Food is a daily necessity, but also a social signifier that is firmly embedded within cultural artifacts. In The Culture of Food in England, C. M. Woolgar aims to demonstrate that medieval England was no exception and that food played a sophisticated role within the social and religious contexts. This book is not primarily about diet or the minutiae of recipes, or even the production and marketing of food. Instead, it focuses on the culture surrounding food—its preparation, service, and consumption—and its perceived meaning for social aspiration. The strength of the book undoubtedly lies in its breadth of sources. Extensive use is made of coroners’ rolls, household accounts, civic regulations, monastic customaries, wills, inventories, courtesy books, sermons, and proverbs in order to elicit cultural references. Woolgar is particularly keen to highlight how food entered the medieval literary imagination, reflecting the spices and sauces that were the epitome of medieval cooking. The first half of the book looks at the range of available foodstuffs, from the wild and humble to the exotic and expensive. Woolgar focuses on their places of consumption, the pervasive laws and conventions about them, and the cultural expectations regarding them. There are some tantalizing incidents from the coroners’ rolls, which provide a rare glimpse into ordinary life, if mostly into lives tinged with tragedy, such as those of people who fell into ovens, wells, or cauldrons of boiling liquid. The remainder of the book concentrates on institutional settings—guilds, monasteries, and aristocratic households. It is in these chapters where the material culture of tableware and cookery implements, whether Richard II’s gold hart-shaped salt vessel or the silver spoons of local chaplains, is explored in some depth. Woolgar is keen to span the social spectrum as much as possible, from the peasantry and their fears of hunger to the rituals and extravagance of the elite table. He draws upon his previous research to provide fulsome analysis of the patterns of behavior among great households, such as those concerning the servants and spaces involved in food preparation and distribution. The formal meals of the elite were rich, choreographed affairs, employing master cooks with international experience. A specific psalter image of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell “gives an unparalleled vignette of a secular meal in progress” resplendent with an array of rich food and cups (177). The material culture of cups, especially mazers, reflected their role in memory and gift-giving within elite settings. The evidence of monastic institutions offers similar insights, shaped by their long-lived and individual customs for feast days, commemoration, and daily meals. For example, at Abingdon Abbey, the cheese was to be divided in the larder, the monk who cut it was to have a crumb of cheese for every cut, and the refectioner could miss morning Mass to set it out. The rituals of service and the range of different monastic loaves at St. Augustine’s Abbey mirrored the status of the institution and the hierarchy within. The religious context for eating and drinking reverberates throughout the book, whether in emulation of the Mass, the significance of miracles involving food, or the importance of food alms. As Woolgar points out, “food and drink were routinely blessed and sacralised in many household and institutional contexts” (60). Such rituals were reminiscent to medieval minds of the Last Supper and Eucharist, and were a reminder of the implicit sacral importance attached to eating. The Christian calendar limited the consumption of certain foodstuffs, such as meat, while fish was elevated to the status of penitential fare during times of abstinence. Certain foods became associated with particular celebrations, such as lamb on Easter Day, ham or bacon on Collop Monday, or the apples blessed at the feast of St. James. Equally, different foods, or excessive consumption, had moral connotations, though Woolgar discusses the sin of gluttony less than might be expected. The communal aspect of eating and drinking is foremost in the chapter on civic feasting, where guild regulations allow us to see the dignity, community, and conviviality engendered by food and drink at various points in the urban calendar. The records of the guild of the Holy Trinity at Stratford-upon-Avon yield fascinating insights into their preparations, expenditure, and food for the main annual feast. It all appears to imitate (if more moderately) elite households through the use of solemn rituals, almsgiving, professional cooks, and the display of subtleties. Further down the social scale, the evidence is much scantier, and it is difficult to encapsulate fully the culinary experiences of peasants. Consequently, the chapter devoted to rural food largely explores the practicalities of acquisition and cooking, with particular attention paid to equipment and techniques. Nevertheless, one of Woolgar’s central arguments is that there were varied influences and cross-connections between elite and demotic cuisine, as well as the upper peasantry’s and urban burgesses’ attempts, even if not always successful, to emulate upper-class practices. The fact remains that we can only glimpse fragments regarding the meals of lower social groups and their levels of consumption of cheese, fruit, and wild foods. The role of women is also touched upon at numerous junctures, particularly in relation to the domestic setting, brewing, dairying, and gardening. Again the discussion is hampered by the nature of the sources, though Woolgar reminds us how much Judith Bennett gleaned about female brewers (Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300 to 1600 ). More generally, Woolgar considers change over the course of the late Middle Ages and argues that after the Black Death (1348–1349) there were greater aspirations concerning food and status, as well as different techniques and cookware. There were also altered attitudes toward food charity, with large-scale, indiscriminate feeding of the poor becoming rarer as elaborate rituals focused more on neighbors and parishioners. Through such insights, The Culture of Food provides a fascinating survey that crosses social strata and explores themes of ritual, aspiration, emulation, and necessity. From a rich menu of sources that whet the appetite, Woolgar reminds us that medieval food was not just about nutrition, but imbued with a variety of cultural ideas and sensory experiences. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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