Being a history nerd, especially interested in the ancient and medieval periods, I tend to take a special point in looking out for books that explore daily living, and just how our ancestors were living in a far less industrial time. And one topic I love to read about is culinary history.
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About thirty years ago, Bridget Ann Henisch wrote Fast and Feast, a very scholarly work on the roles and symbolism that food and meals had for the everyday person. But then, she seemed to vanish, so it was with a great deal of pleasure that I saw her new book, The Medieval Cook, in a notice from the publisher. I ordered it at once, and it quickly got a spot near the top of the never-dwindling Mountain To-Be-Read in my living room.
Ms. Henisch starts with how the cook was viewed by medieval society -- he was despised for being a labourer, of being of the middle or lower classes, and for handling blood and dead animals, but also very necessary for the enjoyment of life and providing status for his master. It's a fascinating paradox, and one very interesting point is brought to bear in both the creation of a knight -- the master cook would claim the new knight's spurs after the ceremony -- and in the ceremony of degrading a dishonourable knight -- that same master cook would come and hack off those spurs with his kitchen knife. But the craft and cunning of a cook was necessary for human survival, without them, there would rarely be hot meals in the wintertime and no one to coax flavour and sustenance from raw ingredients. And if a patron or noble lord could convince a talented cook to work for him, his own prestige would be raised by the elaborate meals that he could provide. A few cooks rose to the ranks of the elite, and a few would write down their secrets and skills, giving a rare insight into the world of medieval cookery.
But the chapters I found the most interesting were those of the 'cottage cook' -- which is who most cooks were, and more often than not, the woman or wife of the household, juggling the roles of being a mother, spouse and provider and keeper of the family larder. Here cooking was simple, but skillful, being passed down from one generation to the next and almost never written down. And the other one was about how cook shops, bakers, and butchers provided 'fast food' as it were, especially in towns and cities to inhabitants who didn't have the equipment or skills to bake items, provide bread, or handle the dispatch of large animals. People could buy a finished product outright, such as bread or roasted meat, or that particularly medieval delight, the pastry pie or simply bring the ingredients to the baker, and for a nominal fee, have them craft the desired item.
And then there were the times that extravagance was called for, when there was a marriage or funeral, and not just outside labour was brought into a household, but the equipment and supplies could be arranged as well. These times are most readily revealed in household account books, where a list would be made of who provided what and how much was paid. It was the master or mistress of the household would look over these -- often writing them up themselves -- and there must have been constant worry over how much was being pilfered by the servants, or who was overcharging, or if there would be enough brought in to satisfy the guests without waste. The best example of this, and a source that Ms. Henisch draws on heavily, is that marvel of medieval life written by a much older merchant for his young wife, known as "The Goodman of Paris," filled with suggestions of how to run and manage a household full of servants and guests, and how they were to be sustained and entertained.
Be warned however, that there are not any recipes or redactions in this book, beyond a selection of those to be found in the Eileen Power translation of "The Goodman of Paris." Unfortunately, they are not much more than descriptions of what a dish might contain, and perhaps how they might be prepared. However, for those wishing to recreate a medieval feast, I would suggest looking at the selection of books that Ms. Henisch provides for further reading. But if you want to find out who was doing the cooking, what society thought of them, or what sort of conditions they were working in, this is a great place to start.
There are black and white reproductions of manuscript pages that show artistic representations of cooks and cooking in medieval life -- my favourite is a wood carving that show a husband and wife brawling over a cooking pot, as the man peeks into a pot, and his wife tugs on his beard to make him yelp in pain and a bowl goes sailing past his ear. The notes are very extensive as well as the bibliography and index, all of which provide ideas for further study.
I give this one five stars, and happily recommend it, especially for those in re-enactment groups as it takes a look beyond the aristocratic life and history.
The Medieval Cook
Bridget Ann Henisch
2009; The Boydell Press, Boydell and Brewer Inc.
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