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The relationship between meat consumption and power in late medieval and early modern England

by Nicole Maceira Cumming

University of Glasgow

On September 28th, 1465, six thousand guests attended “the great feast at the intronization of the reverende father in God George Nevell, Archbishop of York.” George Neville was the fifth son of the Earl of Salisbury, who not only had royal blood through three familial lines, but was also connected to most of the other noble houses of England through marriage. The guest list reads as a Who’s Who of sixteenth century England, and at the “hygh table” alone sat two royal dukes, two earls, and three bishops, with the second table being made up of thirty-one heads of religious houses (Leland 1770, 2-3). The guest list is undoubtedly impressive, but what is even more revealing is the menu:

…Twelve porpoises and seals…one thousand mutton…six wild bulls…five hundred stags and does…four thousand pigeons…four hundred swans…

These are just a few of the figures taken from the extensive bill of fare. As Krish Seetah (2007) has considered, “meat per se might well have been seen as an indicator of social status and standing” (24). The sheer number of animals procured for the feast, as well as the presence of more unusual meats such as porpoise, are demonstrative of the Archbishop’s status. An extravagant feast such as this would have required access not only to wealth, but also land and natural resources. This large display of animal flesh represents two important aspects of elite power: social status within the human hierarchy, and control over the natural world. As Carol Adams (2010) asserts, “people with power have always eaten meat” (48).

Recent years have seen the emergence of an influential body of work that considers the consumption of animal flesh alongside elite displays of power, as well as the human relationship to the natural world. The focus has most often been on Renaissance culture, the medieval period, or the early modern period, respectively. By extending the period considered to include both late medieval and early modern, this essay aims to demonstrate how a shift occurred over time, a transition which remains largely unexplored in existing literature. These discussions, on England and Europe as a whole, have been centered around a variety of topics, including hunting (Bergman, 2007; Plukowski, 2007; Klemittila, 2015), noble dining practices (Albala, 2002/2007; Lehmann, 2003), religious culture (Bazell, 1997), and meat commodification (Seetah, 2007). Erica Fudge suggests in her article, “Say Nothing Concerning the Same: On Dominion, Purity, and Meat in Early Modern England” (2004), that the “dinner plate might be figured as the least dramatic display of human dominion over other animals” but that it functions as a “subtly powerful insight into anthropocentrism” (70). However, the “dinner plate” can also provide an important insight into human behaviors, in particular the display of power.

This paper will examine noble hunting and feasts, religion, and early modern commodification, thereby considering the relationship between meat and power in England. The initial focus will be on the role that meat consumption played in elite culture, looking at both hunting practices and feasts in order to demonstrate how the nobility and elite members of society enjoyed a distinct relationship with meat consumption in high medieval culture. I will then consider the link with Christianity, demonstrating how meat consumption came to express the power of the Church in markedly different ways throughout the period. Both of these sections will focus on how the relationship between meat and power was established within late medieval English society and then explicitly carried into the early modern period. I will then go on to consider how this relationship both informed and was informed by important social changes in the early modern period. Discussed here will be the commodification of meat and its role as an elevator of social status for the growing bourgeois population post-1600. Analysis will center on the diary of Samuel Pepys as a lens through which to examine this emerging relationship within seventeenth-century England. The examination of all three themes together will allow for an effective consideration of both the changes that occurred and the continuities that were maintained throughout late medieval and early modern England.

