Dining with Death: An Exploration of Food Culture during the Long Black Death (1348-1771) Part I

Emma-Louise Groucutt is a food historian, focusing on the medieval and early modern period. Her current research interests include nutrition, dietetics and the social hierarchy of food. Her thesis was based on the links between epidemic disease and cultural change and particularly focused on the relationship between the Black Death and European food culture. Emma also likes to write fictions. You can find other works by Emma at www.teapotsandtypewriters.wordpress.com.

The way we eat reflects how we see the world and ourselves. For those who lived during and after the Black Death in Europe and North Africa, food served as an expression of their experiences. By examining food culture, insight is gained into how they perceived disease and how an epidemic changed their world.

It can also show how they perceived death. For the Florentine chronicler Marchione di Coppo Stefani, it seemed death was much like a casserole. In his description of the construction of a mass grave for the poor, Stefani used a bizarre analogy:

Earth would be taken and thrown down on them; and then others would come on top of them, and then earth on top again, in layers, with very little earth, like garnishing lasagne with cheese. – Marchione di Coppo Stefani, The Florentine Chronicle, 1348.

There can be no more disturbing image when thinking of mass graves than making the comparison to a food that many people in the twenty-first century adore. Through this food analogy, Stefani domesticated death. Suddenly, a grave was something you could create in your kitchen. The use of food metaphor to personalize and normalize such a disturbing image was one of the many reasons I chose this as my Honours thesis topic. There are a plethora of links between food and plague, all of them fascinating and complex.

Stefani’s lasagna redirected my research, away from just questions of the changing nature of food as a source of medicine and a source of pleasure. The associations between plague and food had been studied before I began my honours thesis but I felt the scope was limited. James A. Galloway1, Christopher Dyer2, and James W. Davis3 had all examined changing patterns of food production, consumption and retail in the late-fourteenth century to some degree. What Stefani revealed, however, was that plague was not just associated with the physical consumption of food. It was also associated with food as a figurative representation of a world ravaged by epidemic disease. This is why I decided to examine ‘food culture’, a term that goes beyond food as a source of nutrition or food production, consumption and retail.

The study of food culture is an exploration of the fundamental logic and mental systems behind dietary, culinary and gastronomic models and their basis in medical and religious beliefs, aesthetic values, and economic, social and political organisations. To put it simply, it is how food is prepared, sold and consumed and WHY. Food culture forms part of a wider dialogue on agriculture, the economy, dietetics, nutrition, patterns of consumption, social hierarchies, cultural practices and taste. By looking at food culture, I could incorporate the food metaphor of Stefani into a larger study – of the reasoning behind food choices during and after plague outbreaks. It also allowed an avenue into the existing debates about the Black Death from an angle that had not yet been considered in depth.4

Historians have debated about if and how the Black Death influenced European society and culture, agriculture, the economy and standards of living for centuries. Food culture provides new evidence for these debates. It is hard to say, for example, that agricultural methods changed without changing the output of food production, or that standards of living improved but there was no simultaneous improvement in a population’s diet. But these debates provided issues for my scope. To examine the impact of the Black Death over generations, I needed to take a longer time period than 1348-1352, or the standard dating of ‘the Black Death’. There are several problems with this.

Firstly, I could simply have taken the predefined periods that already exist. However, the Black Death is not a phenomenon that is easily periodised. 1348 falls into the grey area between ‘late medieval’ and ‘early modern’. Similar issues abound in food history. Medieval and early modern food were different entities but the divisions between them are not so simple to define and there are several variations between fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century cuisine that experts are still defining. Also, I wanted to investigate the varied experiences of plague across geography, class and religion. Period terminology that is bound to a certain place and time (like Renaissance) was not useful and would have hindered my research. When examining previous studies of the Black Death, I found the work of Colin Platt. A late-medievalist, Platt had found it easier to create the term ‘post-Black Death’ to describe the centuries after the epidemic in order to examine the effect that plague had on England.5 Following his example, I decided to call my period ‘the Long Black Death’. I would examine life in Europe, and when the evidence was available, North Africa, between the start of the Black Death in approximately 1348 and the last outbreak of plague in Europe in 1771. By doing so, I could examine the plague across the divides caused by geography, class and religion, and consider the difference between a society shocked by sudden epidemics and a society that has adapted to recurring outbreaks.

My research revealed three predominant themes, which inevitably became my chapters. The first, ‘Pathologising Moisture’, focused on the scientific and medical knowledge of plague and how it affected what people consumed. The second, ‘Forced Together, Forced Apart’, looked at food and the community. Eating together is a ritual that creates social bonds. Quarantine, and other civic responses to plague, ripped apart the community and prevented this ritualistic behaviour. My third and final chapter, ‘A World Full, A World Empty’, considered the impact of the depopulation that the Black Death caused. It acknowledged the existing debates about the effects of the Black Death on the economy, agriculture, and society, and examined consumption patterns, changing standards of living and the symbolism of a hierarchy of food. To truly show how diverse food culture and plague were in my research, I will not be focusing on a singular element in this article. Instead, in the next part, I will go through the main points of my chapters and provide a brief ‘exploration’ of food culture.

Part II continues here

  1. James A. Galloway, ‘Driven By Drink? Ale Consumption and the Agrarian Economy of the London Region, c. 1300-1400’, in Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds., Food and Eating in Medieval Europe (London and Rio Grande: The Hambledon Press, 1998), pp. 87-100.
  2. The most well known of which is Christopher Dyer, ‘Did the Peasants Really Starve in Medieval England’, in Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds., Food and Eating in Medieval Europe (London and Rio Grande: The Hambledon Press, 1998), pp. 53-71. Other works include Christopher Dyer, ‘“Changes in Diet in the Later Middle Ages”: The Case of Harvest Workers’, The Agricultural History Review, vol. 36, no. 1 (1988), pp. 21-37 and Christopher Dyer, ‘The Consumer and the Market in the Later Middle Ages’, The Economic History Review, New Series, vol. 42, no. 3 (Aug., 1989), pp. 305-327.
  3. James W. Davis, ‘Selling Food and Drink in the Aftermath of the Black Death’, in Mark Bailey and Stephen Rigby, eds., Town and Countryside in the Age of the Black Death (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2012), pp. 350-406.

4. In 1953, Robert Lopez gave a lecture in which proposed that the economic depression in the one and a half centuries after the Black Death was ‘a fundamental cause of the cultural outpouring of the Renaissance’. Yet, in time, other economic historians who believed the Black Death to have caused economic growth disputed his thesis. In 2005, economic and cultural historian Christopher Dyer soundly stated that the two had co-existed and this contributed to ‘an age of transition’ between a medieval economic system and the early modern. For Dyer, the labourers and agricultural workers, commonly grouped under the label ‘peasants’, experiencing a period of economic growth, while the land owners and nobility experienced shortages and the effects of a workforce that was able to negotiate better wages and rents. See Judith C. Brown, ‘Prosperity or Hard Times in Renaissance Italy?’, Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 4 (Winter 1989), pp. 761-780.

  1. Colin Platt, King Death: The Black Death and its aftermath in late-medieval England (London: UCL Press, 1996).

One comment

  1. egroucutt

    Reblogged this on Teapots and Typewriters and commented:
    Here it is! I finally wrote an article about my thesis. This was originally presented as a conference paper at the University of Sydney History Honours Conference on November 7, 2014. Part 2 will be available Friday.


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