Where does one begin to review a book that is so rich in information that it should be required reading for anybody working in the history of food? Stefan Weiss' in-depth study of the food supply at the papal court in Avignon is the revised version of his inaugural dissertation (Habilitation) accepted at the University of Augsburg in 2000. By focussing on the biggest and most important court in Europe, this monumental work of 725 pages fills a void in the historical scholarship of medieval courtly society.
Given that the shared meal is the most basic form of socialization, and that in every mass Christians recreate the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples, it is all the more surprising that food has never been used before as the vantage point for a large-scale study of the social and economic history of the papal court. The time frame chosen by the author is the period between 1316 and 1378, the former being the year Pope John XXII chose Avignon as the permanent seat for the curia, and the latter the year Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome; all in all it covers six pontificates. To account for the changing historical realities brought on by such calamities as the plague, and the Hundred Years' War, and to do justice to the individuality of each of the six popes, Weiss tries as much as possible to discuss the material within each chapter chronologically by pontificate. By mining his sources for information on the purchase, donation, transport, preparation, distribution, and consumption of food, he is able to show the structure and inner workings of the papal court, the role food played in cementing the social and political status of individuals, the pope's relationship with his cardinals, his relatives, and rulers from across Europe, and the economic impact the curia had on Avignon and the surrounding area.
Following a general introduction (Chapter 1), Weiss begins his investigation with a discussion of his source material (Chapter 2). His data are based on the Avignon records of the apostolic chamber that are now housed in the Vatican Archives. The records allow him to reconstruct the intricate bookkeeping technique of the six popes, whose financial administration spanned much of medieval Europe from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic to Poland. Even for non-experts in accounting, medieval or modern, this is a fascinating read. Pieces of paper and simple logs were compiled into more and more comprehensive ledgers, a process that reveals a hierarchical and highly systematic bookkeeping for which the correct transfer of entries was essential. To Weiss, the apostolic chamber with its limited personnel and low technology compares well with any modern tax office. From a brief description of Avignon's place in the financial administration of Provence the author then moves on to a discussion of the different currencies, weights, and measures used in the records.
In Chapter 3 Weiss provides an overview of the chamber and court offices that existed prior to Pope John XXII's decision to take up residence in Avignon. Using the court regulations of Pope Clement V as his source, he identifies the offices that were directly involved in the procurement, payment and handling of food. Of particular interest to food historians will be the sections on the structure and responsibilities of the papal kitchen, the wine, bread, and alms office. When the papacy settled in Avignon, the effects on the local population were both positive and negative, as Weiss illustrates at the end of the chapter. The influx of such a large group of wealthy consumers created opportunities, but it also led to price hikes, a housing shortage, and put stress on the municipal infrastructure that was not offset by additional revenue since the pope and his entourage were exempt from city taxes and tolls. Because Avignon was the main, but by no means the only, residence during the six pontificates, the author concludes this chapter with a look at the minor papal residences and estates, among them Sorgues, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Noves, and Villeneuve.
In Chapter 4 the author shifts from normative sources to the actual organization of the food supply based on his records. While they give a detailed picture, they do not allow the reconstruction of the curia's total food consumption, as Weiss concedes (131). Some foodstuffs, for instance, were received as presents or came from episcopal estates, and therefore do not appear in the sources in which extraordinary purchases, usually bulk purchases of durable goods, were better documented than ordinary ones made locally. In addition, the quality and completeness of the bookkeeping is higher in the beginning than the end of the Avignon papacy. The food that was bought is listed under the three categories "miscellaneous," "meat," and "fish." Those readers who assume that "miscellaneous" here means fruit and vegetables had better think again. On page 128 Weiss explains that the term referred to small animals such as chickens, hens, partridges, pigeons, rabbits, capons, bacon, ingredients for soups, oil, eggs, cheese, salt, expenses for the transport of firewood, and for washing tablecloths. The category "meat" referred only to big animals, i.e. oxen, calves, pigs, and sheep. This taxonomy underlines the central role of meat in the diet of the curia in Avignon.
In his discussion of the tasks, personnel, and location of court offices under Pope John XXII and the minor reorganizations that occurred under subsequent popes, Weiss naturally focuses on the kitchen, bread, and wine office, but other offices, such as the wax office and apothecary, hunters, water and wood office, the keeper of silverware, hall master, and alms office are also mentioned. The responsibility for the purchase of spices shared by the kitchen and apothecary illustrates their dual nature as seasoning and medicine. Aside from the procurement of food, Weiss addresses the questions: Who did the court offices supply? How were they staffed? Where in or outside the palace were these offices located? and who did the papal kitchen supply? The relatively small number of ca. 100 persons entitled to get food from the Pope's kitchen he explains with the existence of a number of separate (sub-)households in and outside the palace by high-ranking officials such as chamberlains, treasurers, and cardinals.