The “foote” and the feast: displays of elite power

Hunting provides one of the most obvious examples of the power politics surrounding animal flesh. Hunting was closely linked with the national control which English and other European monarchs exerted over their lands and peoples. Aleksander Pluskowski (2007) argues that hunting was central to medieval seigneurial appropriations of animal bodies (33). Hunting was part of the fabric of the aristocracy and nobility, and strict restrictions were in place to prevent those of lower orders doing what Thomas Elyot disdainfully branded in 1531 as hunting “for the potte” (Elyot 1531, 196). Elyot’s comment confirms that hunting for sustenance alone was not comparable to noble hunting, which was defined by its theatrical displays and strict etiquette. The defining ritual of the hunt was the “unmaking” of the deer, which Charles Bergman (2007) suggests can be understood as an enactment of social and human control over the beast (62). The Boke of St Albans (1486) is one of several medieval English manuals on hunting. The section entitled “Roo huntyng, brekyng, and dressyng” details how to reward the hounds and how to position, skin and cut the body of the animal. “Eche foote” should be taken and “cutte in iiii,” then the entrails and skin removed (Berners, [1486] 1901, 92). The highly ritualized process detailed in The Boke embodies elite power over the natural world, even detailing how the “howndes” were to be rewarded. Through this rewarding of their chosen hounds, the hunter created a hierarchy that did not exist in nature. A line was drawn not only between man and beast, but also between the animals themselves. The Boke demonstrates how human power acted to place the hounds under man but above the deer. The unmaking was symbolic, and it elevated the animal flesh beyond its role as sustenance, ergo, elevating the hunters themselves. As Hannele Klemettila (2015) argues, the unmaking served to signal the distance between the aristocratic hunter and “lesser agents of violence” such as poachers and professional butchers (51). This is echoed in the words of Elyot. The noble hunters are not animals consuming animals: they are man, created in the image of God, controlling nature and expressing their civility.

Figure 1

The process of unmaking both encompassed human control over the animal and enforced human hierarchies. Within the hunt, “the body of the beast [became] the language of civilised order” (Bergman 2007, 63). The ritual of “unmaking” depicted in The Boke involved a carefully thought-out process which detailed specific methods for taking apart the animal body and made explicitly clear who should be involved in this process. The unmaking was an integral component to any hunting manual. George Gascoigne describes the unmaking process twice in his Noble Art of Venerie (1575), explaining how the animal was broken up and distributed according to rank. Figure 1 is an illustration of a knife being handed to the chief huntsman. The image shows a hunting party gathered around a hunted deer which has been placed onto its back, with all the attention focused on the chief hunt. This scene depicts the initial proceedings in the first stage of the unmaking, after which the “chiefe hunte” would take his knife and cut off the “Deares right foote” (127-133), then presenting it to the King (possibly the gentleman on the right side of the image). The body was then divided in a particular order before the “best favoured hounds and huntsmen” were called forward to be rewarded “favourably, as hath byn the custome of all noble personages to do” (Gascoigne 1611, 128). In Figure 1, the hounds and other hunstmen are shown to be in the background awaiting their summons. The language used in the text confirms to the reader that these customs are conducive to the existence of a noble culture. They endorse the status quo and reflect the social order. The unmaking was an outward display of power and also an essential component within the preservation of noble power as a whole. It may be construed that if these customs were to be relaxed, the perceived “natural order” might be weakened. There were distinct jobs for the head huntsman down to the kennel valet, and these positions were mirrored by the parts of the animal body that were awarded to the various members of the hunting party. Only the king or “chiefe personage” could be given the “haunches, and tenderlings,” whereas the “varlet that keepes the bloudhound” would be awarded only “the chyne,” and these instructions extended down to the animals who partook in the hunt at the command of their human owners (Gascoigne 1611, 127-132). The Noble Art demonstrates well the power hierarchy that existed within the hunting party and hints at how these customs were in fact indicative of and essential to wider societal structures.

The language of “civilized order” certainly extended beyond the hunt, and it found a decided place at the dining table. Displays of power could be readily articulated through the consumption of meat, as the enthronement feast for the Archbishop of York demonstrates. Social hierarchies were reinforced by the seating positions around the table as well as the dishes on the table. Chris Woolgar (1999), Gilly Lehmann (2003), and Seetah (2007) all emphasize that within the banquet menus of the late medieval period, those of higher status were served more courses and better meat. Lehmann’s in-depth study of medieval English menus provides many pertinent examples. The menu for the 1425 enthronement of John Stafford as Bishop of Bath and Wells offered the top table five roasts in the first course: kid, capon, swan, heron and crane, whereas the lower table only received kid and capon (Lehmann 2003, 67). Rarer meats such as swan would be reserved only for those of the highest social standing. Albala argues that the message conveyed was more complicated than that of wealth. It was about privilege and creating a marker of what was “the preserve of nobility” (Albala 2007, 42-43). Privilege can be understood to represent birth right and lineage. Money could be earned, but a place within the nobility could not. Being born into a noble lineage was seen as a rightful and natural inheritance, and hierarchies were thought to exist for a reason.

