Sunday, December 11, 2022

A history of interest in medieval food

Medieval food has long been an object of interest in the Western world. Groups exist to recreate it. Academic disciplines address it as a subject. Even those with no particular interest in medieval food know of it (however caricaturally). What is more, arguably, the subject is at a turning point. For a long time,many recreationists and even some academics have treated it casually. A prime example is in making medieval bread. Do a search on “making medieval bread” and you will find numerous sites supposedly describing how to do so. But such sites never offer documentation for just what makes the bread “medieval” and in fact often describe methods which will yield something very unlike medieval bread. Even accredited academics can still be found claiming that spices did not come to Europe until after the Crusades (they are well-documented before that) or that medieval drinkers drank beer or wine because the water was bad (a “fact” unsupported, and in fact contradicted, by evidence from the period). Not everyone making “medieval” food claims to be rigorous; some are frankly recreational, indulging in what is essentially a form of entertainment. Fair enough, when that is made plain; but others offer their recipes or instructions with an air of authority that belies the lack of foundation underlying them. 

Arguably, this has been less true in recent years as a growing number of scholars and recreationists have insisted on documentation both of their own claims and those they accept from others. Where a lack of data requires a recreationist to speculate, they flag such speculations, rather than simply presenting them as authentic artifacts of earlier eras. 

Another way of viewing this is that the long-established field of medieval food studies – be it academic or recreational – is edging into a new era with new values and priorities. This being the case, it may be useful to review the historiography of this subject; that is, when did those who followed long after the medieval era begin to take an interest in its food and how has that interest developed over time? This is an attempt to review that history. 

By all evidence, interest in medieval cookbooks revived at the end of the eighteenth century. 

In 1780, Samuel Pegge published an edition of the Forme of Cury, a fourteenth century cookbook which is often regarded as the English equivalent of the Viandier. This was probably the first medieval cookbook to be reissued in modern times and remains a standard prime source. 

In 1782, Pierre Legrand d’Aussy, a former Jesuit, began what was intended to be a full history of French private life. As it worked out, he was only to finish the three volumes on food. But these were sufficiently comprehensive to be mined by numerous subsequent writers (usually without attribution) for facts (and too often myths) about food history. 

Legrand appears to have been the first to have drawn renewed attention to Taillevent’s Viandier, although he not only misspelled Taillevent’s name (which literally means “slice wind”) as “Taillevant”, but treated the work as a fifteenth century text – as most would for almost a century, since this fourteenth century work was long known only through its very corrupt printed version. Ironically, Legrand cites a reference to the author in his actual period – but presents the reference as being to an ancestor of “Taillevant”. (He probably knew the work from a fifteenth century copy; no new printed edition had appeared at that point.) Unlike many future writers on the subject, he points out that the food described in such cookbooks was the food of an elite, not typical food for all medieval eaters. He draws on this work and the French version (itself much distorted) of Platina to describe, probably for the first time since the original era, a number of medieval dishes such as mustard and saffron soup. 

If Legrand was the first to draw on medieval cookbooks to describe the food of the era, he would differ from most subsequent writers on the subject in not limiting himself to such sources. To the contrary, he more often drew on a wide variety of texts, such as laws, hagiographies, memoirs, etc., to explore the food of the entire medieval period in France. As time went on, more and more students of medieval food were to confine themselves to cookbooks, which so far have been unknown before the thirteenth century. The result, and within fairly short order, was to reduce the study of medieval food to that of the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, a period which began in the fifth century and lasted for a millennium. Even as fitful efforts have been made to widen that scope, it remains true that the term “medieval food” today refers by default to late medieval food, omitting centuries of food before that.

In 1831, a writer in the Gastronome argued that medieval food had been richer and more interesting than some claimed, but regretted that we had no details on the dishes whose suggestive names had survived. “Oh, who will be the Chompollion [who discovered the Rosetta Stone] who will reveal to us the mysteries of medieval cuisine?” Not that no information was available at this time. But for decades going into the nineteenth century medieval food was only referenced in survey works and then with dubious accuracy. The Dictionnaire général de la cuisine française ancienne et moderne (1839) includes two items cited in the next century by Toussaint-Samat. One concerns Dagobert II, a king who reigned so briefly virtually nothing is known about him and cites an otherwise unknown monk named Esthuin as showing him rejecting a dish made by roasting an ass stuffed with other animals. This appears to be an erudite, if unlikely, play on the Roman idea of a Trojan pig, a pig similarly roasted with other animals stuffed in it. The other claims that a king was served fourteen different soups: two of wine, one with cabbage and eggs, one with onions and beer, one with pumpkin with milk, one with fine oil and fish and seven others with boiled meat. Creative as this inventory is, it is not only the only suggestion that anyone served soups in multiple courses, but mentions soups otherwise completely unknown. 

