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

In part one, I established what my thesis project was and how and why I decided to study food culture and the long Black Death (1348-1771). In this part, I will go through the main points of my chapters and provide a brief ‘exploration’ of food culture. As stated before, my first chapter, Pathologising Moisture, focused on the scientific and medical knowledge of plague. These were predominately based on Galenic humoral theory. In 1348, physicians believed that the human body was made up of three groups:

  1. Naturals (humours, spirits, faculties, members, sex organs)
  2. Non-naturals (air, exercise and rest, food and drink, repletion and excretion, and passions and emotions)
  3. Contra-naturals (diseases)

A sudden or prolonged change in the non-naturals would create an imbalance of the humours and caused disease.1 Humoral theory was known and practised by Islamic, Jewish and Christian doctors in North Africa and Europe. This similar knowledge is apparent in sources on plague. For example, compare the two below:

(1) ‘The miasma occurs because the air is cold, and the vapours and superfluities which were wont to dissolve freely during the summer now become thick and murky. Thus they are constricted, become heated, and putrefy, bringing about the putrid diseases. This is especially so when the body which they encounter is susceptible to them by being flaccid, sedentary and replete; such bodies can hardly hope to escape being unharmed.’ – Treatment of Plague and Precautions Against It, (1349).

(2) ‘The bodies most likely to take the stamp of this pestilence are those which are hot and moist, for they are the most susceptible to putrefaction. The following are also more at risk: bodies bunged up with evil humours, because the unconsumed waste matter is not expelled as it should; those following a bad life style, with too much exercise, sex and bathing; the thin and weak, and persistent worriers; babies, women, and young people; and corpulent people with ruddy complexion. However those with dry bodies, purged of waste matter, who adopt a sensible and suitable regimen, will succumb to the pestilence more slowly.’ – Compendium de epidemia, (1348).

The first is taken from Ibn Qayyim’s Treatment of Plague and Precautions Against It, written in Damascus, Syria, c. 1349. The second is from the Medical Faculty of University of Paris’ Compendium de epidemia, written in 1348. Though on different continents, the similarity of their medical thought means that their treatments and perception of plague can be considered and compared more easily. According to many physicians, the most susceptible body was ‘hot and moist’ and this could be caused by an excess of physical activity, like exercise or sex, bathing and consumption of food and drink.2 This body could be balanced by following plague regimens. These regimens manipulated the ‘non-naturals’, which included food and drink. Common advice included avoidance of fruit, consumption of roast meats, spices, vinegar, verjuice (unripe grape juice), sugar, and other easily digestible foods, like good bread and poultry. Vinegar was an extremely common remedy for plague and appeared in plague regimens for over three centuries, in England, France, Italy, Sweden and Egypt.3 Why?

Vinegar had a cold and dry humoral complexion – it was a dry liquid! When added to sugar and spices, its extreme nature was balanced and became good and safe to eat, particularly for the hot and moist bodies of the sick. In plague regimens it appears as an accompaniment to meals or an addition to sauces for meat, with spices and sugar. It was a main ingredient in theriac, a popular remedy for plague. It was also sprinkled in houses, used to wash hands and faces, and could be added to bread or cloths and held to the face, in order to prevent a person breathing miasma or ‘plague air’. Interestingly, when added to sugar, vinegar was more than a humorally balanced food for the ill. It also made up the flavor profile ‘sweet and sour’, known in Italian cuisine as agrodolce. In the 16th century, agrodolce was preferred by Roman chef Bartolomeo Scappi. Though he makes no mention of dietetics, his dishes were humorally balanced. Does this show a link between dietetics & later taste preferences? Other links between the dietetics of the late-fourteenth century and the taste preferences of the sixteenth-century existed. A link may exist but various other factors like changing trade routes and other patterns of consumption make it difficult to be completely certain.

Forced together, Forced Apart
My second chapter also involved a consideration of humoral theory. Since emotions also affected health, physicians advised that melancholy should be avoided. Plague regimens advised people to:

‘Keep good company, drink good wine, and eat good meat’ – Anonymous, Against the Plague (poem), France, 1420.

‘Avoidance of melancholy regardless of adversity’ – John Lydgate, A Diet and Doctrine for the Pestilence, England, early 15th century.

By avoiding melancholy, they would not cause an imbalance of the humours. Eating together also provided the psychological reassurance found in social ritual. Such reassuring rituals were visible all over Europe. In Florence:

‘Such was the panic this plague provoked that people met for meals as a brigata (company) to cheer themselves up; one person would offer a dinner to ten friends, and the next evening it would be the turn of one of the others to offer the dinner, and sometimes they thought they were going to dine with him, and he had no dinner ready, because he was ill, and sometimes the dinner had been prepared for ten and two or three less turned up.’ – Marchione di Coppo Stefani, Florentine Chronicle, 1348.

