Food Cultures in Medieval Europe

de Antonella Campanini (Auteur)
©2019 Monographies 198 Pages


More than a thousand years pass between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the discovery of America. In that long stretch of time, European food cultures at first very distant from one another begin to interact in ways that will come to transform all of them. With the circulation of men, products, words, and ideas, the continent forges a substantially unified identity. This volume takes the reader on a journey among ingredients, recipes, customs, and choices as we move in the company of kings and peasants, distinguished figures – noblemen, ambassadors, bishops, and popes – scientists and literati, cooks and artisans, and common men and women (a few, anyway). In other words, this is a journey that weaves its ways throughout the whole of society. Food – whether desired or denied, relished or rejected, global or local – is our key for understanding the slow road toward a unified European culture.

Table des matières

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • A time: The Middle Ages
  • A space: Europe
  • The journey
  • A few disclaimers
  • The road ahead
  • 1. The Roman Empire falls (5th-8th centuries)
  • Romans
  • Invaders
  • Christianity
  • Arabs
  • 2. Towards an alimentary Europe (9th-12th centuries)
  • The construction of a new identity
  • Romanness, relocated
  • Producing (how, how much, and for whom)
  • Renaissances
  • 3. Travels
  • From Europe to the East – and back
  • (Written) words that travel
  • The myth of Marco Polo
  • 4. Times
  • Carnivals and lents
  • Feast and famine
  • Dietetics
  • 5. Food identities and differences (13th-14th centuries)
  • Social identities
  • National identities
  • Exchanges
  • 6. Changes (15th century)
  • Luxury in the courts
  • Gastronomy and print
  • Europe as the “Old World”?
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Places

← 8 | 9 →


A time, albeit one long, long ago: the Middle Ages. A space, albeit an enormous one: Europe. And a subject: the history of food. Voila: these are our ingredients. Surely we need a unifying theme, too, at least to give us some sense of direction. I have chosen one, a predictable choice, perhaps, but one that leaves us plenty of room for manoeuvre and adaptation: the journey. And while it is the history of food that interests us most here, the elements of time, space, and journey that define this story demand some examination first.

A time: The Middle Ages

We begin in the Middle Ages. This is a long and extremely varied historical period conventionally understood to begin with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and to end with the discovery of the Americas. Not surprisingly, it comes to be regarded as a distinct period only after the fact; indeed, it is called the Middle Ages. Historians, grappling with an extremely variegated collection of sources, have tried to confront the period’s extraordinary diversity by subdividing it – with more or less logic and more or less ease – into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages; or into centuries; or according to its sequence of predominant regimes. We could keep going, though; the possibilities for delimitation and demarcation are plentiful.

The history of food tends to consider phenomena as they manifest in and over time and with particular attention to their evolution – this is the nature of history as a discipline – and the Middle Ages is a period that lends itself well to such analysis. But there is something more of interest here, too: many aspects of our time can trace their origins to the Middle Ages.

“If we conceive of the past as a continuum without abrupt reversals of direction, the popular imaginary conceives of the Middle Ages as giving ← 9 | 10 → birth to forms of social life altogether different than today’s”1. This search for origin and provenance seems especially needed in a society like our contemporary one, where globalization and its effects are accompanied and countered by a re-emergence of fervour in favour of narrower identities – identities that many fear are lost or disappearing.

As Bettini writes in precisely this vein, “it is possible that ideas of tradition and history are now returning as foci of our attention because there – and in some cases only there – lie the last bastions of difference”2. In the context of food, Massimo Montanari adds that

the basic assumption is to think of “continuity” as a seal of guarantee. That things are subject to continuous modifications, that the flavours of foods and the tastes of people change with time, that the social and cultural contexts determine constantly changing forms of usage, that the same objects do not always correspond to the same names – all this, which is obvious to the historian, is of no interest to the general public. They would rather believe that “tradition” all by itself is a guarantee of quality, and believing that “it has always been made this way”, generation after generation, is enough for total assurance3.

