Thursday, 22 November 2012

Medieval Cooks and Food Illusions

I'm enjoying the BBC's 'Food, Glorious Food' season and as usual I have my eye out for servants. Clarissa Dickson-Wright's program shows that the medieval nobility and gentry demanded meals which were both filling and entertaining. Cooks created 'illusion foods', dishes which confounded diners' expectations. For instance meat-free 'hasteletes' were crafted from dried fruits - hasteletes were usually entrails. Yum. Below, Heston Blumenthal similarly creates 'meat fuit' by making plums out of a bull's ... er ... plums.

Even more spectacular examples of theatrical food abounded. Blackbirds baked in a pie? Small fry to Philip the Good whose chef encased a  live orchestra in a giant pastry shell at the Feast of the Pheasant. As Nicola McDonald explains, lords who commissioned such displays weren't just trying to demonstrate their hospitable natures and their largesse. Hosts who presented their guests with roast peacocks returned to their feathered skins, or rigged up cooked fowl to jump around in their dishes, showed that they had "power to conjure life itself and, by implication, death." (1)

Contemporary depiction of Philip the Good's feast (1454)

But what do these culinary shows tell us about the cooks who prepared them? Well, clearly these servants must have been highly skilled artists, but they also catered for their households' day-to-day necessities in hot, noisy and smelly kitchens. Successful cooks must have been skilled in directing staff, the many underlings who helped cook and prepare food. Furthermore, McDonald points out that lords expected their cooks to be knowledgeable in medical matters since they prepared the foods and drinks which would increase or purge their lords' humours. Indeed, beginner cooks trained for several years; cooks belonged to guilds and so worked as apprentices and journeymen before setting up their own shops or joining households as servants.

But despite their years of training and medical knowledge, their  application of elbow grease and artistic finesse, cooks suffered from an "image problem" in the Middle Ages. (2) Chefs in literature were often portrayed as drunken, stupid and bad-tempered. Melitta Weiss Adamson has speculated that educated elites looked disdainfully on chefs because they catered to the body, rather than the spirit. Chaucer's apprentice cook in his unfinished 'Cook's Tale', for instance, although an amiable fellow, is sacked because of his drinking and gambling.

So next time you watch Heston's  ice-cream pork pies or 'meat fruit', spare a thought for the unacknowledged culinary artists of the Middle Ages.

(1) Nicola McDonald, "Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion," in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, ed. Nicola McDonald (Manchester University Press, 2004), 124-150.

(2) Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood Press, 2004).

Friday, 9 November 2012

Playing Maria


Maria in Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's wiliest and most interesting servants. This year the Globe theatre staged an all-male production of Twelfth Night and Paul Chahidi played Maria (pictured above). Click play above and you can listen to him discuss the challenges of playing a female servant, and his interpretation of Maria - courtesy of the Globe website. Do visit for more fantastic resources.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

"If you Want to Belch, be Mindful to Look at the Ceiling": Walter Map's Unruly Servants

Serving the table in the Lutrell Psalter (c. 1320)

Medieval conduct books are full of advice for children starting out as servants. Unlike the advice found in early modern household manuals, the instructions are often practical to the point of absurdity. Daniel of Beccles, in his Urbanus Magnus  or The Civilised Man (c.1200), offers these sage guidelines:

-          “Spoons which are used for eating do not become your property”
-          “If you want to belch, be mindful to look at the ceiling”
-          “Do not hunt for fleas on your arms or bosom in front of the  patron”

(Translations found here ).

Such behavioural guides “flourished in courts and elite households” from the thirteenth century onwards “as manuscripts were passed among family members and new books were composed and conveyed through the generations” (1).  Reading them, we might image medieval servants as belching, flea-ridden, badly-behaved infants. But the advice is designed to transform these ragged infants into well-mannered courtiers and to turn dinner-times into synchronised routines. Harmonious and disciplined households would surely follow.

This transformation did not occur, however, in the household of poor Walter Map. Map, supposedly of Welsh origins, was a courtier for Henry II, and he describes his home life in his De Nugis Curialium or Trifles of Courtiers. In this text his naughty servants run rings around him, eating and drinking their fill and working together to undermine their employer. Map laments his own inefficiency; he cannot “hold the reins” of his “little team” and “[i]f I bring a just charge against any of them, he denies it and finds others to back him” (2).

A downtrodden Walter then goes on to narrate an instance of particularly bad behaviour which “was really hard on me”. His servants, he explains, were fond of spreading rumours about him and making him believe that they and the locals disliked him. One nasty rumour accused him of being “stingy”, so his servants devise a plan which, they say, will prove his generosity.  His servants began to:

go into the streets and lanes and say I had sent them to compel travellers to come in. The servants in the house received the guests with the greatest respect, said that I was most anxious to see them, and hoped they would come often. Then they would run into me and announce that guests had arrived, men of good position, and made me welcome them in.

Of course, this impromptu welcoming of strange ‘guests’ had nothing to do with  making Walter look good, but was instead a means of making “meat and drink fly”  in the guise of hospitality. The wily servants then “gorged themselves to any extent in my presence” which, Walter adds “they knew I hated” – somewhat proving his servant’s point about his stinginess.

Now, we have no means of knowing how much this was true and De Nugis is full of scurrilous court gossip. But either way, Map’s image of the unruly household opposes the kind of world conduct books tried to cultivate. Map’s servants are not deferential, orderly and moderate in their customs and habits. They run around stuffing themselves with food, inviting people into the home with no thought for material or personal safety. In fact – unlike Walter – they sound like a hoot.

(1). Roberta L. Kreuger, "Teach your Children Well: Medieval Conduct Guides for Youths," in Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English Translations, ed. Mark D. Johnston (U. of Toronto Press, 2009), ix-xxxi. ix.

(2) Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, ed. and trans. M.R.James (OUP, 1983).