Tuesday, May 31, 2016

C. M. Woolgar's "The Culture of Food in England, 1200-1500"

Christopher Woolgar is professor of history and archival studies at the University of Southampton and editor of the Journal of Medieval History.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Culture of Food in England, 1200-1500, and reported the following:
From page 99:
In addition to sugar itself in its different forms, there were also sweet confections and preserves. A group of these — signalled by the suffix -ade — originated from the Mediterranean and arrived in England already in boxes and pots. Among them were pinionade (a confection made with pinenuts), festucade (made with pistachio nuts), citrinade, ‘gingerbrade’, that is, gingerbread (found made with green ginger and with white ginger), pomade (made with apples) and succade — simply a confection made with sugar. Dame Katherine de Norwich acquired boxes of pinionade, festucade and gingerbrade in 1336-7. Citrinade appears towards the end of the fourteenth century, at a great price: 2 lbs. bought for Henry, Earl of Derby, cost 56s.; and it also appears, along with pomade, succade and coinade, a quince preserve, bought for the household of Thomas of Lancaster, Duke of Clarence, in 1418-21. By the mid-fifteenth century, citrinade was used as a cosmetic as well, as a sweet-scented powder, possibly also for the colour it gave. This transition in use was also to be made by pomade.

Preserves were made in England, as well as imported, by the mid-fifteenth century. In the first instance the confections were prepared using honey, which was more abundant than sugar: ‘char de quince’, preserved quince flesh, sometimes mixed with that of warden pears, was made in this way. Comfits, prepared sweetmeats (although sometimes simply a sweet sauce), and compotes were never common, but they began to establish themselves in ways that suggest they had a distinctive place in food culture. On the one hand these might appear, like electuaries, as palliative medicines; but they also featured in dining, among the foods that might come with spice plates at the conclusion to a meal, or for distribution on special occasions, such as funerals. John Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter, in his will of 1368, instructed that there should not be a drinking with spices around his body in the choir, but allowed that it might happen in the chapter house or elsewhere. When the body of the Duke of Clarence was brought back to England for burial in 1421, his household spent £1 3s. 3d. in London on confections for the day of his burial.

Spices, sugars and preserves were of great importance for the food culture of medieval England. They connected individuals to commodities that had travelled half-way round the globe, commodities that were fabulous in their reputation and price; they fuelled the literary imagination and the vocabulary of sensory devotion; and they brought exotic tastes — and a passion for them — to the country. It is perhaps no wonder that moralists saw them as symbolic of exaggerated expenditure, as a harbinger of perdition; but they also saw in them heavenly qualities, qualities that inspired religious imagination.
Food and drink mattered to medieval people in many ways, not simply in terms of diet and nutrition. We can learn much about their daily lives and mentalities from looking at the connections that came with growing food, preparing it for consumption, and eating and drinking — which took up major parts of their time, effort and resources. A key element in their food culture were the sauces, spices, sugars and preserves, around which a chapter (and page 99) centre. These were highly desirable exotic goods of great value, which had a profound impact on medieval life — it was, after all, the quest for sea routes to the spice islands that drove the European voyages of discovery of the second half of the fifteenth century.

But to start the story where it should begin: by the twelfth century there was a cuisine that was common to the elite across Europe. Based on sharp, acidic sauces and highly flavoured with spices, it had probably evolved as a response to one of the great practical problems of the Middle Ages: the preservation of food. Salt solutions — sauces (in Latin, salsa) — contained other elements as well, herbs and spices, which were a subtle way of shaping flavours. Sauces and spices stimulated the appetite and continued to operate as food was digested, heating it and assisting in the process. Spices from the east had started to arrive in southern Europe by 1000 AD, and the trade expanded greatly through the Middle Ages. Sugar, treated as a spice, was cultivated in the Middle East and increasingly across the islands of the Mediterranean, in southern Spain and on the islands of the Atlantic. It brought a sweetness to foods in northern Europe that had only before been available from honey and fruits.

To some, spices of great price were both an extravagance and an undesirable sensory stimulation that would lead to perdition. But of course many people did not see it that way. Strewn on food as it was served at elite meals, sweetmeats and spices were also presented for consumption at the close of the meal (perhaps as we would eat chocolates), or taken separately.
Learn more about The Culture of Food in England, 1200-1500 at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue