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16.10.08, Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England, 1200-1500

16.10.08, Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England, 1200-1500

No longer a neglected field, the study of medieval food has flourished recently. At one time it was the dearth of food, outright famines or food-supply problems that occupied the attention of historians, but taste preferences, the food styles of the Middle Ages and the development of cookbooks are now being investigated as part of an expansion of interest in material culture and in food history generally. Scholars such as Massimo Montanari, Bruno Laurioux and Trude Ehlers have enriched our knowledge of the international and regional fashions and practices in medieval cuisine while the basic standards of living have been explored by Pere Benito for Catalonia or Christopher Dyer for England. A virtue of this new and wide-ranging book by C. M. Woolgar is its treatment of both the effort and business of obtaining food and the manner of cooking and serving it. Food shortages and the difficulties of weather, war and low crop yields are considered, but so are banquets and less extravagant manifestations of festive aesthetics and appreciation. Medical literature and advice is included as are the flexible interpretations of monastic dietary regimens, but the emphasis here is on the gustatory experience of ordinary people, ordinary people with enough prosperity to have some choice in what they consumed, to be sure, but not necessarily nobles.

Woolgar does not rely exclusively on court cookbooks, accounts of great feasts or other evocations of princely entertainments. Those celebrated events, however, influenced the tastes of the other classes, down to the merely modestly well-off. Woolgar emphasizes that while certain effects such sculpted entremets such as edible castles or giant pies, or peacocks cooked and sewn back into their skin and feathers were beyond the reach of all but a tiny elite, aristocratic tastes for highly-spiced food and wine or consumption of game or lampreys were adopted by their social inferiors. Cloves and nutmeg might be prohibitively expensive, but cinnamon was widely used and pepper became so common by the mid-fifteenth century as to be associated pejoratively with the higher peasantry.

Limited to England, the book does not provide a wide-angle view of medieval cuisine as a whole, nor does it concern itself much with regional differences. It is, however, a thorough and fascinating study in depth, imaginatively using sources especially archaeology, household accounts and coroners' records. In an earlier book, The Great Household, Woolgar looked at the aristocratic way of life, including dining, on the basis of the physical remnants of grand houses and castles as well as the records of purchases for these households. Here particular use is made of the records left by officers in charge of supplying the kitchens of ecclesiastical as well as noble houses, showing the organization of large-scale buying a few times a year, more frequent opportunities afforded by regional fairs (especially for luxuries such as dried fruit or spices), and the everyday supplements from markets and urban retailers. Such purchases were in addition to basic commodities such as wheat, malt or meat supplied by dependent tenants or storage centers set up to supply itinerant courts.

New here is the use of evidence of unnatural death to reconstruct what snacks people were munching on or what food-seeking activities they were engaged in just before they accidentally drowned, fell or were burned or scalded to death. The coroners' inquiries provide snapshots of daily life, serene but retrospectively grisly prologues to tragedy. Children and the elderly fell into wells and ditches intending to get a drink of water (43), the consumption of water being more common than historians usually believe. Hot water was also hazardous and we can see brewing and boiling of vegetables in large cauldrons going on through the accounts of unfortunate mishaps (35-36). The results of drunkenness, hunting accidents and falling out of orchard trees are common food-related incidents immortalized by coroners' rolls.

Food has always served as a marker of social distinction, not just dividing those who have more than enough to eat from those who are hungry, but also within the category of the affluent, those who occupy various stages of privilege. Divisions within the comfortable classes were codified less by formal sumptuary laws than by arrangements for banquets whose various tables featured different numbers and types of dishes depending on the social quality of those invited. The exhaustive details of carving and ceremonial are presented here as evidence for a food culture that was regulated, formal but at the same time convivial. In common with the Victorian banquet. the medieval feast featured an intimidating display of precious metal, elaborate décor, fancy dress and remarkable and copious food—but it was organized in an entirely different fashion. Tables were movable and rooms were used for various purposes other than simply dining. Musical and theatrical entertainment was more important than in the nineteenth century. Woolgar is particularly innovative in describing the culinary festivities of regional guilds, particularly in Stratford-on-Avon, whose feasts were ample, immense even, but not as refined or exotic in terms of the actual food served as at those arranged for the aristocracy.

Woolgar mentions aspects of dining that the reader will very likely have wondered about without ever knowing quite the answer: how much meat was consumed in monasteries and with what justification for straying from the Benedictine Rule's austerity; where dining took place (meat-eating was often kept separate in monastic communities), how much in the way of vegetables, fruit, cheese (all considered beneath the notice of court cooks and chroniclers) were consumed by the affluent and in what forms, when spices first became de rigueur (after the 1270s), or the introduction of beer with hops as opposed to the domination of ale.

Woolgar shows diners having a good time together. Food was an important form of social distinction and entertainment. Medieval ceremoniousness in comparison with modern habits is part of an overall regime of commensality. Although not in every respect enviable, the medieval centuries constitute a world in which all chickens were free range, people knew where their food came from, and the company at the table was exempt from some of the distractions that today interfere with our pleasure in dining.