The central place that hunted meats occupied within the feast supports Albala’s argument. Venison played a prominent role in the menu for Archbishop Neville’s enthronement, and, as previously noted, the inclusion of unusual meat such as porpoise was a clear marker of status. Venison and porpoise could not be purchased in the way that beef or pork might be. It had to be procured through hunting (which was the preserve of the nobility and gentry) or through one’s societal connections, and it was therefore emblematic of status and power. The great feasts and the “meats of prestige” were intended to impress, and, as Lehmann suggests, the actual quantities of these meats consumed in everyday aristocratic households in medieval England were in fact quite low. The 1431–1432 household accounts of John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, show that the proportion of game in the total weight of meat consumed was only 7% (Lehmann 2003, 54-55). The presence of these meats at social gatherings was, therefore, evidently a method of communicating and confirming status.

The manner in which people were expected to behave at the table was made clear in a large number of treatises, and, as such, the carving and serving of meat amongst the upper class was well documented. Carving was an important development in England, as it was across Europe. It was closely related to the meats served at the Lord’s table, such as game and ornamental birds, and to how they should be carved and appropriated according to rank (Woolgar 1999, 205). Carving demonstrates how the unmaking of the animal body held an important place within elite practices that extended beyond the hunt. One such important text is The Boke of kervynge (1508). This practical guide for “servyce of a prynce” provides detailed information on how certain meats should be cut, how the knife should be used properly, and how to present the meat on the table (Worde 1508, 2-10). Even the terminology was important. For example, the server must “breke” a deer, “wynge” a partridge, or “culpon” a trout (2). The number of prepared meats served reflected the social hierarchy: a man of “grete estate” should have “fyve trenchours” set before him, whereas a man of “lower degree” only four trenchours, meaning serving platters (Worde 1508, 12). These highly ritualized interactions between the elite, the servers, and the animal bodies set out to reinforce and endorse a particular sense of order.

Figure 2

Feasts were carefully designed displays, and different occasions customarily warranted different menus. Hannah Wooley’s cookery book and household manual The queen-like closet (1670) provides a fantastic example of suggested bills of fare for a noble house. A three-course menu for “extraordinary feasts in the summer,” (353) although slightly less extravagant, recalls the Archbishop’s enthronement menu. Venison and a wide variety of fish take center stage. While the variety of meats remain impressive in the “winter season,” (355) venison and fish are markedly absent—undoubtedly due to lack of availability out of hunting and fishing season. These lavish menus contrast to the bill of fare to be used by “Great and Noble Houses for their own family, and for familiar friends” (Wooley 1670, 360-361). This later bill of fare demonstrates how a menu could be scaled back for everyday meals, even amongst the wealthiest. It should, however, be noted that a choice of seven meats, including venison, still remain. Wooley’s bills of fare show how central meat was in the diet of the elite and demonstrates how closely tied the feast was to the display of power. The more important the guests or the occasion, the more meat, both in quantity and quality.
Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) heralded the idea that “everything is a matter of appearance.” Hence, “the semblance of piety, the apprehension of power and ruthlessness [and] the reputation of virtue are all more important than the actual possession of these traits” (Albala 2007, 5). The banquet management books of Renaissance Europe held this message at their heart, particularly in their insistence that the honor of the Scalo depended upon the performance of the meal, as did the reputation of the prince himself (Albala 2007, 5). Figure 2, “A Feast,” is taken from the English edition of the children’s encyclopedia Comenius Orbis Pictus (1705). The illustration and accompanying text detail the inner workings of the feast, from the laying of the table to the carving of the meat, and demonstrate the importance of etiquette (Comenius [1659] 1705, 72-73). The original text was written in Latin, which confirms its target audience: the European elite. The image shows the nobles sitting around the table and each server performing his required duty. The carver, indicated by the number 18, is shown to be carrying out his duties in a similar manner as the one detailed in The Boke of Kervynge (1508). The proper display of meat was integral to the feast, and its inclusion in a children’s work demonstrates how these displays were instilled within elite culture from an early age.

