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19.06.08 Hostetter, Political Appetites

19.06.08 Hostetter, Political Appetites

The great gastronome Brillat-Savarin and Karl Marx are the guiding lights of this enjoyable first book by Aaron Hostetter, a versatile scholar who asks how the preparation and consumption of food supports and reveals systems of political and economic power in medieval literature. Political Appetites samples the unique terroir of literature produced and consumed by people in Great Britain and reads the consumptive practices represented within as examples of political acts suffused with humanity. As he says, "the edible world is a vital referent for these narratives, an authorizing metaphor as well as a reflection of the social realm around them...scenes of cooking and consumption dramatize political and economic tensions in aristocratic culture, anxieties that expose the ideological roots of these elaborate literary productions of medieval England" (14). As Brillat-Savarin asserts, "La gastronomie régit la vie tout entière" (cited on 8) and Hostetter gamely shows us how true this is, however troubling its implications may be. Hostetter chooses texts that have been subject to rather specific interpretive focuses to this point--Andreas, a "generic hybrid that has always rested uneasily in the Anglo-Saxon canon" (35), La Roman de Silence, which serves as such a fascinating test case for hypotheses and questions about medieval conceptions of gender, nature and nurture, and Sir Gowther, which has been read with great success as a (rather wild) example of a penitential romance. By refocusing his analysis on scenes in which food is an important narrative mechanism in these texts (and a great means of revealing political status, power, and identity), the author makes it possible to re-see these poems in a new light--or rather, to taste them with a cleansed palate.

This is perhaps a book that could only have been written now, in this vexed stage of late capitalism, a time when anxiety about food and concerns about the culture and politics of food availability and food choice are central in the minds of people in many disciplines, and certainly outside the academy as well. In its exploration of the dynamics of power between those who choose their food, those who eat from need, and those who are destroyed and consumed by massive political systems, Hostetter's reading of the premodern world echoes our current and pressing preoccupations about food systems, ethics, and politics.

By offering a guided foodie tour through the genre of romance from its arguable beginnings in Anglo-Saxon poetry to the late Middle English productions, this book offers a long view of sorts of the types of preoccupations with food that occur and recur in texts enjoyed by English audiences. Hostetter unites Anglo-Saxon poetry, Old French romance, and Late Middle English romance under a shared umbrella of "romance" and this reader wonders at times whether such generic shoehorning of such disparate texts is necessary or useful--Andreas is, indeed, very different from Sir Gowther, removed in both time space and language, even though both share a preoccupation with uncouth acts of consumption, violence, and cannibalism. But that shared concern is much more concrete than either's uneasy position as an example of the romance genre, a genre which is admittedly a diffuse and difficult thing to identify.

After a lovely amuse-bouche orienting the reader to the questions raised by a food-oriented reading of medieval English romance, the first full course on the "menu of the day" (28) is "Cannibals at the edge of history," a study of the Anglo-Saxon poem Andreas, which is, according to Hostetter, an early "hagiographic romance" (34). He rereads the poem in a new light, freed from the "hoary methods of exegetical criticism" (34)--a tradition that has held strong for critics of this poem ever since it was inaugurated by Thomas D. Hill in 1969. Hostetter's reading of Andreas as an "avant-garde" poem (a kind of genre-oriented teleology that seems somewhat motivated by a desire to fit this outlier into the book's schema of romance, early to late) allows us to see the poem as part of a new tradition as much as it is a late one from the point of view of period. Hostetter uses the anthropological and historiographical concept of coevality coined by Johannes Fabien to prepare a nuanced reading of the Andreas-poet's troubled collapsing of multiple human histories in an uncomfortable coeval present (37). At the end of the poem, Andreas leaves his converted people, the Mermidonians, without a means of preparing food for themselves--Hostetter notes that this is ominous at best: "The Mermidonians have lost all the creature comforts of their own "fyrst-gemearces" (148) [count of time], and Andreas is unwilling to lead them in a new reckoning...their individual bodies, and cultural body, are left in a state of becoming, still hungry for the fulfillment of conversion (and maybe still hungry for people)" (61). This is an example of Hostetter's talent for close readings that yield big insights, and which makes this chapter--and the book as a whole--such a delight to consume. Nevertheless, the reading of Andreas gets stranded in some intertextual shoals for a few pages as the author tangles with the vexed question of the Andreas-poet's dialogue with Beowulf; in spite of some provocative insights, the chapter would have been better served by a closer focus on the instances of food consumption.