Emile Gigault de La Bedollierre wrote a collection whose title suggests that of Le Grand’s work on private life: Histoire des moeurs et de la vie privée des Français depuis l’origine jusqu’à nos jours (1847). This includes some useful information, but also mentions a drink – brumalis canna - supposedly made of fruit, barley and ginger cited to a useless footnote. Others have since cited this, apparently based on this author’s (very dubious) claim. P. L Jacob’s Costumes historiques de la France (1852) mentions the same drink, probably based on the earlier work. 

Meanwhile in 1846 a key source document appeared in print: Le ménagier de Paris. This fourteenth century household manual, which includes both recipes and menus from the period, joined the Viandier as a rare source of medieval recipes and has remained central to medieval food studies ever since. In 1860, Louis Douet d’Arcq published the fourteenth century Enseignements qui enseignent à apareilier toutes manières de viandes, which includes recipes later found in the Viandier, showing that the later work was likely a compilation of pre-existing recipes rather than an original creation (and the same may well be true of the Enseignements). 

In 1868, Louis Nicolardot provided an overview of medieval food in Histoire de la table : curiosités gastronomiques de tous les temps et de tous les pays

In 1870, Valentine Rose first published a collated transcription of Anthimus’ sixth century dietetic. For a long time, this was studied for its linguistic value, with little interest in the important (and early) culinary data it recorded. 

Other overviews of medieval food appeared. In 1876, the Journal officiel de la République française told its readers that Bruyerin Champier’s De Re Cibaria included “a host of curious information on medieval food”. In 1875, John Cordy Jeaffreson included an overview of old English cookery in his A Book about the Table. In 1882, the periodical The Living Age presented an article on “Historical Cookery”. 

Note that none of these appeared to have had any wider effect; they were passing glimpses of an otherwise ignored subject. In 1884, Le Matin described a fair in Torino which (perhaps for the first time) offered recreations of medieval food, based on recipes from the Viandier. Said the journalist, “I have tasted this cuisine. The roasts and the sauces are highly peppered and seasoned with many spices.” 

In 1888, a book appeared presenting two English cookbooks: Two Fifteenth-century Cookery-books: Harleian Ms. 279 (ab. 1430), & Harl. Ms. 4016 (ab. 1450), with Extracts from Ashmole Ms. 1429, Laud Ms. 553, & Douce Ms. 55. In the same year, Alfred Franklin – a French writer on private life who frankly plagiarized much of his work – may have become the first known individual recreationist when he tried making a medieval recipe for a “Red Dodine of Duck” (which he hated). (La vie privée d'autrefois: arts et métiers, modes, moeurs, Volume 3 : La Cuisine.

In 1889, two works emphasized how highly spiced medieval cuisine was: Etudes religieuses, historiques et littéraires (from the Jesuits) and Lecoy de La Marche’s Le treizième siècle artistique. De la Marche spoke of the “abuse” of spices and linked what he saw as the violent character of medieval men with their love of hot spices. 

A major milestone in French medieval food history came in 1892 when Jérôme Pichon and Georges Vicaire finally published fourteenth century manuscripts of the Viandier, along with the corrupt fifteenth century version which had until then been the only one generally known. 

In 1895, the Dictionnaire des dictionnaires. Lettres, sciences, arts, encyclopédie universelle again highlighted the “abuse of spices” in medieval cuisine, adding that this began to change under Louis XIII. 

Note that none of these works added the wise caveat of Le Grand d’Aussy, that all this concerned aristocratic food, not the food of everyday people. At this point too, it was understood implicitly that “medieval food” meant food from the post-Crusades era of cookbooks. Le Grand’s attempt to explore earlier French food had long been abandoned. The general reader then began to understand that all medieval food – from all classes, from all eras – was highly spiced, when the documents used in fact regarded upper class diners in later medieval centuries. Any subtle distinctions were long lost and would remain so until recent times. 

By the end of the nineteenth century then several major sources had already been republished, scattered articles had appeared on the subject and at least two attempts had been made to actually recreate the older recipes. But nothing like a sustained interest in the subject had developed. 

This fitful interest in medieval food continued into the twentieth century. In 1913, Annie Abram’s English Life and Manners in the Later Middle Ages included a long chapter on medieval food. An article on “Medieval Cookery” appeared in the periodical Blackwood’s in 1914. The first potentially popular collection of medieval recipes appeared when Bertrand Guégan published a two-volume cookbook (La fleur de la cuisine française) in 1920. The first volume of this collection began with medieval texts and recipes from just after. This certainly made medieval recipes more generally available to non-specialists, but there is no evidence that any popular interest grew out of this work. 

In 1924, Eileen Power included a long article on the Ménagier in her book Medieval People. In the same year, Shirley Howard Weber published the first translation of Anthimus’ De Observatio[ne] Ciborum as a dissertation for Princeton. This rare glimpse at early medieval cuisine would still for some time mainly interest scholars for the archaic Latin it recorded. 

