Christopher Woolgar’s authoritative volume offers a wealth of engaging material on an important topic for our understanding of medieval society and its operation. Woolgar is well known for his research and writing on medieval diet and the functioning of the medieval household. His earlier work focused upon the great household with its inevitable emphasis upon the consumption of food and the management of the same. Important themes in that work re-emerge here. Woolgar presents a great variety of material in this volume, including engaging vignettes and well-chosen exempla, and there is interest and novelty on almost every page. The author sets out his agenda in an opening chapter on food culture which also affords him the opportunity to review the kinds of sources that permit investigation of this topic. These include material directed at food and its eating, such as recipe books and household accounts, but also a range of material from which incidental reference to consumption has to be drawn: for example, moralising texts and coroners’ rolls, the latter used frequently throughout the text to illustrate the contexts for consumption and food culture. Woolgar also devotes careful attention to the actual culture of eating, the ways in which the process of eating a meal and the distribution of foodstuffs allowed medieval men and women the opportunity to represent key facets of their society, piety and social order. Food and its presentation, as Woolgar makes clear in a variety of contexts, provided material for praise and complaint: discussions about food could express fairly fundamental views on entitlement and relative power, as when the Bishop of Salisbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and even, subsequently, Henry I were called in to officiate over the size of the Abingdon Abbey cheese ration. In addition, Woolgar makes clear the importance of the accoutrements of cooking and feeding, brewing and drinking, and so on, and uses manuscript illumination, contemporary records and some archaeological evidence to discuss the mechanics of food production and distribution at the table. The focus on culture has certain consequences in terms of range and direction of discussion. In the first instance, the evidence tends to point us towards high or higher status consumption; as Woolgar acknowledges, there is simply less that it is possible to say about the food culture of the bulk of the high and late medieval English population, including the majority of the peasantry and poorer urban dwellers. While Woolgar makes considerable and welcome efforts to shed light upon lower status consumption and offers some valuable insights (notably in chapters on food in the countryside and on hunger and poverty), his work in this area is inevitably contained by limited sources. He focuses more on certain topics, such as cooking utensils of the peasantry or organised support for the poor, than others—such as adjusted food choices during periods of hardship or palaeo-archaeological evidence for lower status consumption patterns. Secondly, the cultural approach inevitably reduces the role of more quantitative analysis of, for example, food consumption, the use and choice of food, and its availability and changes in the availability of certain foodstuffs over time. While Woolgar notes on more than one occasion that food types changed in relative significance across the period, the changing nature of medieval food, its range and its use are not always explored in detail. A fuller discussion of changing patterns of cereal consumption relative to meat—primary elements of medieval diets—as well as the varying affordability of basic foodstuffs in the Middle Ages might offer important contexts for attitudes to food and the fine detail regarding its consumption. These last points are not so much criticism as reflections upon the ways in which certain source types, upon which the historian of topics such as medieval food and eating must rely, point us in certain directions only. What Woolgar’s thoroughly engaging volume achieves is a rich panoply of detail on medieval food, arranged in a series of chapters which take us from rural food through monastic to urban and higher status eating. Some of the earlier chapters deal with drink and drinking, and the main food types central to the medieval diet, including discussion of bread, meat and dairy products, sauces and spices, gardens and wild foods, fish and game. In these chapters, we are taken often into certain areas which seldom feature in more general comment on medieval diet, as for instance in the largely intractable topic of wild foods, upon which Woolgar offers valuable comment. Subsequent chapters explore the particular social contexts of eating, be that a monastery, a guild feast, the table of a great lord, almshouse or hospital. As the author makes clear, what is striking about the medieval diet and food consumption is its general consistency of form; differences between social groups of course existed, in quantity, quality and accompaniments, and foods and drinks supplementary to the main dishes, rather than in any tendency for those of higher status to eat wholly differently from their lowlier neighbours. Over time there was adjustment but the core tenets of medieval cuisine tended to be maintained. The volume is well supported by a number of plates and a useful glossary. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Aug 1, 2018
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