Friday, July 25, 2014

Later water myths: early America

One would think that as the modern era approached, claims that people drank alcohol to avoid bad water would fall away. But in fact the same claim that is made about the medieval period can be found for colonial America and even for the nineteenth century. Why? One reason might, very speculatively, be a general sense that the past, however distant or near, was, in a general, indefinable way, dirty. And so, by extension, the water must have been too. As has already been seen for the Middle Ages, this is a dubious assumption. But it is a persistent one and perhaps all the more persistent for being unexamined.

In discussing this issue, it is always important to emphasize two points. One is that knowing that people drank a great deal of alcohol tells us nothing about why they did so, anymore than knowing that today's drinkers drink sodas, caffeine drinks, etc. tells us in itself why so many prefer these to water. This is especially important for early America because there is indeed evidence that many Americans drank alcoholic drinks to a noticeable extent. The other is that saying that bad water existed does not in the least suggest that all water was bad. While there are somewhat less mentions of bad water in early American accounts than one might expect, it was certainly a problem in some times or areas. But there are also ample mentions of water that was at the least acceptable to those who drank it and in many cases good, even excellent.

Otherwise, it does not help that, for the colonial period at least, two authors have done their best to suggest that early Americans distrusted water.

Dubious pleadings

More than one person on line, in trying to show that early Americans thought their water unsafe, cites Sharon Salinger and/or W. J. Rorabaugh. Salinger for instance writes: "Alcoholic beverages appealed in part because water was considered an unsafe beverage; it was popularly believed that drinking water endangered one's health." Rorabaugh: “many people believed water unfit for human consumption."

Note that both these writers are writing, principally, not about water, but about alcohol: Taverns and Drinking in Early America (Salinger) and The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (Rorabaugh). To one with a hammer, everything is a nail.

The hitch is that both selectively cite evidence to defend the idea that colonial drinkers avoided water.

Salinger, for instance, writes: “Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony enumerated the enemies to health and the causes of disease as 'chaing of aeir, famine, or unholsome foode, much drinking of water'..." Which is perfectly accurate. But Bradford also wrote of new arrivals in New England: "at length they found water and refreshed them selves, being the first New England water they drunke of, and was now in thir great thirste as pleasante unto them as wine had been in for-times." In addressing reservations some had about coming to America, he cited the claim that "the water is not wholsome.” and wrote: “if they mean, not so wholsome as the good beere and wine in London (which they so dearly love), we will not dispute with them; but els, for water, it is as good as any in the world, (for ought we know), and it is wholesome enough to us that can be contente therwith." This certainly shows that the English preferred to drink alcoholic drinks (many still do), but it also shows they could be content with water, so long as it was wholesome (which Bradford positively stated it was).

She also writes: “Colonists regarded water as 'lowly and common,' a drink better suited to barnyard animals than humans. As a result, colonists avoided water as much as possible.” (Her statement is also quoted in the Encyclopedia of American History: Colonization and Settlement, 1608 to 1760, Revised Edition, vol. II.) The phrase is a surprising one, given that America then was not an aristocratic society and certainly not overall a snobbish one. Who then pronounced the water “lowly and common”?

As it turns out, Rorabaugh. This is not a period quote at all; it is a quote from another secondary source. And in fact it is hard to detect any such attitude in the various period diaries and traveler's journals which mention water. If water was less desirable than various flavored drinks (as, for many people, it still is today), it was not viewed as any sort of social marker.

As evidence for the unpopularity of water, Rorabaugh cites a quip from Benjamin Franklin: "Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it, if God had intended man to drink water, He would not have made him with an elbow capable of raising wine glass." But he omits Franklin's more matter-of-fact reference to “my light repast (which was often no more than a biscuit, or a slice of bread, an handful of raisins, or a tart from the pastry cook's, and a glass of water)" or his mention of how he "went for a draught of the river water" (in Philadelphia). Franklin also famously tells how, as a journeyman in London, he drank water, so much that his fellow workers, who mainly drank beer, called him “the Water-American”.

Franklin is a strange example indeed to give of someone who avoided water; he may even have favored the drink. What is more, in a codicil to his will, he showed great concern for the water of Philadelphia:
The water of the wells must gradually grow worse, and in time be unfit for use, as I find has happened in all old cities, I recommend that at the end of the first hundred years, if not done before, the corporation of the city employ a part of the hundred thousand pounds in bringing by pipes the water of Wissahickon Creek into the town, so as to supply the inhabitants, which I apprehend may be done without great difficulty, the level of that creek being much above that of the city, and may be made higher by a dam;
Both Salinger and Rorabaugh demonstrate, accurately, that early Americans drank a great deal of alcohol. What they fail to do is demonstrate that they did so to avoid drinking water.

Colonial water drinking

In his Commonplace Book, William Byrd II (1674–1744) says: “Eat of nor more than one thing at a time, and let your drink be only water, or at best but wine and water." While visiting Virginia mines in 1733, he found his hosts short on food or “good drink”, “the Family being reduc'd to the last Bottle of Wine, which was therefore husbanded very carefully. But the Water was excellent.”

Clearly, Byrd, a rich plantation owner, appreciated water. Yet ironically he too is sometimes cited as proof that people found alcohol safer than water, based on his account of a visit where he had nothing to drink but water:
In the morning colonel Bolling, who had been surveying in the neighbourhood, and Mr. Walker, who dwelt not far off, came to visit us; and the last of these worthy gentlemen, fearing that our drinking so much water might incline us to pleurisies, brought us a kind supply both of wine and cider.
Note first of all that Walker was not concerned that the water itself be diseased, only that Byrd had drunk too much of it. Why? Because he was afraid this would lead to “water on the lungs”, or pleurisy. This was a question of excess, not contamination.