In 1931, William Edward Mead published The English Medieval Feast

For decades, interest in medieval food did not move beyond such scattered efforts. In the Sixties, two innovations would change that. The Society for Creative Anachronism came into being. This is not a scholarly group and it is generous in its chronological boundaries for the Middle Ages, which are “pre-17th century”. Nor are all its members equally concerned with precise historical accuracy. But inevitably it sparked serious study of period food among at least some members and no doubt had a significant influence on expanding interest in actually making medieval food. The first Renaissance Faires also appeared in this decade and no doubt also inspired further interest in some attendees. 

Whatever the exact impetus, by the Seventies more general works on medieval (and Renaissance) food became noticeably more common, including Berengario delle Cinqueterre’s The Renaissance Cookbook (1975), Lorna J. Sass’ To the King's Taste: Richard II's Book of Feasts and Recipes (1975), Bridget Ann Henisch’s Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (1976), Madeleine Pelner Cosman’s Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony (1976) and Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler’s Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks (1979). 

In 1985, Hieatt and Butler published Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century (including the Forme of cury). The following year, Terence Scully published an edition of Chiquart's On Cookery. In 1989, James Prescott published an English translation of the Vatican Library copy of Le Viandier

By the Nineties, books on medieval food virtually constituted a separate genre. In 1992, Ann Hagen published her ground-breaking A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing and Consumption, the first sustained detailed look at medieval food before the Crusades, followed by A Second Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink: Production & Distribution. In 1993, P. W. Hammond published Food and Feast in Medieval England. Eleanor and Terence Scully published Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations in 1995; Terence Scully published The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages that same year, when Melitta Weiss Adamson also published Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays. Nicole Crossley-Holland published a new look at the Ménagier, Living and Dining in Medieval Paris: The Household of a Fourteenth Century Knight, in 1996, when Mark Grant also published the first edition of his translation of Anthimus (On the Observance of Foods) and not only acknowledged the book’s culinary importance but was prompted by the food scholar Alan Davidson to publish his translation. This publication might have prompted further interest in medieval food before the Crusades, but seems to have had little impact.

The following year, Terence Scully published a critical edition and translation of The Vivendier. In 1998, Mary Ella Milham published an edition of Platina, on Right Pleasure and Good Health and Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal published Food and Eating in Medieval Europe. Phyllis Pray Bober published Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy in 1999. 

By the end of the twentieth century, then, medieval food history was solidly established as a subject of some popular, if not universal, interest. 

Meanwhile, a separate history developed with the Internet. Where previously people with relatively arcane interests had had to meet physically, now they could create communities from all over the world. Where most information had been transmitted by published, organized books, typically subject to scholarly and/or editorial review, now anyone could post information and piecemeal if desired, not necessarily in a coherent work. This certainly had advantages for medieval food research; numerous communities now exist for sharing information on various aspects of medieval food and a wealth of information has been made available by posters who might never have navigated the gauntlet required for publication. At the same time, unverified and even invented information can freely be posted and if the poster is sufficiently self-assured or convincing, such information will be passed on. This is not to say that physical publication avoided myths and errors; many of the most egregious food myths date to pre-Internet works. Still, it is not unusual to see someone post with great assurance on some aspect of medieval food without offering any documentation and often enough without having any and, if they have a sufficiently devoted following, such information can rapidly gain currency. 

Short of a dauntingly meticulous study, judging exactly how true this is and how long it has been is an uncertain enterprise. What has been striking in recent years is how many researchers, even if they represent a small percentage of the relevant audience, now insist on documentation for recipes and other medieval food data, or at the least a clear acknowledgment that a recipe or other item is a speculative “best guess”. Their number may not be numerically important so much as clearly defined in certain communities where this approach holds sway. To the degree that this is a reality, it represents a significant shift in the study of medieval food, one in specific corners of the Internet and even, sometimes, within university courses, which in this area have not always been free of myths or received ideas. 

With this, another shift is perceptible if not yet plainly apparent. That is towards redefining the general idea of “medieval food” so that it does not implicitly refer to the aristocratic food of Europe in the last centuries of the Middle Ages, but expands to include a wider interest both in the food of the less privileged and in the food of the many earlier centuries which so far have been neglected in medieval food studies. If such changes move to the forefront, along with a greater demand for rigor and documentation in the data, medieval food studies will change as substantially as they arguably did in the Sixties and Seventies. 



The “How to Cook a Peacock” Series 

How to Cook an Early French Peacock: De Observatione Ciborum - Roman Food for a Frankish King (Bilingual Third Edition) 

How to Cook a Golden Peacock: A Translation of the Medieval Cookbook Enseingnemenz Qui Enseingnent à Apareillier Toutes Manières de Viandes

How To Cook A Peacock: Le Viandier: Medieval Recipes From The French Court 


Feasting with the Franks: The First French Medieval Food