The second course, "Crossing categories," features the Roman de Silence, an Old French Arthurian poem that follows the crossdressing heroine on her journey from the margins of society as a raw youth to its very center as a fully cooked (so to speak) woman. Silence is a fascinating poem, and as Hostetter himself notes, it has been particularly attractive to queer/gender studies readings. Despite the best of intentions to strike out on a different path, the conversation in this chapter quickly circles back to the seductive questions of gender and identity raised by this strange poem. Of all the chapters in this book, this exploration of Silence seems at once overspiced and underdone--an unfortunate combination. The problem likely lies in the lack of many food-related episodes in the text--there are two very important ones (Natura's preparation of the dough of matter that results in human children and Merlin's uncovering a spicy pot that will reveal social inequity and chaos and serve to restore order to a disturbed kingdom). Both passages are worthy of study, and Hostetter does illuminate both, showing how cooking serves to illuminate a complex of factors--the interaction between nature and nurture, and the intricate process of shaping or kneading primary material that may or may not be given to such a process of "cooking"--but this reader found herself hungry for more, a little confused, and wishing for a little less circularity with regards to the central thesis, that cooking serves as an organizing metaphor for the process of acculturation.

"Food, Sovereignty, and Social Order," a study of Havelok, is in some ways the most representative example of the kinds of insightful readings a food-centered examination of this material can provide. The third course, therefore, to keep up the culinary analogy, is the most satisfying. As Hostetter notes, the romance Havelok the Dane "never stops watching" the body and appetites of the titular hero; Havelok's journey from orphan to king is marked by his consumption of food--his desire, nay need, to eat more than others marks him as a member of the ruling class, and the text and the characters within it are preoccupied with the burdens and joys of providing enough food for this sovereign body. The romance does not efface the labor and effort (the "endless process of work" [121]) required to produce food--rather it highlights labor and the continuum of food production from servility to conspicuous consumption. As Hostetter notes:

"Havelock's own harrowing existence as a starving laborer...reminds us that

those [other] workers are still starving and serving in order to bring food to

the tables of the powerful. The kitchen, the gastronomic machine that

transmutes subordinate food into sovereign life, still grinds and stamps and

strains, still extracts surplus-value out of expropriated commodities...

Havelock, though essentially a conservative text, has raised provocative

questions about sovereignty and sufficiency that trouble the

reestablishment of an ideal political system, calling attention to inequities

of appetite, labor, and deprivation that differentiate highest from lowest,

even as it yearns for a golden age of proportionality that preserves the best

features of that economic system (131)."

This is paradox-embracing, thoughtful criticism that illuminates the text of Havelok.

The fourth course on the table, a reading of the often unappetizing Sir Gowther, explores the paraliterary contexts of the burgeoning courtesy manuals of the late middle ages and connects their theories and edicts with the (bad) food behavior exhibited in the romance. By looking at courtesy texts and the use of food and behaviors around food as tests not only of humanity, but also of the scales and grades of power and prestige, "Table manners and Aristocratic Identity" gives us an insightful reading of what exactly is at stake in this poem. The work of this chapter builds on the ground prepared in the previous chapter, where we saw Havelok ascend the stages of sovereignty by degrees through changing use of foodstuffs. Hostetter connects the dots to Sir Gowther, showing how the monstrous Gowther's horrifying appetite caricatures the already outsized appetites of such heroes as Havelok: "in a precocious and horrifying version of the previous chapter's vision of sovereign consumption, he [Gowther] despoils and destroys what he eats" (149). Being human means knowing what and how to eat, and this romance makes that point very clearly. Gowther shows how "the violence inherent in human food practices, which slaughter and dismember animals, transform the environment, and create rigid distinctions between class-bound eaters, requires an absolute distinction between eater and eaten," and Gowther's early anthropophagic tendencies must be corrected (170). In this way the text is in intertextual conversation with not only penitential culture, but also courtesy manuals, which offer a concrete means of reaching an elevated state of humanity by following rules for eating and drinking. Courtesy manuals are worthy of further study, and this juxtaposition of Gowther and texts like "Urbanitatis" really does help expand the boundaries of this text and show how it was likely read by its earliest audiences.

Political Appetites ends with a call for more scholarship along similar lines, especially for important works like Piers Plowman, which, the author notes, has never had a book-length study devoted to the important contexts of food consumption within its narrative. In spite of a few quibbles--for example that while not all romance scholars may be talking about the intersection of food and politics that often, scholars working within subcategories of this discipline, such as outlaw studies, certainly have been for some time--this reader feels this study to be timely, and useful in its modelling of an engaged scholarly methodology that approaches textual food and eating thoughtfully, yielding important insights. Moreover, Hostetter clearly is having fun with this material and his delightful prose makes this volume a joy to read. This reader is convinced that insular romances are unique products of the terroir of the British Isles, and that they are "essential expressions of the tastes and needs of English literary culture" (10).