But further, how did Byrd himself feel about his drink? He writes “it proved but a Mahometan feast, there being nothing to drink but water...” That is, he considered it a limited choice (despite his advice elsewhere). But he expresses not the least anxiety about drinking it. Nor, for all his wealth, does he even hint that it is “lowly and common”.

The Swedish-Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm (1716 – 1779) came to America in 1747 and remarked on the water in several spots. In Albany, he says, “They commonly drink very small beer, or pure water.” But he himself found this “pure water” off-putting, and even unhealthy. This illustrates the important point that even when water was less than optimal, people would sometimes become accustomed to it.
The water of several wells in this town was very cool about this time; but had a kind of acid taste, which was not very agreeable. On a nearer examination, I found an abundance of little insects in it, which were probably Monoculi. ... I poured some of this water into a bowl, and put near a fourth part of rum to it. The Monoculi, instead of being affected with it, swam about as briskly as they had done in the water. This shews, that if one makes punch with this water, it must be very strong to kill the Monoculi. I think this water is not very wholesome for people who are not used to it, though the inhabitants of Albany, who drink it every day, say, they do not feel the least inconvenience from it. I have been several times obliged to drink water here, in which I have plainly seen Monoculi swimming; but I generally felt the next day somewhat like a pea in my throat, or as if I had a swelling there; and this continued for above a week... I have always endeavoured, as much as possible, to do without such water as had Monoculi in it. I have found Monoculi in very cold water, taken from the deepest wells, in different parts of this country. Perhaps many of our diseases arise from waters of this kind, which we do not sufficiently examine. I have frequently observed abundance of minute insects in water, which has been remarkable for its clearness.
Note too that he did not find alcohol of much use in correcting what he (but not the locals) regarded as a defect.

In New Jersey, he found people happy to drink from a swamp:
All the inhabitants here were of opinion, that the water in the cedar swamps is wholesomer than any other drink: it created a great appetite, which they endeavoured to prove by several examples. They ascribed this quality to the water itself, which is filled with the resin of the trees, and to the exhalations which came from the trees, and can easily be smelled. The people likewise thought that the yellowish colour of the water, which stands between the cedar trees, was owing to the resin, which comes out of the roots of these trees. They likewise all agreed, that this water is always very cold in the hottest season, which may be partly owing to the continual shade it is in. I knew several people who were resolved to go to these cedar swamps, and use the waters for the recovery of their appetite.
In describing an evangelical trip in 1766, Reverend Charles Woodmason says he “drank not but water”. He presents this as a hardship, but certainly not as a health risk.

Philip Vickers Fithian (1747–1776) provides a comic illustration (from 1774) of alcohol not being a substitute for water. He describes a drunken carpenter, holding a bottle of rum, begging for water: "O sir call in a servant and have me some Water".

In the same year, John Adams (1735–1826) wrote his wife of the hardships to be faced in defying England: "Let us eat potatoes, and drink water. Let us wear canvass, and undressed sheepskins, rather than submit to the unrighteous, and ignominious domination that is prepared for us." This again shows that water was indeed viewed as a limited option. But there is no hint of snobbishness in his tone, and certainly no sense that it is, in general, unhealthy.

Still, Adams does present a rare example of someone explicitly drinking alcohol to avoid bad water. In 1777, he wrote from Philadelphia:
I would give three guineas for a barrel of your cider. Not one drop is to be had here for gold, and wine is not to be had under six or eight dollars a gallon, and that very bad. I would give a guinea for a barrel of your beer. The small beer here is wretchedly bad. In short, I can get nothing that I can drink, and I believe I shall be sick from this cause alone. Rum at forty shillings a gallon, and bad water will never do, in this hot climate, in summer, when acid liquors are necessary against putrefaction.
Truth be told, here he seems unhappy with virtually all the options available. Too, he is mentioning water at a specific moment of the year. But he does indeed seem to prefer alcohol to bad water (not, be it noted, to water in general). If such comments were common in the writers consulted here, this might indeed support the idea that alcohol was regularly used to avoid drinking bad water. But in fact Adams' comment is very unusual.

Adams also describes an early water municipal water supply, here in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:
They have carried the mechanical arts to greater perfection here than in any place which I have seen. They have a set of pumps which go by water, which force the water up through leaden pipes from the river to the top of the hill, near a hundred feet, and to the top of a little building in the shape of a pyramid or obelisk, which stands upon the top of the hill, and is twenty or thirty feet high. From this fountain, water is conveyed in pipes to every part of the town.
The French Marquis de Chastellux (1734–1788), while serving in the Revolutionary War, noted settlers (apparently in North Carolina) who were “obliged to content themselves with milk and water, until their apple-trees are large enough to bear fruit, or until they have been able to procure themselves stills, to distil their grain.” Clearly these settlers preferred drinking cider or spirits. But there is no hint that they regarded water as dangerous; they were able to “content themselves with it”.