For food historians, chapters 5 and 6, which deal with food on regular days and special occasions, are the heart of Weiss' study. From annual expenses for foodstuffs under the different popes, the quantities and types of food eaten on lean and meat days, the author moves on to the technical equipment in the kitchen. In his sources he finds mention of a trapa which he interprets as a cake-tin or mold of some kind. In fact, it is a type of portable oven typical of the south of France in which pies and "tourtes" were baked, as Carole Lambert has shown (Adamson, ed., Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe, 73). Also typical of the south is agresta, Provencal for verjus, a popular ingredient in soups and sauces prepared or bought in bulk by the papal kitchen. To answer the question "What was eaten at court?", Weiss compares the information in his sources with a handful of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century cookbooks from France and Italy, and finds parallels in the types of dishes and the order in which they were served. Unfortunately he did not consult the only Provencal cookbook that has come down to us, the Modus viaticorum preparandorum et salsarum. It consists of 51 recipes and dates from the last decades of the fourteenth century, and hence falls in the time frame of his study. The cookbook was edited by Carole Lambert as part of her 1989 dissertation. Chapter 5 concludes with a radical shift from luxury foods to the food of the poor as reflected in the records of the alms office.
In chapter 6, Weiss puts dining in the context of courtly life. He describes who dined with the pope and his cardinals on regular days and special occasions, and how high-ranking guests were treated upon arrival and at table. With the papal court being in essence a womanless court (with the exception of a washer woman under Pope Clement VI!), the wives of visiting dignitaries posed a problem since they were not allowed at banquets. In most other respects, however, these banquets seem not too dissimilar from their worldly counterparts with their multitude of luxurious dishes, special presentations, and entertainment. To characterize the relationship between the pope and his household, Weiss uses the term familia, normally applied by historians to the households of medieval rulers. Based on the vita communis rather than marriage, it is nevertheless a comparable network of persons bound by emotional, economic, and power relations, according to the author. In the section on court festivities he includes a list of weddings of the popes' relatives, male and female, and gives a detailed account of their costs, preparation, and the role of ladies and husbands. On page 297, in connection with the feasts of Clement VI, a pope known for his lavish lifestyle, Weiss mentions a salsa alliace whose meaning he was unable to establish. It is probably the aillade, a garlic sauce made with walnuts that is found in the Modus edited by Carole Lambert, and still popular in Languedoc.
In the following two chapters the author ventures beyond the palace gates, first to the bishopric of Avignon whose role in the food supply he explores (chapter 7), and eventually much further afield, as far away as the Atlantic Ocean, Switzerland, and southern Italy, in an attempt to show to what lengths the curia went in order to procure certain necessities and luxuries it was unable or unwilling to purchase locally (chapter 8). What he observes in the course of the six pontificates is a trend towards self-sufficiency which manifested itself, for instance, in an increasing reliance on the diocese of Avignon and neighboring dioceses for the supply of food, the raising of animals in the palace stables, and the establishment of fish-ponds, vegetable gardens, deer parks, game preserves, and the like in and around Avignon. As an economic enterprise the papal palace thus resembles a hybrid of castle, monastery, and farm whose surplus was used to acquire luxury goods for the enjoyment of the pope, his inner circle, and high-ranking guests. To ensure the highest quality and lowest price for these extraordinary purchases, the curia sent out its own buyers who were exempt from paying tolls, and often followed the traditional trade routes, especially those along the Rhone and Saone rivers, as Weiss shows in chapter 8. From the variety of goods mentioned in the records, he chooses grain, wine, meat, fish, firewood and coal, as well as spices and confections for his detailed analysis. Among the author's many fascinating findings in this chapter are the preference so as not to say addiction of the papal court to wine from Burgundy which tempts him to describe it as "a form of alcoholism" (436), the logistics of transporting live fish over great distances, the rapid rise of coal purchases in 1349/50 when, as is well known, Pope Clement VI had been advised by his physician, Guy de Chauliac, to sit between basins of burning coals as a prophylactic against the plague, and the importance of Montpellier for the trade in exotic spices and confections.
In chapter 9, Weiss gives some impressions and outlooks based on his study. He points out that luxury and waste, usually associated with the Avignon popes, were even more endemic in cardinals' households. The popes themselves display a considerable degree of individuality, with John XXII and Benedict XII being examples of frugality, while Clement VI and his nephew Gregory XI broke all records in conspicuous consumption. Guest lists from four pontificates, tables of the bulk purchases from all six pontificates, a bibliography, name and place index, and seven maps round out this amazing book.
Weiss' study is a tremendous resource for the ever increasing number of food historians coming from a variety of disciplines, and an enjoyable read for the general public interested in courtly life and food in the Middle Ages. In order to make it accessible to an international audience, which it fully deserves, I hope that the book will soon be translated into English or French. This would also be an opportunity to correct some of the minor flaws. The manuscript would have benefited from thorough proofreading since it contains a number of syntactical errors and misspellings. Also, some of the information discussed in several different contexts becomes a bit repetitive. And finally, the occasional factual errors and omissions when it comes to neighboring disciplines such as archaeology (trapa), history of medicine ([Diaetik] for [Diaetetik]), and cookbook research (omission of Modus) underline yet again the special position of food research at the cross-roads of a multitude of disciplines, and the need for scholarly collaboration.