Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
16.09.26, Montanari, trans. Brombert, Medieval Tastes

16.09.26, Montanari, trans. Brombert, Medieval Tastes

Few historians have done more to advance the field of food history in medieval Europe than Massimo Montanari. For almost forty years he has produced a continuous stream of books, articles, and essays on this crucially important aspect of premodern European history. This year the Leeds International Medieval Congress featured "Food, Feast, and Famine" as its thematic strand, and Montanari was one of the featured keynote speakers. When he published his first book on the subject in 1979 (L'Alimentazione contadina nell'alto medioevo), he was a pioneer in an area of study that was attracting very little attention from historians at the time. Today he deserves a significant amount of credit for having helped transform what once was an understudied and marginal topic into a major field of research. His most recent book under review here is actually a collection of essays organized around the subject of taste. As he states in the introduction, they are "pieces written for various occasions, principally during the past decade, but in some cases earlier" (6). His goal is to bring together "the material as well as the symbolic dimensions of food" (6). By so doing, he aims to "emphasize the dynamic of historical change and to understand the elements of difference beyond continuity" (6). Organized topically, this collection does not offer a straightforward, chronological history of food in the Middle Ages, but it does explore in very profound ways the interplay between continuity and change. In addition, it offers penetrating insights about the history of specific food groups like meats, pasta, cheese, and grains. There are a number of principal themes that tie these essays together into a coherent whole. He observes that the transformation of what nature bequeathed to medieval people (grain, grapes, as examples) into food (bread) and drink (wine) constituted in the Middle Ages a vital marker of culture and civilization. As such, food in the Middle Ages was like language: it was a means of communicating wealth, class, and power. It was a marker of identity, privilege, and social distinction. How it was prepared, served, and consumed communicated symbolically the cultural values and ideas of a constantly evolving society that was shaped by Greco-Roman, Christian, and Germanic traditions. A theme running through many of the essays is the tremendous influence of the Christian tradition, especially monasticism, on medieval food culture. In eighteen essays presented as chapters with clever titles, Montanari develops these themes in specific case studies.

There are several chapters that stand out as particularly worthy of attention. Chapter 2 ("Medieval Cookbooks") lays out basic information about the major sources for the study of medieval food, focusing on the two primary centers for the diffusion of medieval cooking texts in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries: the Angevin court in Naples and the Tuscan communes (particularly Siena). In "The Grammar of Food" (Chapter 3), Montanari argues that all societies have an "alimentary system" which "works, in fact, like a veritable code of communication, regulated by conventions analogous to those that give connotations and stability to verbal languages" (26). In the Middle Ages, for example, roasting was associated with elites, whereas boiling was linked to the lower orders. Poverty was connected to the consumption of pulmentum (a porridge that could contain grains, vegetables, meat), but the richer the family, the more there were separate dishes at the table. A theme that appears throughout the essays is the notion that the "lexicon" of food was based on the ancient assumption that good health (maintaining the balance of the four humors of the body) depended on creating in the selection and preparation of foods the proper combination of the four qualities (hot, cold, dry, moist) that compose those four humors. In Chapter 5 ("The Aroma of Civilization: Bread"), Montanari observes that bread not only defined for the ancient and medieval Mediterranean world the essence of civilization, but the process of its preparation also acquired in the writings of major Christian intellectuals (like Augustine) an important metaphorical meaning that signified the evolution of a Christian identity. The status of bread in the medieval diet grew rapidly in importance as a replacement for meat as more and more forests were cleared after the eleventh century. Medieval people held bread made from wheat in the highest regard, whereas they tended to associate darker bread made from inferior grains (barley, rye) with peasants and the poor. This chapter in particular is replete with noteworthy details. For example, apparently the Romans had no public ovens for the baking of bread until the second century BCE, and they learned how to make bread rise from the Egyptians. In Chapter 6 ("Hunger for Meat"), the author notes that whereas the Romans tended to denigrate the products of herding and hunting in favor of the Mediterranean triad (grain, oil, wine), Germanic cultural influences in the Early Middle Ages elevated meat to a high status, worthy of the nobility. It retained this level of prestige throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. Consequently, the monastic alimentary tradition embraced abstinence from meat as one of the most important manifestations of self-mortification and self-denial. The author develops this point further, along with many other observations about the role of abstinence in monastic food culture, in the chapter on "Monastic Cooking" (Chapter 14). In Chapter 6, Montanari points out how and why by the end of the Middle Ages bird meat became the preferred meat of the nobility. Just as birds "symbolized a 'high' position in the natural world, they were perfectly suited to represent the 'highness' of one who eats them" (71).