Joseph Plumb Martin (1760–1850) offers a soldier's perspective during the war. In one case, a lieutenant asked an old man “for a vessel to dip some water from a spring near by, which was six or eight feet deep, but the old man refused, saying that he would not let a soldier have a cup to drink from if it were to save his life." In another passage, he shows how important good drinking water was to the soldiers:
The greatest inconvenience we felt, was the want of good water, there being none near our camp but nasty frog ponds.... All the springs about the country, although they looked well, tasted like copperas water, or like water that had been standing in iron or copper vessels. I was one day rambling alone in the woods, when I came across a small brook of very good water, about a mile from our tents; we used this water daily to drink, or we should almost have suffered.
Finally, toward the end of the century, in 1794, Martha Ballard (1734/1735 – 1812). a midwife and healer, noted “I was at Mr. Densmore's to see his daughter Dorcas who has a soar throat. We gave her cold water, root tea and a fue drops viteral." In this case cold water was actually part of a cure.

It should be clear from these examples that water was a standard, if not favored, drink in colonial America. If some water was bad or, at the least distasteful, that was not enough to prevent people from drinking water in general. Clearly, many people would have preferred something stronger or more flavorful, but nothing supports the idea that this was because water was considered “lowly” or dangerous in general. It may be too that some drank alcohol specifically in cases where they distrusted the water, but if so, Adams' remark in this regard is a rare one to note as much.

The nineteenth century

At the start of the nineteenth century (1807-1809), Fortescue Cuming (1762?-1828?) visited the West. In Natchez (Misssissippi), he wrote, "Water is well supplied by wells about forty feet deep, and about a quarter of a mile from the east end is a delightful spring... I found three or four companies of males and females...enjoying the cool transparent water, either pure or mixed to their taste." As he traveled to Lexington in Kentucky, he took “a glass of milk and water on horseback". While in Beaver, in Pennsylvania, he noted that "the inhabitants not finding water at a convenient depth, have... led it by wooden pipes from a hill near a mile from the town, and have placed publick wooden fountains in the streets at convenient distances."

In several different places, then, water was a standard drink. In Natchez, it seems, they even enjoyed it.

Cuming is also one of the first to describe Philadelphia's waterworks:
This water steam engine, otherwise called the waterworks, is a work of great magnitude. It cost 150 thousand dollars, and is capable of raising about 4,500,000 gallons of water in 24 hours, with which the city is daily supplied through wooden pipes....The first stone of this building was laid on the 2nd May, 1799, and it was completed in 1801-2. The works belong to the city, and the citizens pay a water tax equal to the expence of keeping the engine in motion...
In 1832, Frances Trollope (1779–1863) published an account of a visit to the States. She provides a more vivid account of this municipal effort:
The water-works of Philadelphia have not yet perhaps as wide-extended fame as those of Marly, but they are not less deserving it. At a most beautiful point of the Schuylkill River, the water has been forced up into a magnificent reservoir, ample and elevated enough to send it through the whole city. The vast yet simple machinery by which this is achieved is open to the public, who resort in such numbers to see it, that several evening stages run from Philadelphia to Fair Mount for their accommodation....... The works themselves are enclosed in a simple but very handsome building of freestone, which has an extended front opening upon a terrace, which overhangs the river: behind the building, and divided from it only by a lawn, rises a lofty wall of solid lime-stone rock, which has, at one or two points, been cut into, for the passage of the water into the noble reservoir above. From the crevices of this rock the catalpa was every where pushing forth, covered with its beautiful blossom. Beneath one of these trees an artificial opening in the rock gives passage to a stream of water, clear and bright as crystal, which is received in a stone basin of simple workmanship, having a cup for the service of the thirsty traveller. 
Ten years later, Dickens would also mention this structure in his American Notes:
Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off, everywhere. The Waterworks, which are on a height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order.
Again, this not only shows Americans drinking water, but a city going to some effort to provide it.

One of Trollope's remarks only incidentally shows how normal it was to drink water at that point:
A Virginian gentleman told me that ever since he had married, he had been accustomed to have a negro girl sleep in the same chamber with himself and his wife. I asked for what purpose this nocturnal attendance was necessary? "Good heaven!" was the reply, "if I wanted a glass of water during the night, what would become of me?
Note once again that this is clearly someone of at least some means, yet there is no hint here that water is “lowly”.

In New York, she notes, "Ice is in profuse abundance; I do not imagine that there is a house in the city without the luxury of a piece of ice to cool the water, and harden the butter."

Her most telling remark is on America in general: "Almost everyone drinks water at table, and by a strange contradiction, in the country where hard drinking is more prevalent than in any other, there is less wine taken at dinner". It was true, that is, that many Americans drank alcoholic drinks; but this was separate from their use of water. She goes on to say: "the hard drinking, so universally acknowledged, does not take place at jovial diners, but, to speak plain English, in solitary dram-drinking." This is as clear a statement as one can find of the difference between drinking water (for refreshment) and drinking alcohol (apparently, mainly to get drunk).

Dickens, in 1842, provided several notes on American water drinking as well. On a steamboat to Cincinnati, he writes, “At dinner, there is nothing to drink upon the table, but great jugs full of cold water”. While being harried by urchins on a train from Baltimore to Washington, he describes one "refreshing himself with... a draught from the water-jug". Even in the Eastern Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, he writes, "Fresh water is laid on in every cell, and [each prisoner] can draw it at his pleasure."

Still, in Columbus, Ohio, he did encounter bad water – but alcohol here was not an option: "As [the coffee and tea] are both very bad and the water is worse, I ask for brandy; but it is a Temperance Hotel, and spirits are not to be had for love or money." This is now something to consider in American drinking habits; where Temperance reigned, water could be one of the few options; alcohol was out of the question.

People continued too to drink water about which they had reservations. In 1840, Lydia Bacon (1786-1853) was in Indiana, where she was able to enjoy water despite doubts about its purity: "We drink the river water; it tastes very well, but I do not like to think of the dirt that is thrown into it."