Similarly, the tenants of the town of Neuberg, Austria:

‘… resolved that they should cheer each other up with comfort and merrymaking, so that they were not overwhelmed by depression. Accordingly wherever they could they held parties and weddings with a cheerful heart, so that by rekindling a sort of half-happiness they could avoid despair.’ – Chronicle of the monastery of Neuberg in Southern Austria, c. 1350.

However, not everyone ate together as a form of reassurance. By fasting together, Christians and Muslims sought to avoid the plague, which they saw as punishment of God. Religious literature commonly used food metaphors to describe other penitential acts like confession and purification of the soul.4 Yet, these gatherings were not seen in a positive light by civic authorities, which forbade gatherings like feasts and religious processions to try and prevent the spread of disease. In particular, the ill were quarantined and isolated.5 Fearing miasma created by waste products, governments also forced butchers and other food retailers to move to specific parts of the cities or out of the cities altogether. Undesirable foods were banned from import into Italian cities and this was echoed by similar bans on strangers, Jews and the sexually immoral, like prostitutes and sodomites.

A World Empty, A World Apart
The Black Death caused rapid depopulation all over Europe and North Africa. While historians argue about the exact numbers of the dead, there was clearly a sense of emptiness. Trade routes were damaged and there were several shortages of food and labour. Though many had believed that depopulation would cause general living standards to rise, this was not the case.

It was ‘thought that depopulation [of the first wave] would bring with it an abundance of all the fruits of the earth… it was not so’. – Matteo Villani, Chronica Universale, 1348.

‘Though there had been enough for sustenance and dignity when everyone was still alive… for a long time afterwards all these worldly goods were not enough for those few who remained’. – John of Reading, Chronica Johannis de Reading et Anonymi Cantuarensis, 1348.

The elite suffered, as they were particularly unaccustomed to experiencing want. However, the lower orders of society benefited from the increased demand for labour. Wages rose and they were able to improve their standards of living. Somewhat resentfully, the monks of Rochester recorded that there had been:

An inversion of the natural order, [and] those who were accustomed to have plenty and those accustomed to suffer want, fell into need on the one hand and into abundance on the other’. – The Monks of Rochester, The Plague Seen From Rochester, 1348.

The diet of the lower orders had substantially improved. Consider, for example, the average diet of an English peasant. Pre-1348, their diet consisted of:

  • Bread and oatmeal pottage
  • Very little meat
  • Some thin ale

Immediately post-Black Death, they could now eat:

  • Beef and mutton instead of bacon
  • Wheat bread instead of barley
  • Fresh fish instead of salted herring

This was incredibly significant in a world where status was bound up in obvious consumption, especially clothing and food. Elite food was now obtainable by everyone except the elite.

Literature, sermons and legislation critiqued the ‘greed’ of the workers and limited their ability to earn better wages and eat better food.

The beggars refused the bread that ‘eat bread that beans were in, But coket and cleramatyn, (two kinds of fine white bread), or of clean wheat’. They refused the cheap halfpenny ale (‘no cheap ale and none would drink, but of the best and the brownest that brewers sell’) and demanded ‘fresh flesh, other fish fried,’ instead of bacon, that must be ‘both warmed and very warmed, to avoid chilling the stomach’. – William Langland, Piers Plowman, 1360.

[Before the Black Death] labourers were not accustomed to eat wheat bread; their bread was made of beans and of other corn, and their drink was water. Then cheese and milk were as a feast to them; rarely had they any other feast than this. Their clothing was plain grey. Then was the world of such folk well-ordered in its estate.

… Because such a man is hired as a member of your household, he scorns all ordinary food… he grumbles… and he will not return tomorrow unless you provide something better. – John Gower, English Land Owner, Early 15th Century.

Dietetics reinforced the need for the poor to eat ‘coarse foods’ and plague regimens in particular forcibly reminded everyone to eat according to their status or risk contracting plague.6<\sup>

Governments and the elite attempted to correct what they saw as a fatal imbalance. Labour legislation throughout Europe regulated wages in an attempt to reduce them.7 Sumptuary legislation prevented people eating food that was not appropriate to their status.8 However, it may have been too late. The social tensions that worsened in the aftermath of the Black Death have been connected by historians to several revolts, like the Jacquerie in France in 1358 and the Peasant’s Revolt in England in 1381.9

This exploration of food culture has made clear that food and the plague were not exclusive subjects. Throughout the long Black Death, the two clearly intersected in several ways. Food could prevent or cure the plague, through dietetics. Whether eating or fasting, such ritual gatherings based on group consumption represented how people thought of disease. Whether it was caused by miasma, or was a punishment from God, people responded through food. Food also provided evidence of changes in the social hierarchy. Criticism of the improved diet of the poor was a large part of the negative discourse surrounding their improved circumstances. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century, food was evidence of a social hierarchy in turmoil after the plague’s decimation of population. Food history has helped to reveal far more than just a ‘historical menu’ for the late-fourteenth century. It showed what people in the past experienced and how they thought about it.