Several other chapters survey a number of other major food groups and topics, including fish, cheese, wine, the relationship between poor and rich food cultures, cutlery, and taste. In Chapter 7 ("The Ambiguous Position of Fish"), the reader learns that whereas meat was held in high regard, fish was initially associated with poverty, sacrifice, and penance. However, in monastic cuisine it eventually became a substitute for meat, and since it was difficult to find, preserve, and transport fish, it emerged eventually in the Middle Ages as a "luxury product" (75). Initially, medieval intellectuals identified cheese with fermentation, corruption, and decay (Chapter 8: "From Milk to Cheeses"). It was a poor person's food. However, over time, it experienced an image reversal as monasteries accepted it increasingly as a substitute for meat. Wine (Chapter 12: "The Civilization of Wine"), as Montanari deftly describes, had a very complicated history in the Middle Ages. Linked to the Mediterranean diet and to the legacy of Greco-Roman civilization, wine first went north with the Romans and then later spread throughout Europe with Christianity. Eventually, even in northern Europe it edged out beer in terms of prestige. Like bread, it was at the top of the food hierarchy and therefore accepted by church leaders as suitable for the Eucharist. In Chapter 13 ("Rich Food, Poor Food"), the author argues for a "continuous interchange" (150) between popular and elite food cultures. Humble food could be "ennobled" with spices, and in some cases elites embraced peasant specialties like agliata, a garlic sauce, and polenta. Regarding the history of cutlery, one of the most interesting chapters of the book is Chapter 17 ("The Fork and the Hands"). Montanari argues here that the fork probably appeared first in Italy in the later Middle Ages to make it easier to eat pasta. For most of the medieval period, however, Europeans relied on their hands (three fingers) and a spoon (for porridges, gruel, and so on). There were two turning points in the history of cutlery: the twelfth and thirteenth century (the emergence of the fork and the loss of being able to "feel" the food) and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (courses now presented in sequence, the introduction of flatware, and the ending of a medieval culture of portioning that emphasized hierarchical difference). The concluding chapter (Chapter 18: "The Taste of Knowledge") is certainly the most complicated and philosophical of the eighteen essays. Montanari argues here that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked a decisive transformation in the history of taste, dividing the modern from the medieval world. In the Middle Ages intellectuals argued that taste, based essentially on the eight flavors identified by Aristotle, was immutable and "the prime means of knowing the world" (207). In contrast, after the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there prevailed the notion that taste was cultivated and acquired (not immutable), dependent "on the ability (aided perhaps by instinct) to learn" (210). There followed, according to the author, a vigorous attempt on the part of elite thinkers to "deny knowledge to those not socially worthy" (210) so that they could not develop the kinds of taste associated with their social superiors. Montanari does not mention this, but "taste" in the seventeenth century therefore seems to have served the same function for the elite as "chivalry" did in the twelfth: in elite culture, it separated the aristocracy from everyone else.

Full of penetrating insights and profound knowledge, this is a book that only someone who has been working with this material for many decades could have written. Both the author and the translator are to be congratulated for the clarity and the quality of the text. A number of additional observations are worthy of mention. Readers will know from the Introduction that this is primarily a cultural and social history of food in the Middle Ages, so there is little here regarding economic or political history. Montanari's argument that we should think of food as we do language underscores his intellectual debt to postmodern theory, but he is also very careful to ground his analyses in social reality and to focus as historians do on the contrast between continuity and change. The author draws on his strengths as an early medieval historian, so there are also far fewer examples from after c. 1100 than before. Because this is a collection of texts written at different times on different occasions, some repetition is inevitable (for example, the monastic alimentary culture comes up several times in several chapters). Errors are however few: "fourth century" on page 49 should be "fourteenth century," and the assertion that olive oil was not exported to the north in the Middle Ages (94) seems contradicted by evidence presented on the following page (95). The essays must have originated in unpublished lectures or talks, as there is no information in the book about whether or not they were previously published. Montanari clearly does not intend this book to serve as a comprehensive overview of the history of food in the Middle Ages. However, it does seem odd (especially in the passages devoted to the monastic diet) that the text has not apparently taken into account Caroline Bynum's work on food and female spirituality. Finally, some of the terminology used may raise some eyebrows. Chapter 13 classifies types of food according to class and argues that there was more co-mingling than division, but this historian wonders if a more useful (or additional) conceptual framework of analysis is "rural" and "urban." In addition, the use of the word "system" to describe alimentary culture (26, 40) seems overly mechanical, as the evidence presented here portrays the evolution of a food culture that was anything other than "systematic." In summary, this is a marvelous book, written by the major specialist in the field. Medievalists in all fields will find much benefit from it.