When speaking of the American West, it seems all the more ludicrous to suggest that people avoided water. There was only so much liquid – of any sort – wagon trains or other travelers could carry and so the search for plain water was concern enough, without demanding alcohol in its place. A Forty-Niners' journal captures the pure ecstasy of simply finding drinking water:
We were all weak, as we did not like to eat for fear of increasing our thirst... The men on the lead reached the kanyon a long time ahead of those who were behind. After proceeding up the kanyon a little distance they found running water. As soon as they saw it they shouted "Water, Water" at the top of their voices. The cry was caught up by those behind, and was rapturously repeated the whole length of the line.... they reached it at last. Pure, sparkling, cold water was there, gurgling as it ran over the rocks in the channel. Oh, what music to our ears was in the sound! How ravishing the sight!... Though nearly twenty years have elapsed since then, the impression still remains; I cannot bear now to see water wasted.

The Civil War

This point in history may serve as the end of “Early America”. Soldiers' accounts vividly show the importance of drinking water: "I ran through the open gate and asked if I might fill my canteen with water from the well. And she, the haughty Virginia maiden, refused to notice me." (Wilkeson); "Our haversacks are filled with salt pork and hard bread and our canteens with water."; "One gentleman kindly sent me some iced water by a servant as I passed his house."; "We have moved our camp from near the river to a hill where we get plenty of pure water from a spring. This is a great luxury, for in most of our camps we have been obliged to go long distances for water."; "Yesterday some of my men discovered an ice house full of ice, and we have been having a luxury in the way of iced water." (Rhodes); "We have an excellent well of water in the yard, which is a great thing in this part of the country."; "Many of the commands are sinking wells, so as to get good water for the men." (Wainwright).

Finally, from the same period (1863), here is a note from Frances Trollope's son, Anthony, writing of the public rooms in American hotels: "On a marble table in the middle of the room always stands a large pitcher of iced water". One can be sure that in such hotels spirits were (except where Temperance reigned) readily available. Nonetheless, for pure refreshment, what could replace cool water?


Why is it that so many writers insist on imagining a past where water was suspect, dangerous, avoided by most drinkers? This tendency, first apparent in regard to the Middle Ages, continues to appear for subsequent eras and has established a pre-conception in many people's minds that is hard to shake. Salinger offers a handful of examples which show, one can, just, find illustrations for the idea in early America, but at the cost of ignoring what appears in the wider picture. (One would be hard put, on the other hand, to offer specific examples of Americans finding water "lowly and common" or more ludicrously still "better suited to barnyard animals".)

Anyone who cares to leaf through the various sources (linked below) for the examples given here will find that, if they are sometimes scattered through these works, they are not exceptions contradicted by other unmentioned cases of people, for instance, drinking cider or beer to avoid bad water. Such mentions are in fact very rare. Americans, from the colonial period on, found it natural to drink water, even if they also (and apparently with gusto) drank alcohol. They still do today, even as a host of other options crowd supermarket shelves.


Franklin, Benjamin, William Temple Franklin,Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin … 1818


Friday, July 18, 2014

Sources on early medieval French food

What most people call “medieval food” is in fact late medieval food; that is, food from the end of the medieval period. The food of this period is the most well-known for a very good reason: that is when cookbooks and similar works become available. Conversely, if early medieval food is far less known, it is because there are no ready, single sources of the same sort. Rather, the relevant information is scattered across innumerable sources. It does not help either that the whole era is less known, and even the subject of numerous myths. Most readers require a certain amount of background before even being able to place information on the food in context.

What follows is an overview of the principle sources for this period, particularly in regard to food. The distinction is less important than it might be for later periods; so little documentation exists overall that all researchers effectively dip into the same wells, no matter what their specific subject. Archeology perhaps plays a more pronounced part when looking at food and domestic culture overall, but it is important for many other aspects of the period as well.

This is very much material for specialists; few casual readers will simply want to browse these lists out of curiosity. This is all the more true in that much of this material is in French or even Latin. Even when the latter has been translated, the result is often uncertain. Anyone with a budding interest in this subject who cannot at least read French and, however laboriously, decipher Latin will want to make progress in both areas before delving too far into it.

These are certainly not all the sources available on this era; but anyone who works their way through these will no doubt be capable of branching out to the others.

A starting point: two key sources
If there is no one source for the food of this period, at least two works are wide-ranging and indispensable.

The first is Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks. This only covers the start of the period and is famously biased, even demonstrably inaccurate, in a number of regards. But it remains the key source on the Franks. What is more, for cultural historians it has the advantage of containing numerous details which are all the more trustworthy for being, to Gregory's mind, unimportant. While he might have darkened the portrait of a king or queen for his own reasons, he had no reason, for instance, to distort what someone ate or drank.

Gregory also left a number of lesser-known works on saints and miracles which are, if anything, more useful in this regard.

The other work is from much later; this is Le Grand d'Aussy's three volume work on the history of French food (which bears the misleading title of “The History of the Private Life of the French”). Not only does Le Grand survey information from every phase of French history (until his own, the eighteenth century), but he regularly cites innumerable works, including every major one for the early medieval period. Any reader who works their way through his three volumes and notes his references along the way will assemble a substantial bibliography on this era.

Le Grand makes errors and his work should never be used without further verification. But as a survey of French food history his work has not been surpassed.

