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

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