Figure 3a

Figure 3b

These displays were well understood among both the nobility and their staff. Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1732) provides suggested table displays based on her experience as a housekeeper for “fashionable and noble families” (Smith [1732] 1773, 9). Figure 3a, “Summer,” and Figure 3b, “Winter,” are examples from Smith’s book (1773). The images not only demonstrate the integral role of meat at the dining table of the elites, but also the importance of display and presentation. The extravagant dishes are deliberately placed, and the varied range of meats on the table cannot help but evoke an image of human power and control over nature. There are sea and land animals aside, animal flesh combined within dishes and, quite simply, meat is the primary focus on the table. Without impressive resources, this table display would not have been possible, and the attention given to the display itself serves as a reminder of how much power and control humans could exert over nature.

Abstinence and Aquinas: the place of the Church

The relationship between meat and power was tied to contemporary understandings of man and nature. Nick Fiddes (1991) has argued that the most important feature of meat is that it tangibly represents human control over the natural world. He suggests that throughout British history, human subjugation of the “wild” natural world has been a central theme (3). Andreas Maehle (1994) notes the prevalent view in the Christian west that human life held more value than other life (86). This view can be readily supported with the authority of the bible, and it is therefore rather unsurprising that it became a dominant stance. Genesis 1:26–28 states that man was created in the image of God and was given “dominion over…all the earth.” This verse has been taken to demonstrate man’s God-given superiority over all other animals. This is strengthened in Genesis 2:7, when it is said that God formed man “of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…[and] man became a living soul” (King James Bible [1611] 1991, 11-12). Only man was given the breath of life from God, and this was interpreted as evidence that human life held more value. In the thirteenth century, the theologian Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in fusing classical thought with Christianity. He was heavily influenced by both Aristotle and scripture, and his work proposed a natural “chain of being.” The chain, he argued, allowed for men to kill animals and for animals to kill lesser animals and plants “for their respective benefit” (Aquinas, [1485] 1989, 140-146). Man is placed at the top of the chain. It is through this consumption of animal flesh, argues Fudge, that “humanity’s status as the gods on earth” was given a physical embodiment: “the great eater” (Fudge 2004, 81).

However, the relationship between the late medieval and early modern English Church itself and meat consumption was not always so clear. The consumption of meat commanded extensive attention from the part of medieval Christian theologians. Abstinence was a central debate but one which, as Diane M. Bazell (1997) highlights, varied in the value attributed to it. Meat was believed, in medical terms, to generate the humors of heat and moisture, which were believed to combat impotence and actively produce blood and semen; diets of monks should therefore exclude meat (73-78). Until the eleventh century, monastic communities had distanced themselves from the “gluttony of the social elite,” and abstinence was practiced as a mark of piety (Seetah 2007, 25). This dietary restriction highlights how meat could represent power, both structurally and internally, within religion. Yet the enthronement feast at York suggests that abstinence was no longer a requirement by the fifteenth century, at least amongst elite church members. This raises an interesting question regarding the interaction between the power of the Church and the power of the nobility within late medieval and early modern England. It would appear that over time their behavioral patterns—and consequently their relationship with meat consumption—became more closely aligned. However, this is not to say that elite power necessarily overshadowed that of the Church.
The power of the Church encompassed all aspects of life, and food restrictions are a strong example of this social control. Flesh was not meant to be consumed during certain times such as Lent. Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation in 1558 commanding that “al maner of persons of what condistion soever they be… to absteyne from kyllyng, dressyng, or eatyng of annye fleshe, vpon all such vsuall fastynge dayes.” Further, it was felt necessary in 1568 to issue a proclamation “for the keepyng of fishe dayes.” It was stated here that any offenders should be punished by law (MS Hunter 3 1558). These documents reflect the influence that Christianity had on dietary customs, but they, too, reveal through the necessity to reinstate these commands that a significant number of the population may have chosen to ignore these customs.