While these two writers hardly cover all the information available for the early medieval era, anyone who reads only these works will come away with a rich understanding of the food and culture of this period.
Gregory (st, bp. of Tours.), Histoire ecclésiastique des Francs, revue et collationnée et tr. par mm. J.Guadet et Taranne 1836
Saint Gregory (Bishop of Tours), Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges Florent Grégoire, tr. H. Bordier v1 1857
v2 1860
V4 1864

Legrand d'Aussy, Pierre Jean-Baptiste, Histoire de la vie privée des Français depuis l'origine de la nation jusqu'à nos jours, par M. Le Grand d'Aussy 1782
For an overview of my own translations from Le Grand's work, see this page.

Greek and Roman sources

It may seem strange to offer sources for the early medieval period which precede it. But there are several reasons these are relevant.

One is that the Germanic groups which ultimately took over parts of Gaul themselves left no records and so early Latin accounts are often the only written record of their cultures. By far the most important work on this subject is (with all its flaws) Tacitus (c. 56 – after 117)'s Germania. But a number of other classical writers made scattered observations on the Germans, including Strabo (64/63 B.C.E. – c. C.E. 24), Julius Caesar (100 B.C.E. – 44 B.C.E.) and Atheneaus (2nd-3rd c.).

Pliny's Natural History also includes notes on the Germans. But above all it is, in essence, the encyclopedia of the Roman era. Pliny's notes on specific foods and animals are particularly useful, since much of this information still applied centuries later. Much of the geographical information too remained relevant. His notes on wine, cheese and beer in Gaul may or may not be accurate for later centuries, but as a practical matter they are largely all that survives.

The only full cookbook from the Roman era is credited to the first century gourmet Apicius, but is generally agreed to date from several centuries later. Bruno Laurioux goes so far as to call De Re Coquinara an early medieval work. Whatever the case, it is of interest not only because Roman culture persisted for some time in Frankish Gaul, but because there is strong evidence that Roman cuisine remained the standard for upscale Frankish cuisine until at least Charlemagne's time. If Frankish kings did not eat food quite as ornate as that described here, what they did eat probably derived from it.

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius, Germany: a transl. [by C.I. Elton]. 1874
Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, V1 1892
Caesar, Julius, De Bello Gallico: Books I-VII, According to the Text of Emanuel Hoffmann  Books 1-7 1898
Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists Or Banquet of the Learned of Athenaeus: With an Appendix of Poetical Fragments, Rendered Into English Verse byVarious Authors and a General Index : in Three Volumes, V1 1854
Pliny (the Elder.), The Natural History of Pliny, V3 H. G. Bohn, 1855
Apicius, L'art de la cuina 1990
Celtnet Apicius Recipes for Aeropetes (Birds)

Gallo-Roman sources

The others who created early France were the “Romans” conquered by the various Germanic groups. Today we know the Romans who lived in Gaul as “Gallo-Romans”, though to themselves and their conquerors they were simply Romans (even if many had recent Celtic roots). Several writers recorded the Gallo-Roman culture which survived for several centuries into Frankish rule.

Paulinus of Nola (ca. 354 – 431) and Decimus Magnus Ausonius (c. 310 – c. 395) were friends, but Paulinus became a devout Christian, while Ausonius' late conversion seems to have been lukewarm. Ausonius' descriptions of Bordeaux and the Moselle are particularly valuable today.

The work of Sidonius Apollinaris (430? – 489), a bishop and a saint, is valuable not only for various observations on his own culture, but for the fact that he recorded (sometimes acidly) early contacts with the Germans (Goths, in his case).
de Nola, Paulin, Divi Paulini, episcopi Nolani, quotquot extant opera omnia partim soluta oratione, partim carmine conscripta, D. Henrici Gravii studio... restituta ac argumentis illustrata 1560
Ausonius, V1 ed Evely-White, Hugh Gerard d. 1924
Apollinaris, Saint Sidonius, C.Soll. Apollinaris Sidonii Opera 1879
Apollinaris Sidonius, Gaius Sollius (bp. of Clermont.) Oeuvres, tr., J.F. Gr?oire and F.-Z.Collombet 1836

The Germans through their own eyes
The various German groups left virtually no texts in their own languages. But all the major groups – the Franks, the Visigoths, and the Burgundians – left laws which, though written in Latin and no doubt influenced by Roman culture, reflected key values of their cultures. Even some of the laws written for other groups – the Alamanni, the Bavarians, the Saxons, etc. – demonstrate differences between these groups.

By far the most informative of these codes is the Salic Law, which remained the basis for French government for centuries. Its enumerations of different classes of livestock, crops, etc. form one of the richest sources on food that exists for this early era. But all these laws offer valuable glimpses of aspects of these cultures.

Another source is regularly cited by those writing on the early Germans, even though it is problematic. This is the Edda, an Icelandic collection of old Norse poems which were probably written down in the thirteenth century but no doubt were already older. How much older is impossible to know. But these do preserve information on the pagan culture which Christianity eradicated in France, for instance. How much this had changed by the time these poems were written or how closely the Germanic cultures in Gaul resembled those outlined in these texts is uncertain, but as a practical matter, this is a rare written record of (comparatively) "pure" Germanic/Norse culture.
Bibliotheca Legum
Lois des Francs, contenant la loi salique et la loi ripuaire, suivant le texte de Dutillet, revu, avec la tr. en regard et des notes, par J.F.A. Peyré 1828
Corpus iuris germanici antiqui: Legem Salicam, Ripuariorum,Alamannorum Baiuvariorum, Burgundionum, Frisionum, Angliorum et Werinorum, Saxonum, Edictum Theoderici, Leges Wisogothorum, et edictaregum Langobardorum continens ed Ferdinand Walter 1824
Peyré, J. F. A., Lex Burgundionum: Lois des Bourguignons,vulgairement nommées Loi Gombette, traduites pour la première sois.Par M. J. F. A. Peyré 1855
The Visigothic code (Forum judicum), tr. S. P. Scott, THE LIBRARY OF IBERIAN RESOURCES ONLINE
Davoud-Oghlou, Garabed ArtinHistoire de la législation des anciens Germains: Tome premier 1845
Davoud-Oghlou, Garabed Artin, Histoire de la législation des anciens germains, v2 1845

Edda Saemundar hinns Fróda: from the Old Norse or Icelandic, V1 1866

General early medieval sources

Some sources straddle both the Merovingian and Carolingian eras (those of the two first major French dynasties).

