Saturday, 8 September 2012

Food in Days Gond-by - Meat and Fish on the Menu

Not very long ago, I've started a mini-series dealing with food and its social significance during the period historians call, the early-modern European period (approx. 1450-1800). The first post in this series dealt with the kind of bread people ate at the time (see Flour and Bread crumbs). 
Now its time for another post in the series: 

Meat and Fish

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In the early modern period, meat was an important part of any good diet. Before the late fourteenth century (1300s), meat was a bit of a luxury for the lower social classes and only the nobility ate meat regularly. However, between the late fourteenth century and fifteenth centuries, the European population was drastically reduced as a result of the Black Death. With this came a greater abundance of food and meat became more common for all classes. 

After the fifteenth century, there was a population boom again, and meat became more expensive. It was at this time that different kinds of meat began to be divided into social categories. There was now 'lordly' meat and 'lowly' meat - meat for nobles and meat for the lower classes and the peasants - for 'rustical' stomachs. 
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For example, a veal's or boar's head was considered 'food for princes' and it was usually presented whole with garnishes on a large platter. Fowl, such as game birds, chicken, pheasant, partridge, swan, or peacock, was another kind of meat considered fit only for the nobility for a long time. Birds were close to the heavens and thus fitter for softer and nobler stomachs, it was believed. This was demonstrated at times (usually in the earlier part of the early-modern period) by a pie with live birds inside. The host would tear it open and release the birds into the room. It was a form of dinning entertainment.  

By the sixteenth century, however, fowl became available for the common people, too. The story behind this is quite interesting. It is said that it was King Henry IV of France who decided that every Frenchmen should have the right to eat fowl at least once a week. The nobility were upset, accusing the king of 'democratizing' it. However, it became a common practice in France to eat fowl each Sunday, especially chicken. Soon eating poultry became cheap and common. It was at this time, also, that turkey was introduced from North America, becoming another popular kind of fowl to eat for both rich and poor. 

Generally, however, meats eaten by peasants or common people was not considered fit for the nobility to eat. This included, for example, sausages, tough old beef, and salted and preserved meats. Organ meats, such as livers, kidneys, lungs, spleen, heart, and intestines, were particularly associated with peasants. They were were considered tough and hearty and, therefore, better suited to more 'rustical stomachs'.   

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However, in early modern Europe, especially before the Reformation (in the 1500s) and during the period of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Church prescribed between 140 and 160 days per year of abstinence from meat and other animal products, such as eggs, milk, and butter. This period included Lent, Advent, and every Wednesday and Friday. Fish, therefore, succeeded as an excellent alternative, becoming the cultural definition of a meatless diet. However, even fish became divided into social levels, with salted and preserved fish seen as a symbol of poverty and subordination, while fresh fish was seen as a sign of wealth. This was because fresh fish was very difficult for common people to come by, with most of the fishing lakes or rivers 'owned' by the nobility.  However, by the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the ability of fish wagons to transport fresh fish over longer distances, fresh fish became more common and popular. 

All this social dividing of the meat and fish began to fall away as time went on and it came to depend more on who could afford what kind of meat or fish to eat. 


Albala, Ken, Eating Right in the Renaissance, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, 184-216

Albala, Ken, 'Religion and Food', in Food in Early Modern Europe, 2003, p. 193-208

Montanari, Massimo, ‘To Each His Own’, in The Culture of Food, Oxford, UK & Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, p. 84-89

'Culinary History: The Evolution of Cooking', Episode 2: 'Feasting in the Middle Ages' ,  written by Michele Barriere and Phillippe Allante,  Jean-Yves Huchet and Nicolas Goldzahl (Executive Producers), VM Group,  2005

'Culinary History: The Evolution of Cooking', Episode 3: 'The Delights of the Renaissance',  Written by Michele Barriere and Phillippe Allante, Executive producers: Jean-Yves Huchet and Nicolas Goldzahl, VM Group,  2005

'Culinary History: The Evolution of Cooking', Episode 4: 'Enlightened Savours' ,  Written by Michele Barriere and Phillippe Allante, Executive producers: Jean-Yves Huchet and Nicolas Goldzahl, VM Group,  2005


Shaz in Oz.CalligraphyCards said...

Hi there Sarah thanks so much for the post - and all the information of our past - I loved that era at school and would read up on it in my spare time - my parents gave me a treasured book on it which I still keep. Really makes us realise how different it is today..
Would really appreciate prayer for this post here - am sharing it with my unsaved dad .. thanks, love

Anonymous said...

Hello can I reference some of the material here in this entry if I reference you with a link back to your site?

Sarah said...

Hi Shaz! Sorry for the delay to comment back. I'm really glad you enjoy this period...that must be a very interesting book your Parents gave you. What's its title?

Sarah said...

@ Anonymous
That's alright with me...I don't mind If you reference my entry with a link back to this blog:) cheers:)

Joy said...

This was a fascinating post about the eating of meats through the early modern European period, Sarah! I really enjoyed reading it :).

I love you heaps!
hugs <3

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