Studies of cookery in the Middle Ages, whether scholarly or popular, have focused on the production and procurement of ingredients, the preparation and presentation of dishes, and the organization and conventions of meals. The Medieval Cook examines these same topics from the perspective of the different women and men in the kitchen--peasant housewives, street stall vendors, hired caterers and master chefs. The result is an accessible overview of medieval culinary practice that will entertain and inform the general public.
Chapter 1, "The Cook in Context," offers an impressionistic survey of positive and negative attitudes towards cooks and their craft, culled from a rich variety of sources including Latin exercise books, royal account books, biblical commentary, Arthurian romance, plays, and children's games, supported with careful secondary research. The next two chapters, "The Cottage Cook" and "Fast Food and Fine Catering," present different types of amateur and professional cooks, the tasks they performed, materials they used, and challenges they encountered. Chapters 4 and 5 explore the diverse expectations and economic realities cooks addressed, whether preparing meals for the immediate household in "The Comforts of Home," or entertaining guests on a lavish scale in "The Staging of a Feast." Throughout these chapters Henisch continues to draw from an assortment of historical, literary, and scholarly documents to illustrate her vignettes. The final chapter, "On the Edge: the Cook in Art," canvasses visual representations of cooks and their tools uncovered in the margins of manuscripts, woodcuts, and sculpture. Notes are followed by a Select Bibliography, Selection of Medieval Recipes, Suggestions for Further Reading, and an Index.
Each chapter is divided into many short sections, one to seven pages in length, the majority under four pages. These units, covering such varied topics as "Hospitality," "Cook and Physician," "Methods and Equipment," "Eggs," "Street Snacks," "Pie Makers," "Provisioning," "Crisis Control," "Economy and Discipline," and "Hell's Kitchen," offer the reader savory tidbits and easy entry into the world of the medieval kitchen. Chapter titles, however, do not give adequate clues to the content, and readers looking for a discussion of a particular topic will regret that the table of contents does not outline these section titles. While an adept user of the Index can navigate the material, that task would have been greatly facilitated by a list. Of course, these decisions are often based on a press's editorial practice, and it is probably unfair to expect such detail in a volume not intended as a reference work.
Henisch's focus on the cook as both historical person and fictional character allows her to paint engaging, anecdote-rich sketches appropriate for a book aimed at a general audience. However, this organizational choice does occasion a certain amount of duplication since in each different context--that of the home cook, the professional cook, the family meal, the feast--many of the same topics are by necessity revisited. In some cases, identical textual examples and citations are fully repeated. For example, a reference to Gawain's bleak mood when denied the pleasure of good food, including the direct quote "ther he fonde noght hym byfore the fare that he lyked," is used on p. 3 to illustrate the connection between food and mood, and then the same the reference and quote reappear on p. 107 to make a similar point. In a volume this short (200 pages of text, plus back matter), the editor should have identified and eliminated such reiterations, especially when the argument could have been supported by a fresh quotation selected from a new source.
Another drawback to the book's structure is that the rapid movement between brief chapter sections leaves little room for analysis, and as a result there is no overarching argument to the volume. To be fair, the author's stated aim is more descriptive than analytic: "to consider medieval cooks in the context of time and circumstance, to show how they were presented in the art and commentary of the period, how they functioned, and how they coped with the limitations and expectations which faced them in different social settings" (ix). While an extensive amount of textual evidence is presented to that effect, the author seems to take those sources at face value, when a more critical reading might reveal a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the context. For example, following the description of a young woman kneading dough "for her playser and disporte" presented as a rare "glimpse of the lady of the house at work," Henisch simply concludes: "She was really enjoying herself" (111-112). This quick judgment ignores the fact that the scene is gleaned from a moral tale juxtaposing a good niece, rewarded for her affectionateness, with a bad niece, punished for her vanity. Given the context, which would value moral truth over realism, the attentive reader would expect the good girl to embody societal notions of female goodness. The pleasure the character finds in domestic tasks might therefore reveal much about her society's expectations and values, but whether that means real women found true delight in what can be back-straining work remains open to debate. This anecdote is followed immediately by a section entitled "The Balancing Act," in which comments on the "grim picture of the domestic misery for a husband cursed with a feckless wife" (113) again beg the question of what grim reality the housewife may have faced.
The comprehensive endnotes (531 for 200 pages of text) suggest that the volume is intended for an academic as well as popular audience. Scholars, however, will find little new material in The Medieval Cook, which recycles a large number of textual and visual references from the author's 1976 book, Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. The passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight mentioned above, for example, had already appeared in Fast (71). Of the nineteen illustrations included in The Medieval Cook, six are repeats from Fast and several others were also discussed, although not reproduced, there. Not only is a substantial amount of material found already in the author's earlier work, but it was often presented that first time in a fuller context that provides more satisfying insight. Unfortunately, the student or scholar cannot easily turn to that more developed exploration since in the numerous instances of reused exempla that I detected, not once did the endnotes indicate that the passage had been cited previously. While the lack of cross-referencing will not disturb the general reader--in fact, such heavy notations would have been off-putting to many--it does diminish the volume's utility to the academic community.
Henisch's own conclusion offers a fitting summary of The Medieval Cook's strengths and weaknesses: "With patience and close attention, it is possible to form a vivid, if not entirely coherent, impression of their craft, a patchwork pieced together from bright scraps and stray sightings" (202). While specialists will regret the lack of a coherent argument, the general audience will be seduced by the lively medley of cooks and kitchens the book presents.