In general, numerous documents for the period are published in the classic collection Monumenta Germaniae Historica. This includes literary texts, laws, histories and a wide range of other documents. Most of this material is in Latin. No one reader could hope to read it all, but it is a rich source of many period texts, including some of the most important. The on-line version enables text search and includes both image and text formats for the documents.

Among these are period hagiographies. Lives of saints often include glancing references to food, customs, etc. These are typically scattered through pages and pages of Latin, but fortunately in many cases they have already been cited by earlier writers in French and English. Also these are now available electronically, enabling text search (as is true for many other documents here). Some specific lives are more well known than others, but useful information can even be found in the more obscure ones. A rich collection exists specifically for the Merovingian period, but these can be found from all through the medieval era.

Aside from the laws for specific Germanic groups mentioned above, numerous other laws were recorded for this period and fitfully refer to everything from fasting to taverns. These too are available in the MGH.

Otherwise, a wealth of official documents – donations, wills, foundations, etc – have survived for various properties and these are available in different sources. Typically these are most useful for food history in mentioning things like mills, vineyards, etc.

Monumenta Germaniae Historica
Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici et antiquiorum aliquot (I) 1896
Capitularia Regum Francorum ed Alfred Boretius v1 1883
Portail Telma: Chartes originales antérieures à 1121 conservées en France
Diplomata chartae, epistolae, leges aliaque instrumenta ad res Gallo- Francicasspectantia: Instrumenta ab anno 417 ad annum 627, ed Louis Georges Oudart-Feudrix de Bréquigny, François Jean Gabriel de La Porte Du Theil, Jean-Marie Pardessus V11843 
Diplomata chartae, epistolae, leges aliaque instrumenta ad res Gallo- Francicas spectantia: Instrumenta ab anno 417 ad annum 627, ed Louis Georges Oudart-Feudrix de Bréquigny, François Jean Gabriel de La Porte Du Theil, Jean-Marie Pardessus
V2 1849


Aside from Gregory de Tours and the Salic Law, for the Merovingians (the first French dynasty) in particular there are three particularly useful sources in regard to food.

One is not quite a cookbook, but includes a number of recipes; otherwise, it provides an invaluable overview of the foods eaten in Northeastern Gaul in the early Frankish period. This is the dietetic, De observatione ciborum, written in the form of a letter, by the Greek physician Anthimus for Theuderic I (reigned 511-533/534), then one of three Frankish kings. The food Anthimus describes is essentially Roman, but in fact there is strong evidence that Roman food remained the upper class norm for several centuries in France. He also notes the specifically Frankish love of raw bacon.

The second is the poetry of Venantius Fortunatus (c.530–c.600/609), an Italian poet who became a bishop in France (and, if unofficially, a saint). Fortunatus has been described as a sycophant and a sybarite, but both tendencies make him a valuable cultural historian: he loves describing food (or complaining about not getting it). Most of his poems in this regard are addressed to Queen Radegund (ca. 520–587), who became a nun and later a saint, and to her companion Agnes. He also wrote a number of hagiographies, notably one of Radegund which is particularly useful for its various mentions of food and other cultural details.

Somewhere between 650 and 655, a monk named Marculfe assembled a curious collection of what are essentially fill-in-the-blank forms for a wide variety of situations. One lists the possible rations for traveling officials (thereby documenting the foods listed); another sets the basic rations to be given to someone who has deeded their property to the Church. These are of course very valuable for food historians. The collection includes other unique pieces, such as models for early Christmas greetings.

Otherwise, an important document has often been credited to Dagobert I (reigned 629–634), but is now believed to be a forgery from sometime in the eighth century (which means it might be either Merovingian or Carolingian). This is the diploma which supposedly founded the famous St. Denis fair. Even as a forgery, however, it remains valuable since it outlines details of what undoubtedly were already the dealings at the fair (which thus were recorded as they were, rather than being established).
Rose, Anthimi De observatione ciborum epistula ad Theudericum, regem Francorum 1877
For my own English  translation:Anthimus, How to Cook an Early French Peacock: De Observatione Ciborum - Roman Food for a Frankish King (Bilingual Second Edition) 
Fortunat, Venance, Poésies mêlées /Venance Fortunat; traduites en français pour la première fois par M. Charles Nisard 1887
Capitularia regum Francorum: additae sunt Marculfi monachi et aliorum formulae veteres et notae doctissimorum virorum ed Etienne Baluze, Marculfus v1 1677
"The Fair of St. Denis" [English translation of false document by Dagobert], A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, ed Roy C. Cave, Herbert H. Coulson, 1965

Documentation becomes more abundant with Charlemagne (king 768–814; emperor 800-814) and his immediate descendants. It was under the latter that what had been a specifically Frankish monarchy began to become more generally Latin and ultimately French. This was largely because both Charlemagne and his son were emperors, ruling over most of Europe, with a corresponding adjustment in culture.

