Friday, September 6, 2013

A soup for the Bishop of Tours

A number of writers cite a brief passage from the work of Gregory de Tours, the Gallo-Roman bishop whose history of the Franks remains the prime source for their early history. It concerns an attempt by Chilperic, one of the earliest French kings, to get on Gregory's good side with a soup:
Then he, to calm me, and thinking that I did not see that he was acting out of artifice, showed me a soup placed before him and said, "I have had prepared for you a soup in which there is nothing but fowl and some chick peas." And I, knowing that he sought to flatter me, replied: "Our food must be to do God's will, and not to indulge in pleasures."
One reason writers cite this passage is that it is demonstrates a peculiarity of Catholic abstinence in the early centuries of France. If Chilperic was specifically concerned with Gregory's dietary strictures, it was no doubt because as a clergyman in this early period (when many of the Church's rules were more austere), he was meant to abstain from meat. And yet, Chilperic served him a bird. More than one text shows that in this period birds - created in Genesis on the same day as fish - were considered acceptable as fast-day food. Some early monastic orders did indeed forbid monks their meat, but then some also banned, or limited, fish. In general, there was nothing shocking about a priest of the time, sworn to abstinence, eating fowl.

One corollary to this state of affairs is that fish, for a long time, had no special association with fasting. If, by the end of the medieval period, "fish-day" was virtually a synonym for "fast-day", no such concept is referenced in the first centuries under the Franks.

Note too Gregory's diplomatic demurral on the grounds that this (apparently modest) dish could be considered a "pleasure". Here one has to consider, first of all, that Gregory disliked, and distrusted, Chilperic.

How much did he dislike him?

In describing the king's death, Gregory calls him "the Nero and the Herod of our time". He follows that terse but eloquent description with a long tirade undiluted by any fear of speaking ill of the dead:
He was given to gluttony and made a god of his belly.... He composed two books,... whose verses clank, without being able to stand on their feet; because, out of ignorance, he put short syllables for long and long for short.... He hated everything to do with the poor... and found no subject so fertile for his mockery and witticisms as the bishops of the Church... As for acts of debauchery and indulgence, one can imagine none that he did not commit in reality.... As he had never truly loved anyone, he was loved of no one....
In Chilperic's defense, some have suggested that Gregory's dislike of him was due to his efforts to prevent the Church from gathering all riches to itself. Whatever the case, Gregory's demurral certainly reflected his desire not to accept Chilperic's hospitality.

At the same time, his refusal to accept the dish, even though it respected the letter of the Church's law, raises another question: was it more important to observe abstinence strictly in terms of specific foods or was the key principle to avoid over-indulgence? As Theodulf of Orleans put it several centuries later, “What is forbidden, is drunkenness and wantonness and not milk and eggs, because the Apostle does not say: abstain from eggs and milk, but he says, do not get drunk with wine which produces wantonness."

Ultimately, the most legalistic approach would triumph; many later fast-day meals, if they contained nothing the Church considered meat, were nonetheless shamelessly luxurious.

The passage is important too for one surprisingly simple fact: it mentions soup. In later medieval times, soup would be a key component in most meals. As a practical matter, it must already have been eaten in the early medieval period, when so many foods were boiled. The fact that many bowls have been found from the period also shows that something more than a plate was needed for meals. Yet, for whatever reason, the word itself barely appears in texts from this period. Gregory's mention is precious not only because it is specific, but also because it is general; that is, it makes it plain that a soup was an ordinary enough dish.

Finally, those with an interest in period food might wonder: just how would one prepare such a soup? That is, how literally should one take Gregory's very minimal description? It is true that Chilperic went out of his way to say that "nothing else" had been put in the soup but the two ingredients named. On the other hand, Gregory's first concern was not food history and he might well have used a kind of shorthand for a more refined dish. The very fact that he pronounced it too luxurious suggests that the royal cook had made it, as one might expect, with some finesse.

If Gregory provides no further details on its composition, Anthimus, in his work for Chilperic's uncle Theuderic, points out that several greens could be added to cooking liquid, among them leeks, celery and cilantro (that is, the greens of coriander). He also names a handful of spices then available in Gaul, including pepper, cumin, ginger and clove. And of course powdered coriander. Other common flavorings of the time were oil, vinegar and honey - not to mention garum, the Roman fish sauce which is thought to be very like today's Asian fish sauce (a royal cook of the time might especially have been inclined to use what was then considered an elite ingredient).

Add some cilantro and ginger to the basic ingredients named, and you would get something very Asian; all the more so if you add a few drops of fish sauce. Use cumin with some leek, and maybe some oil and vinegar, and the effect would be far more European. Vinegar and honey would create a sweet and sour effect not unfamiliar in Roman cooking. One can, in fact, play with numerous combinations of ingredients and still stay within the period.

What about the "fowl" (literally, "flying creature")? By far the most common bird consumed at the time was chicken; goose typically came second, and duck far behind that. At this point, too, a king might still have followed the Roman taste for pheasant, which is mentioned in earlier centuries, but rarely later.

Otherwise, there are a variety of birds that were eaten commonly enough in the time: partridge, pigeon, turtledove... So was peacock, in elite circles, but it was unlikely to be boiled with chickpeas.

For a modern cook, chicken will probably be the simplest choice. Chicken, chickpeas, and a handful of readily available seasonings; put them together and you can have a reasonable approximation of a Merovingian soup. A soup fit for a king - or a bishop.


 Grégoire de Tours, Guadet - Histoire ecclésiastique des francs

Wikipedia on Chilperic I

Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d'Aussy-Histoire De La Vie Privée Des Français, Volume 1, Issue 2

Anthimi De observatione ciborum epistula ad Theudericum, regem Francorum (1877)

My own translations are available of:

Le Grand d'Aussy's texts on fasting
Anthimus' De Observatione Ciborum
An ornate eighteenth century fast day meal (hard copy)
An ornate eighteenth century fast day meal (ebook)

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