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Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 153 - Getting to Their Mind through Their Plate: Food as Social Identity in the Medieval World

Tuesday, May 11, 2021 - 17:16

I’m something of a sucker for food-related sessions, though I’m sometimes disappointed because I’m used to hanging out with folks who work at a pretty in-depth level (as well as many of them being excellent cooks). Food is a major thread running through my historical fiction, which provides another reason for packing away layers of knowledge in the compost-heap memory. With five papers in this session (rather than the default three), they will presumably be a bit on the shorter side. And…I enter the zoom just as they’re commenting on one of the presenters dropping out, but I don’t know which one yet.

Those Gluttonous Gauls: Gluttony and Abundance as a Late Roman Stereotype - Richard Ray Rush, University of California, Riverside

The late antique stereotype of Gauls as being gluttonous was used in turn to critique extreme fasting in Gaul at the beginning of the 5th century. Sulpicius’ life of Martin of Tours has a running joke about the supposed Gaulish tendency toward gluttony, showing up, e.g., in teasing his companions (Gauls) when telling a story about ascetic desert fathers. There is an implication that one’s ethnicity determines one’s relationship to food. The larger context is that S. Martin was accepted by all the people appearing in the text as being more holy than any of the eastern ascetics, and yet was able to manage this without removing himself from the world or going contrary to his nature. The running joke disrupts the significance of extreme fasting, making it a source of humor rather than awe.

A similar stereotype about Gauls is present in the writings of John Cassian (early 5th c) where he proposes a modification of the monastic rule for the use of Gauls, asserting that the harsher climate and the diversity of behavior made the eastern monastic rule impossible for Gauls to follow. But there is a suggestion that this may have had an alternate purpose of undermining the influence of specific ascetic figures in Gaul that Cassian was in conflict with.

Zooarchaeology and Community Construction in Early Medieval Ireland - Erin Aisling Crowley-Champoux, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

General comments about the importance of cattle and dairy products in early Ireland. A study of animal remains across a broad timespan can support or undermine the self-reporting of dietary practices from texts. Evidence for decline of previously consistent importance of cattle (alongside goats/sheep, horses, and pigs) around the 9th century, which coincides with a change in mill types. Coastal sites see remains of fish, wild birds and other non-domestic animals, with dear providing materials for crafts as well. Fish remains increase, especially in Dublin, in the later medieval period. There is a presentation of the archaeological history of a specific site on the east coast of Ireland. In the earliest strata, animal remains are ca. 2/6 cattle, followed by ca. ¼ sheep/goats (and then the slide moved on).  Changes in the location and shape of the archaeological structures can be matched with shifts in the animal remains with cattle eventually falling somewhat in favor of greater diversity, as well as more evidence for grain production and storage. There is also evidence of fishing at significant offshore depths, suggesting intensive fishing rather than casual coastal fishing.

Golden Gifts in Anglo-Saxon Feasting - Kelly L. Plevniak, University of Minnesota- Twin Cities

[Presenter was not able to appear.]

The Normans and Saxons Who Knew All the Anguilles: Eels and Medieval English Identity - John Wyatt Greenlee, Independent Scholar

Modern western culture has developed a distaste for eels, but this is a significant change from the diet and economy of medieval England. Eels made up a massive proportion of the biomass in English rivers. In the English diet, eels were a greater proportion of the diet than all other freshwater fish combined, and greater than all saltwater fish combined. The phenomenon of eel rents is noted (i.e., payment of rents in eels). [Note: I am making the connection with the eel-rent guy on twitter. Could there be two academics both obsessed with eel-rents?]

The significant of eels shows up not only in the diet, but in place-names, coats of arms, as an artistic motif, as a symbolic representative of Englishness. An anecdote is presented about S. Aethelwold and a mystic vision of a boat full of eels who are turned into (English) men. [Note: we are presented with an image of a hovercraft full of eels.] This is a parallel made to being “a fisher of men” while localizing it specifically in England. More eel lore. Ending with a note on the eel’s endangered status and a plea for eel-consciousness.

“Car je ferai un grant mangerie”: Food and Identity in the Manière de langage - Ashley Powers, Ohio Wesleyan University

The manuscript mentioned in the title also featured in one of yesterday’s panels: a set of dialogues intended as something of a phrasebook to teach French to English people. The book is not merely a phrasebook but also a guide to conduct. Food is a significant theme. Such conduct books do not simply describe, but prescribe behavior. A contrast between two meals, described in detail, demonstrates this purpose. One is the meal eaten by a lord on the road when staying at an inn, the second eaten by two laborers. The lord’s meal is described in detail with a large variety of dishes in several courses. (Much of the content of the paper is lists of dishes and ingredients.)

The meal of the gardener and ditch-digger at an inn is much less varied, though hearty and calorie-rich. The diners have crude manners and eat quickly from hunger.

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