The Culture of Food and Feasting in High Medieval England, c. 1066-1330
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
The Culture of Food and Feasting in High Medieval England (Project Abstract) The feast in medieval England brings into focus complex issues regarding ceremony and ritual, noble status and family lineage, community, and political authority. The feast was a stage where the lord demonstrated control over nature and its resources through the provision of food. This allowed for management of the household, the construction of informal relationships, and the publicization of formal ones. The feast also reflected the lord’s person with its displays of largesse, Christian piety, and good manners. It was usually a public affair, at which the lord’s socio-political effectiveness and personal identity could shine for a large and diverse audience. The feast was a powerful symbol of good lordship, and it has been studied extensively by historians. Existent scholarship favours the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and covers its tangible aspects such as types of food, how it was acquired, how it was cooked, who served it, and how meals were conducted, in addition to expenditure, seating arrangement, cooking methods, nutrition, and material culture. Some of the social and cultural issues expressed by the feast (e.g. largesse and hospitality) have been studied but mostly from an ecclesiastical perspective. My thesis will take a step back from the individual parts in order to examine the cultural and symbolic significance of the feast as a whole. Our knowledge of the feast is less informed by its literary culture, so my study focuses on the feast’s representation in chronicles, hagiographies, and vernacular romance. These types of narrative are all literary to a degree (even historical chronicles) and writers were free to represent the feast in its idealised form. Economic and logistical concerns are subverted in favour of the feast’s greater symbolic significance. When we examine the feast’s narrative representation, we can trace an increasingly settled and domestic culture of lordship that emerged in High Medieval England. This was a period of profound change in England and throughout Western Europe. Food production increased across Western Europe in this period of increased farming and commerce. And the growth of bureaucratic structures combined with manner of lordship in England based on hierarchical landholding required lords who managed the land and its resources, kept a household, and participated in hierarchical and reciprocal relationships with one another, and with the king. The feast demonstrated the practical and managerial exercise of lordship in the territorial and household settings. It also reflected modes of spiritual refinement and courtliness in the aftermath of the Peace Movement and Gregorian reform, which inspired clerical beliefs that lords should manage their violent impulses and conduct themselves as model Christians. Economic and social changes impacted the nature and perception of lordship, so they also influenced societal perceptions of what the feast was meant to accomplish and represent. The nature of these changes can be read in the feast’s narrative representation, and we can understand better how the banqueting society of the Late Medieval England arose from the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxon mead hall.
MPhil Medieval Studies