Social Significance of Food in Early Modern Europe (c.1350 -1800)
Today's society is bombarded with mass produced food competitions and cooking shows. Restaurants and food carts pop-up at every corner, and grocery shops are constantly stacked with most everything that one could imagine. Exotic foods are available year-round, and some are even affordable. Food is truly everywhere in this country, and everybody is trying to cook the latest experience. As one of the most basic of human necessities, food has become part of an expanding "material culture" and, in some instances, part of a luxury culture (van der Veen 2003, 405).
Yet this basic human necessity, this basic experience, was not always readily available and, hard as it may be to believe, many people still cannot afford to eat well, even in this country. Just as it did in Ancient Rome, different societal status often means better food, even today. This particular detail has been true since the dawn of recorded history, though some exceptions are present -- mostly due to religion. Whereas in today's age, one can advance and buy a better experience, or at least see different types of foods, in early modern Europe, this was not necessarily the case. Peasants often stayed peasants as the wealthy became wealthier. Very few could pretend to be of different social strata and could advance to the better dining experience, where luxury was present.
Certainly, food has been and is a vital part of one's life, not only from a survival perspective, but also from a social interaction perspective, and the dining experience is of vital importance. This paper will thus examine a small part of food's history as it made its way through early modern Europe from circa the 1350's to the 1800's, and will discuss the changes in the social significance of different foods through these years in three periods, whilst also analyzing the concept of food as a luxury and its implications for past and present societies.
Three Periods of Food Culture
As mentioned above, the rich eat better. This has always been the case, even when food was scarce. Whole generations would starve, as was the case in the Irish Famine, yet the lords and the nobles would fare well regardless of such circumstances. This one aspect is still true today. The difference is seen when one analyzes what types of foods different classes ate in early modern Europe. The "social connotations of food" have been of paramount importance when selecting dietary experiences, especially if one can afford to think about such things (Albala 2002, 184). For example, according to Ken Albala, if an item is "considered gross and crude and associated with the peasantry [it] will render the consumer peasant-like because those same elements that make up the peasant will be absorbed by the consumer."
On the other hand, Albala continues to say that "to a courtier, magnificent banquet dishes not only signify wealth, power, and sophistication but transfer those properties directly into the individual diner [therefore] an exquisite dish makes the eater exquisite" (Albala 2002, 184). These two quotations evidence the fact that social constructions of one's identity are directly related to food. In other words, if one wished to be a noble, one had to do as nobles did. Otherwise, his or her eating habits would have reflected something that one may not have wished to present at court.
One would have to be educated on what to present at court as well, for food preferences changed throughout early modern Europe depending on innovations and novelties. In order to analyze this, it is easier to break up the time frame into three periods. The first period is to range from around 1350 until approximately 1540, with period two ranging from after 1540 to the late 16th century, and period three continuing from the 17th century until the beginning of the 19th century. According to Albala, social stratification based on food formed in Europe during this time because of the existence of different classes, and therefore the need of social gradations in food consumption. In less stratified cultures, such as those found in Africa, these differences are not present.
The availability of luxuries also added to these differences in Europe, as did overpopulation in the 14th and 16th centuries, before plagues (Albala 2002, 187). During the first period, foods were essentially separated into those available for laborers and those for men of leisure. Laborers could eat crass, hard foods, but a more delicate person would need light, easily digestible foods. In this respect, period one food choices were relatively simple.
Intellectuals also described better foods as those in which one would use spices, sugar, various cooking techniques or food coloring processes. Also, depending on class, the sheer amount of food varied, with the high classes eating more. Whereas the elite ate the better meat parts, this staple was still available to all classes. In fact, 14th to 16th century documents reveal "notable levels of meat consumption" (Montanari 1996, 74). Birds, including peacocks and swans, were deemed fit only for the elite, but this was a "matter of cost, rather than prohibitive nature" (Albala 2002, 188).
By period two, however, there was a list of foods associated with peasants that was not to be eaten by the elite, including sausages, salted meats, some fish, and porridges, dishes heretofore eaten by all without discrimination (Albala 2002, 192). Due to various changes in society, including the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, the distinctive diet of the latter became a more obvious symbol of poverty. Some intellectuals also proposed organ meats as a substitute for those who could not afford meat or others supplies, to stave off famine, though few could heed such advice, for it was written in Latin and most could not read.
Organ meats, by period three, were clearly associated with lower classes and considered repugnant by the upper echelons. Whereas in period one and to some extent in period two, food criticism with respect to class was more directed towards health and digestive issues, by period three, this was no longer the case. Instead, "criticism is no longer that these foods are gross and difficult to digest but that they are considered edible only to a certain class" (Albala 2002, 193).
The differentiations between classes based on food were quite rigid. With enough money, one can buy an experience today, but in those days, those who failed to respect the rules of food classes and the elite's foodstuffs did so at their own risk. "Attacks on class privilege […] were fiercely punished," according to Massimo Montanari. He describes a story in which a peasant from the countryside stole peaches, which were an upper class food, from his master's garden. The peasant was eventually caught in an animal trap and when he was discovered he was scalded with boiling water and berated by his master who stated, "In the future, leave my fruit alone and eat your own foods which are turnips, garlic, leeks, onions and shallots with sorghum bread" (Montanari 1996, 86). This incident proves that people did violate social order, but with consequences. Today, this crime would be punished based on a breach of law, not a breach of class.
Food as Luxury -- Then and Now
This concept of separations of foods based on class has, in a way, been carried through to the present in our society. Fast food, for example, may be more affordable for everyone and may be associated with a lower income group. It is thus important to study how food could have become such as luxury back then to truly understand the social order and compare this to the present, where remnants of such a social order still remain (Super 2002, 167).