Charlemagne himself left a wealth of documents, many of them laws organized in chapters; that is, capitularies. While a number of these are useful, for food historians the most precious is one which addressed the emperor's own estates (though some writers have misinterpreted it as applying to his whole kingdom). This is the classic Capitulary de Villis, which itemizes the food and livestock to be kept available on each of Charlemagne's estates. This is to some degree a theoretical document – that is, it records what was supposed to be true, not necessarily was. It is interesting then to compare it to some actual inventories in the Brevium Exempla.

Charlemagne had two major biographers: Einhard (Eginhard), who actually knew him and Knotker the Stammerer (long known as the Monk of St. Gall) who wrote after his time, but based in part on what he heard from those from the emperor's time. Knotker's account is richer and more colorful, but has also been shown to be inaccurate on some points. This said, the cultural details in both documents are credible, even if the incidents in which they appear might sometimes have been invented.

Charlemagne encouraged literacy and a host of documents by other writers survive from his period and after, including a rich vein of poetry and a variety of documents from major bishops of the time. Hincmar's work on the organization of the palace stands out as a guide to different domestic positions in the time. Otherwise, the study of Carolingian literature is virtually a discipline in itself.

A document from around 823 known as the Polyptych of Irminon, or the Polyptych (or Polyptyque) of St Germain-des-Pres provides an extraordinarily detailed look at the properties and functioning of the great monastery at St. Germain. The two volume edition by Benjamin Guérard also includes other valuable documents, such as the later Brevis de Melle, which inventories, among other things, goods (including many spices) to be bought at Cambrai. Guérard's first volume (in French) surveys not only Irminon's document but a wealth of other related sources. In itself, it is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in food and agriculture in the Carolingian period.

Finally, Ermoldus Nigellus or Niger (active 824–830) , having been exiled for unknown reasons, tried to win back the good graces of Louis the Pious with a long fawning poem. Flowery as it is, it contains some useful glimpses of food.

"Karolis Magni Capitularia: Capitulare Missorum Aquisgranense Primum 809", Monumenta Germaniae Historica, VI: Legum Sectio II. Capitularia Regum Francorum, 1883
"Capitulary de Villis", Carolingian Polyptyques, University of Leicester
The Brevium Exempla
Eginhard and the Monk of St. Gall, Early Lives of Charlemagne ed A. J. Grant 1905

Hincmar, Epistola de ordine palatii, tr Prou 1885
Saeculum nonum. Carolini scriptores qui in Ecclesia latina floruere. B. CaroliMagni imperatoris Opera omnia, juxta editiones memoratissimasBaluzii, Pertzii, Cajetani, Cennii, recensita et nunc primum in unumcollecta. Accurante J.-P. Migne... Tomus primus (-secundus) continensB. Caroli Magni capitularia et privilegia. V1
Saeculum nonum. Carolini scriptores qui in Ecclesia latina floruere. B. CaroliMagni imperatoris Opera omnia, juxta editiones memoratissimasBaluzii, Pertzii, Cajetani, Cennii, recensita et nunc primum in unumcollecta. Accurante J.-P. Migne... Tomus primus (-secundus) continensB. Caroli Magni capitularia et privilegia. V2
Parduli Episcopi Laudunensis ad Hincmarum Remensem nunc primum ex Codice sancti Remigii Remensis”, ed.Sébastien Bricout, 2004, Corpus scriptorum latinorum
Irminon (Abbot), Polyptique de l'abbé Irminon, ou Dénombrement des manses, serfs et revenus del'abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés sous le règne de Charlemagne, ed Benjamin Edme Charles Guérard v1 1844
Irminon (Abbot), Polyptique de l'abbé Irminon, ou Dénombrement des manses,serfs et revenus de l'abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés sous le règne de Charlemagne, ed Benjamin Edme Charles Guérard v2 1844
Irminon,”Brevis de Melle”, Polyptyque de l'abbé Irminon ou Dénombrement des manses, des serfs et des revenus de l'abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés sous le règne de Charlemagne: publié d'après le manuscrit de la Bibliothèque du Roi,ed Benjamin Guérard 1844
Le Noir, Ermold, Faits et gestes de Louis-Le-Pieux: poème, ed. Guizot 1824

Church sources

In one sense, almost all the writing from the early medieval period is Church writing; literacy was essentially in the hands of the clergy. But certain types of documents are more particularly related to the Church, its doctrines and its infrastructure, and these can fitfully be useful for food history.

One rich list is of the canons of the various church councils. Different collections exist of these and they rarely match exactly. Certain councils are especially important because they directly define foods to be eaten by certain groups or at certain times. But scattered information can be found in a number of these canons.

A number of Church records are gathered in collections called cartularies. The dates for these depend on the particular monastery or church, but some can be very useful, as in defining properties like vineyards or foods offered as rents.

The exact status of the handbooks for penance known as “penitentials” is uncertain. Bishops may have composed them as guides to the penances to inflict for various offences, but the Church also condemned them at one point. With these reservations in mind, they do give an idea of what was considered, at least locally, proper to eat or not, for instance.

Finally, various monastic rules were developed through the Middle Ages. Ultimately, it is the Benedictine rule that was most successful (and perhaps the most pragmatic) but a number of others survive even today. These typically regulate diet to a greater or lesser degree.