Hannah Wooley’s household manual provides a “Bill of Fare for Fish Days & Fasting Days.” This indicates some level of continuation of these customs into the second half of the seventeenth century. The bill suggests that this practice is most likely to be used “in Ember week, or in Lent,” suggesting that these practices were largely upheld only for significant calendar dates (Wooley 1670, 358-360). Evidently, the relationship between Christianity and meat consumption took many forms throughout the period, but the use of meat consumption as a marker of power was a recurring theme. This could be power over one’s own spiritual well-being, power over the Christian population, power over nature as represented in the chain of being, or power in alignment with elite society.

Pepys’ Diary: Meat as a commodity

As previously demonstrated, meat consumption as a marker of elite power continued throughout the early modern period in largely the same manner. However, a marked change in the role meat consumption played within English society as a whole emerged around the seventeenth century. Demand for meat extended beyond the upper class in the burgeoning towns of early modern Europe. In London, the continued increase in metropolitan demand meant that the areas from which meat was being supplied had to be widened from around 1600. These developments created a clearly defined market, and meat emerged as a highly important commodity in the following centuries. Seetah has argued that “meat as a commodity becomes increasingly more important if it can confer a sense of social elevation” (Seetah 2007, 24), and the early modern period certainly saw the bourgeois of London, and England as a whole, express their status through meat consumption. Their diet not only reflected that of the elite class, but also included certain meats more frequently, such as beef. In fact, by the eighteenth century, beef became associated with Englishness. Meat began to comprise an essential part of an English diet, and, subsequently, this conveyed a sense of national identity. The Swedish explorer Pehr Kalm commented in 1748 that he did not believe “any Englishman who [was] his is own master [had] ever eaten a dinner without meat” (Raber 2007, 83).

Samuel Pepys’ diary (penned between 1660 and 1669, and first published in 1825) provides a rare insight into the meat featured in the diet of an urban dweller of the lower bourgeois ranks. Across various diary entries, beef is mentioned (66 references) alongside other meats such as chicken (36 references) and mutton (28 references), as well as many others, although often far less commonly (Pepys 1893). Van Winter has emphasised that feasts served an important cultural function at all levels of society (Van Winter 2003, 99). This is evident from Pepys’ diary. In comparison to more humble meals in the entries of 1660, the January 26th entry mentions a “very fine dinner” upon keeping company. This meal included a great variety of dishes such as mutton, veal, fowl and larks (Pepys 1893, 33). Any emulation of noble dining practices was, however, still restricted by finance and access. Woolgar (1999) highlights venison as being a reflection of high-status, especially in the medieval period (115). As previously noted, venison could not typically be purchased, but was instead obtained from hunting or given as a gift. In Pepys’ diary, in 1660, he mentions having “rare pot venison” while out for dinner with colleagues. This suggests that venison was not common for people of his status in the seventeenth century. By 1666, however, he mentions venison again, and this time it seems more commonplace. It is eaten in the home, and no special occasion is noted. This change in the rarity reflects the elevated status of Pepys himself, but it might also suggest that meats that had once been a preserve of the upper class were gradually becoming more commonplace. However, throughout his diary entries, venison is mentioned 31 times and is always either gifted to him or enjoyed at a dinner with colleagues. Pepys’ more steady supply of venison across the decade is largely the result of his association with Sir Edward Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, and other members of the London elite. The entry for Wednesday 18th July 1660 remarks how his Lord (Montagu) “comes…with half a buck from Hinchinbroke” and gifts it to Pepys (Pepys 1893, 204). This entry serves as an important reminder that only the elite minority had access to, hunting estates. Accumulation of wealth through commercial means was often regarded as ignoble by those born into the elite. The bourgeois could gain wealth but this did not equate to status. The emulation of the nobility was therefore significant. Venison can be understood as a symbol of privilege, and, as a symbol, it demonstrates a great deal about social politics and power dynamics.