  1. Nancy Siraisi, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 101.

  2. The Medical Faculty of the University of Paris, ‘The Special Challenges of Plague (I): The Report of the Paris Medical Faculty, October 1348’, p. 418.

  3. This is not a comprehensive list of such plague regimens but all the below mention incredibly similar diets to prevent plague. England: John Lydgate, ‘A Diet and Doctrine for the Pestilence’, trans. Margaret Monteverde, Document 5 in Joseph P. Byrne, Daily Life During the Black Death (Westport, Connecticut; London: Greenwood Press, 2006), pp. 162-166. France: Anonymous, ‘Against the Plague’, in Chiquart’s ‘On Cookery’: A Fifteenth-century Savoyard Culinary Treatise, ed., trans., Terence Scully, (New York, Berne, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986), pp. 121-122. Italy: Bartolomeo Sacchi, Platina: On Right Pleasure and Good Health, Mary Ella Milham, ed., trans., (Tempe, Arizona: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998). Sweden: Bengt Knuttson, ‘A Little Book for the Pestilence’, in Rosemary Horrox, trans. ed., The Black Death (Manchester, UK, New York, USA: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 173-177. Egypt: Abu Hafs Umar ibn Al-Wardi, ‘Risālah al-Naba’ ‘an al-Waba’”: An Essay on the Report of the Pestilence (1348)’, Joseph P. Byrne, Document 8, The Black Death (Westport, Connecticut; London: Greenwood Press, 2004), pp. 173-177.

  4. In 1375, Thomas Brinton, Bishop of Rochester (fl. 1373-1389) berated the English for their sins. Among the afflictions he listed as their due punishment was the plague that sure enough struck again in the next few years and was the third wave of plague in England. In his sermon Brinton made several analogies between food and the soul. ‘As… you would prepare a heart for a lord’s dinner, firstly impurities are drawn out of it, then it is washed, and then finally it is cooked or assayed over a clean fire’. In the same way, he wrote the human heart has ‘impurities… drawn from’ it and is ‘washed by full and true confession and an abundance of tears’. Thomas Brinton, ‘Sermon: 21 January, 1375’, in Rosemary Horrox trans. ed., The Black Death (Manchester, UK, New York, USA: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 38.

  5. In fourteenth century Italy victims of the plague were quarantined in their own houses or in hospitals that were built for the purpose (lazarettos). By the end of the fifteenth century French and Spanish towns were copying the Italian examples but it took England until 1578 for the isolation of the infected to become official policy throughout the kingdom. Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 47.

  6. The mid-sixteenth-century physician Jacques Dubois (b.1478-d.1555) – also known as Sylvius – published several regimens for the poor and the victims of plague. He also relegated the poor to coarse foods and advised the rich to eat ‘easily digestible delicate food’. While he advised the rich to avoid ‘cold, humid foods’ like dairy, fish, various fruits and vegetables, and food that ‘heats and dries the body’, the poor had little choice. (Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Westport, Connecticut; London: Greenwood Press, 2004), p. 227-8.) By relegating the poor to coarse foods, the elite reinforced the division between a diet that symbolised status and expense and a diet that was only eaten out of the necessity for nourishment.

  7. In England, in 1349 the Ordinance of Labourers was introduced, followed by the Statue of Labourers in 1351. These laws expressly targeted labourers who would not serve and who sought control of the amount of wages they could demand. Only a year later, France issued a royal ordinance for the same purpose.

  8. Intended to control conspicuous consumption, sumptuary law restricted the type and amount of food available to people, based on income and social position. For example, the English sumptuary legislation of 1363 declared that lads (including the servants of the lords as well as those employed in crafts and manufacturing) ‘shall have meat or fish to eat once a day’, and at other times ‘food appropriate to their estate, such as milk, butter, and cheese’. Likewise, live-in servants were to receive ‘appropriate, not excessive, food and drink’. Limiting the lads to one meal with meat or fish a day may indicate that this had been a normal practice before the legislation was put in place. Dyer believes this was a direct influence of the Black Death, however, this may just be coincidence. English Parliament, ‘Sumptuary legislation, 1363’, in Rosemary Horrox trans. ed., The Black Death (Manchester, UK, New York, USA: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 340.; Christopher Dyer, Standards of living in the later Middle Ages: Social change in England c. 1200-1520 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 88.

  9. Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (London: Collins, 1969); Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., ‘The Black Death: End of a Paradigm’, The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 3 (June 2002), p. 704


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