Mansi, Gian Domenico, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 1901-1927
Poisson, Nicolas Joseph, Delectus actorum ecclesiae universalis,seu nova summa conciliorum ..., V1 1706
Guérin, abbé (Paul), Les conciles généraux & particuliers, v2. 1869
Hefele, Carl Joseph, A History of the Councils of the Church, from the Original Documents
Hefele, Carl Joseph, Goschler, Histoire des Conciles: d'aprés les documents originaux1870 
Cartulaire général de l'Yonne: recueil de documents authentiques pour servir à l'histoire des pays qui forment ce département, ed Mathieu Maximilien Quantin V1 1854
Wasserschleben,Hermann, Catholic Church, Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche [Penitentials] 1851


If the written record for the early Middle Ages is finite – it is unlikely to grow beyond what has been known to scholars for centuries – the archeological record is ever-expanding. Frankish graves, for instance, continue to be discovered or reexamined. Archeology itself has sub-divided into a number of specialties such as paleoanthropology, paleobotany, etc,

Such discoveries include both organic material – bones, seeds, etc. - and man-made products, such as coins and pottery. Study of these can show what people ate, what diseases they had, what cooking methods were used, how widely coins circulated, etc.

Most of this work is presented in French (much of it on Numerous specialists focus on particular corners of what is a very large subject. Philippe Marinval and Marie-Pierre Ruas notably have done varied work on plant remains (and Marinval on bread). Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau has examined the archeology of meat (butchering methods, etc.) J. Lafaurie is the most cited writer on numismatics in this period. But other experts work in these and other specialties and continue to expand the knowledge of this era.

Some older works retain their importance as well, notably the work of Edouard Salins on the Merovingians. Abbé Cochet, in the nineteenth century, also left a rich study of Gallic, Roman, Frank and Norman tombs.

In this area, there are far too many papers and books to cite. But it is certainly an essential part of researching this under-documented era.
Delort, Emile, "Le cimetière franc d'Ennery (Moselle)", Gallia  V51947
Maurin. Louis, "Le cimetière mérovingien de Neuvicq-Montguyon (Charente-Maritime)", Gallia 1971
Blondiaux, Joël, Françoise Valle , Claudie Decormeille-Patin, "Le cimetière mérovingien de Montataire (Oise)", Revue archéologique de Picardie 1999 V1

Metcalf. D. M., “Monetary circulation in Merovingian Gaul, 561-674. A propos des Cahiers Ernest Babelon”, 
Revue numismatique v6 2006
Morrisson, Cécile, Jean Lafaurie, "La pénétration des monnaies byzantines en Gaule mérovingienne et visigotique du VIe au VIIIe siècle", Revue numismatique 1987 V6
Lafaurie, Jean, "Monnaies d'argent mérovingiennes des VIIe et VIIIe siècles : les trésors de Saint-Pierre-les-Étieux (Cher), Plassac(Gironde) et Nohanent (Puy-de-Dôme)". Revue numismatique 1969 V6
Ruas, Marie-Pierre, “The archaeobotanical record of cultivated and collected plants of economic importance from medieval sites in France”, Review of Paleobotany and Polynology,  1992
Ruas, Marie-Pierre, “Productions agricoles en Auvergne carolingienne d'après un dépotoir découvert à Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier) / Farming productions in caroungian auvergne from a refuse pit recovered at Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier)”, Revue archéologique du Centre de la France   vol 39 2000
Ruas, Marie-Pierre, "Les plantes consommées au Moyen Âge en France méridionale d'après les semences archéologiques",  Archéologie du Midi médiéval,  Vol  15   1997  
Audoin-Rouzeau, Frédérique, "Compter et mesurer les os animaux. Pour une histoire de l'élevage et de l'alimentation en Europe de l'Antiquité aux Temps Modernes", Histoire & Mesure  v10  1995
Marinval, Philippe, David Labadie, Denis Maréchal, "Arbres fruitiers et cultures jardinées gallo-romains à Longueil-Sainte-Marie (Oise)", Gallia V59 2002
Horry, Alban, "Lyon-Presqu'île : contribution à l'étude des céramiques du Haut Moyen Age", Archéologie du Midi médiéval V18 2000
Cochet, Jean Benoît Désiré, Sépultures gauloises, romaines, franques et normandes,faisant suite à "La Normandie Souterraine" (1857)
Ruas, Marie-Pierre, "Les plantes consommées au Moyen Âge en France méridionale d'après les semences archéologiques",  Archéologie du Midi médiéval,  Vol  15   1997  
Dietrich, Anne, “La vaisselle médiévale en bois du site de l'Hôtel de Ville à Beauvais (Oise)”, Revue archéologique de Picardie V3 1994
Berthelot, Sandrine, “La verrerie gallo-romaine tardive et mérovingienne (IVe-VIIe siècle) du Musée de Normandie, Caen (Calvados)”, Revue archéologique de l'ouest V9 1992
Mahé, Nadine, Annie Lefèvre, "La céramique du haut Moyen Âge en Ile-de-France à travers la fouilledes habitats ruraux (VIe - XIe siècles). État de la question et perspectives de recherches ", Revue archéologique de Picardie V3 2004
Pomarèdes, Hervé, Sébastien Barberan, "Un ensemble de céramiques daté du début de la période augustéenne sur le site du Mas de Vignoles à Nîmes (Gard)”, Revue archéologique de Narbonnaise V41 2008
Thouvenot, Sylvie, "L'atelier de potiers mérovingien de Soissons (Aisne)", Revue archélogique de Picardie, v3 1998 

Salin, Edouard , La civilisation mérovingienne d'après les sépultures, v4 1959
Salin, Edouard, Albert France-Lanord, "Traditions et art mérovingiens", Gallia 1946