Hungarian migration period (that culminated in the Hungarian conquest in the late ninth century) and the Middle Ages. Its emphasis is on what one can learn from archaeological remains.

Istvan Fodor ("The Culture of Conquering Hungarians") provides a historiographical background concerning the debates about the Finno-Ugric and/or Turkic origins of the Hungarians, as well as a brief (and often hypothetical) history of the Hungarian migrations. He tends to excuse scholarly biases and errors as long as they were born of Hungarian nationalism (called patriotism by Fodor). To give one example: Zoltan Gombocz, who advocated the reality of early contacts between Huns and Hungarians, is praised despite the fact that he got it all wrong. "This outstanding scholar devoted himself to rehabilitating the historical and national self-confidence of Hungarians who had been politically humiliated in those years [1920s]." One can find several cautionary tales of scholars blinded by nationalism in this account.

Jozsef Laszlovszky's article ("Research Possibilities into the History and Material Culture of Eating, Drinking, and Hospitality during the Period of Hungarian Conquest") is an enjoyable introduction to research concerning customs of food consumption. Drawing on late-medieval sources and a wide array of modern literature, he enumerates the possible sources and research methods concerning eating, drinking and hospitality. He concludes that barely any of the methods and sources outlined in this way are relevant to the issue during the period of the Hungarian conquest, because of a lack of sources. Gabor Vekony ("Feasting and Hospitality among Eastern Nomadic Peoples") analyzes the occasions and ritual of nomadic feasts, drawing on written sources as well as modern analogies. He thus collected material from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, but he rarely focuses on the possible chronological and geographical differences. Neither does he consider the motivations of the authors of those texts that he uses. Peter Tomka ("Customs of Eating and Hospitality among Nomadic Peoples of the Migration Period") discusses the written sources and archaeological finds concerning the food-habits of nomads during the migration period. As there are insufficient sources, he also uses texts describing the customs of eating and hospitality among the Mongols, and provides over three pages of quotations from The Secret History of the Mongols on this topic. As he himself acknowledges, these texts refer to a later period and we cannot assume that nomads during the period of the Hungarian conquest followed the same customs.

Miklos Takacs ("How Did Conquering Hungarians Prepare and Serve their Food?") analyzes archaeological finds and provides a detailed discussion of the pottery types associated with the Hungarians during the conquest period. He draws conclusions about the use of these vessels, proving that Hungarians cooked their food in a variety of ways. Ferenc Gyulai ("Archaeobotanical Sources in Investigating the Diet of Conquering Hungarians") discusses both wild and cultivated plants; Hungarians cultivated a broad range of cereals, and collected wild fruit. However, he addresses not simply the eating-habits of nomads, but also of the sedentary population of the Carpathian Basin, from the Neolithic to the sixteenth century. Much of the material thus falls outside the declared scope of this book. Laszlo Bartosiewicz ("Mobile Pastoralism and Meat Consumption: an Archaeozoological Perspective") completes the volume with a discussion of meat consumption by nomads. It is the best article in the book. Relying on the results from various types of sources, the author analyzes the relations between hunting and animal keeping, the value of animals for nomads, the changes in the types of animals kept, the significance of horses in nomadic society, and ways of cutting up carcasses and preparing food. Bartosiewicz combines the thorough description of various practices with a careful interpretation of their significance.

The title of the volume refers to a quotation from Ammianus Marcellinus, who claimed that the Huns "eat meat from all sorts of animals, which they place on their horse's back under their thighs thereby making it tender and warm." It is still an open question whether the nomads kept dried meat under the saddle as food, or used meat to cure sores on the horses' backs, or whether we are just dealing with a myth. The authors do concur that the source-material (both written and archaeological) on the eating habits of nomads is scarce. A lack of sources is of course no fault of the scholars themselves. Nonetheless, the problem could have been circumvented in two ways. One, by broadening the focus of the book to include other nomadic social customs as well, and two, by incorporating articles on more recent and better-documented periods. Neither approach was adopted, and as a result, almost every author apologizes about the scarcity of sources, repeats some of the same information, and includes material that is not directly related to the topic as it is set out by the title of the volume. At the same time, the analysis of much of the material remains inadequate. Little consideration is given to the aims of medieval authors who wrote about nomadic hospitality, there is almost no analysis of the topoi that were used and of the contexts in which the texts were written. The articles are much stronger on the evaluation of archaeological remains. Even so, many questions remain. What was specifically nomad about these customs? How did they differ from the habits of medieval European aristocracies, for example? One would like to learn more about the symbolism of the feasts as well as about their place and function in the structure of nomad societies.

Copyright (c) 2000 Nora Berend

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