Pepys occasionally demonstrates his own understanding of the power displays that meat could embody. An entry from September 13th, 1665 details a dinner with some important associates at Sir W Hickes’ home on his estate. Pepys states that Hickes gave his guests “the meanest dinner” of only beef, shoulder, and umbles of venison “which he takes from the keeper of the forest.” He goes on to state that this is “all in the meanest manner that ever [he] did see, to the basest degree” (Pepys 1893, 75). This scathing account clearly tells us how integral these displays were: serving the wrong meats and putting on a poor feast for guests would evoke a strong reaction, even from a member of the lower bourgeois. Meat carried a message about status and character, which in turn contributed to its relationship with power.
Most meat had become substantially more accessible toward the end of the early modern period. As Anne Wilson suggests, the “prosperous decades of the eighteenth century saw even the poor in English towns affording some butchers meat” (Wilson 1973, 97). Across the medieval and early modern period, meat had been used as a tool to gain status, but by the eighteenth century, it was also associated with the greed of commercial wealth. Meat as a commodity could serve as a symbol of the drawbacks to accumulating wealth and power. William Hogarth’s famous series Industry and Idleness (1747) provides an interesting portrayal of meat consumption by the wealthy society that has been produced by industry. Plate 8 “The INDUSTRIOUS ‘PRENTICE grown rich” (Figure 4) shows the good apprentice Goodchild, now the sheriff of London, and his wife as guests of honor at a grand feast. The image contains a satire of “gluttony” in the left foreground, and meat takes center place. Hogarth’s print portrays two important ideas. It suggests to the viewer that these displays of commercial wealth are emblematic of gluttony. Here, the meat is not only a symbol of power, but also a symbol of the excess and greed that comes with this power. It also demonstrates that by the mid-eighteenth century these grand feasts, once the exclusive reserve of the elite and nobility, now represent a newly wealthy class grown out of industrialization and commercialization. Klemettila suggests that meat provides the “ideal expression” by which the power of human industry could be demonstrated (Klemettila 2015, 227). The growing access to meat was understood to be a result of human power and ingenuity in exploiting the natural world. In Pepys’ century, meat was a symbol of the social politics being articulated by an English bourgeois class finding its place within the hierarchy of the elite. By the time of Hogarth’s print, the bourgeois identity was fully developed, and meat stood to represent the power of England and its industrial success as a whole.

Conclusion

In medieval and early modern England. meat maintained an important and highly functional, as well as symbolic, role in the articulation and formation of power. Elite power structures were made clear within the hunt and the regulations that surrounded it. This hierarchy was carried over into the displays of carving and the feast. The inner details of what could be eaten, which meats were of “prestige,” as well as the careful presentation and control of court feasts, embodied the notion of power and status entirely. Alongside elite power, beliefs were also created and reinforced through the religious authority of the Christian church. The power of the church was articulated in many ways; at different times, abstinence, fasting, or dietary laws were enacted to control the population, the laity or the individual. This expression of Christian power had a profound impact on English culture. The precise details that surrounded meat consumption reinforced social hierarchies and, simultaneously, reasserted human dominion over the natural world. Growing wealth post-1600 witnessed meat emerge as highly valuable commodity that could elevate social status. As a commodity, meat contributed to the power politics that the expanding bourgeois class had to navigate, and by the eighteenth century, the articulation of bourgeois wealth led to a newly formed relationship with meat consumption. Throughout the period, the relationship between meat consumption and power was significant. I would argue that a better understanding of this relationship reveals a great deal of information about wider societal attitudes toward wealth, class and status. Meat consumption and its function as a marker of power provides a window through which late medieval and early modern English society and culture can be better realized.

List of Figures

Figure . 1. An image depicting the chief huntsman presenting a ceremonial offering.
Gascoigne, George. The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting. London: Thomas Purfoot, 1611, 133.

Figure. 2. An image of a feast that depicts a noble household and its customs.
Comenius, Johann Amos. Orbis Sensualium Pictus, trans. Charles Hoole. London: John Sprint, [1658] 1705, 72.

Figure. 3.a. An example of a table layout and dishes for a summer meal.
Smith, Eliza. The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. London: J. Buckland, 1773, 2.

Figure. 3.b. An example of a table layout and dishes for a winter meal.
Smith, Eliza. The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. London: J. Buckland, 1773, p.3.

Figure. 4.
A satirical scene depicting “Goodchild” as the guest of honour at a gluttonous feast.
Hogarth, William. “The Industrious ‘Prentice grown rich, & Sheriff of London.” London, 1747. https://bit.ly/2Aew5fx (accessed June 25, 2018)

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