Curiously, the law settles for proof of a product’s existence for (only) twenty-five years to grant it a label as traditional. But arguments for products’ quality tend to go much deeper, claiming origins that trace to the dawns of time. Such beginnings are often familiar and generic, but that matters little: what is important is that they are long, long ago. The Middle Ages is ideal in this sense. Beyond its sufficiently distant historical remoteness, it conveniently offers the undisputable advantage of variety, its many declinations comprising histories that range from the Dark Ages to the light-filled, future-making Renaissance. In one version of these Middle Ages or another, the fashionable roots of which Bettini writes can surely be situated.

This is the trendy Middle Ages whose vogue has meant also its ever-growing dissemination. If this newfound popularity takes its base in solid historical ground, it can only be a good thing. Like the mythic beef stew of ← 10 | 11 → Artusian memory4 – polished and perfected and yet retaining an alluring patina of the exotic – today’s fashionable (if refashioned) Middle Ages likely account for growing interest in the real historical ones. It is likely just these fanciful images of gentlemen in tights and ladies in butterfly hennins5 who dirty their hands as they grab at juice-dripping pieces of meat straight from the platter – since there are no forks, of course – that have helped (if involuntarily) to foment historical attention to medieval food. Or, in any case, they are not altogether removed from it6.

There are also good historical reasons to justify the choice of such a long period, and particularly of this long period. We take as our starting point the fall of the Western Roman Empire, considering this not as a precisely dated event but as the last stage in a long, slow decline that takes at least a few centuries to complete. With the fall of the empire, many of its certainties fall, too. Yet it is precisely here that the long process of rebirth – which we will retrace in our journey – begins. It is precisely in these early centuries of the Middle Ages that we can identify the beginnings of an idea of Europe forged in a scenario of rich cultural contact. The many exchanges passed among the continent’s diverse peoples will come to shape – slowly – an emerging European food culture unified enough to distinguish it from others. The textual capture and codification of emerging foodways must still wait for several centuries more to pass: after the fourth-century appearance of the Roman recipe collection attributed to Apicius, it is not until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – and then only in a handful of countries – that the next recipe books appear. The almost millennium-long silence does not indicate a dormant food culture, however; rather, it corresponds to a break in textual production – or, in any case, at least in textual conservation. Indeed, the culinary writings of the Late Middle Ages suggest a food culture abundantly different than its distant Roman ancestor. Some ingredients central to Roman cuisine – garum, for example, the fermented fish sauce used almost ubiquitously to flavour recipes – have been sidelined and forgotten. New ingredients, available thanks to the expansion of markets and trade routes or favoured by the development of new techniques for ← 11 | 12 → storage or preservation, have appeared and prevailed. From this point forward, there will never again be such a long silence: the invention of the printing press will only increase – and, from a certain historical moment, proliferate – the production of culinary texts. Fortunately for us, however, recipe books are but one of many sources that speak to the history of food, and we find rich testimony to it elsewhere, in works of art and literature, legislation and governmental decrees, land contracts and accounting records, and letter collections. The list of possible sources is, in short, a long and promising one, and the space left empty in the absence of recipe books seems, all said and done, surmountable.

The appearance of the first signed and printed recipe books coincides with the end of the Middle Ages. And it is this moment – and not the arrival of New World products on the European table – that will mark the end of our journey (not least of all because some of those American imports will need centuries more before establishing themselves as “European”). Of course, as with most any ending, this point might just as easily be understood in the opposite sense – as a new beginning.

A space: Europe

The second ingredient in our alimentary journey is a space, or, in our case, perhaps rather a space en route to becoming a place: Europe. It is during the Middle Ages that the idea of Europe acquires historical meaning; Giuseppe Sergi, reflecting on this idea, shows how Europe gets built, piece by piece, in the encounters and exchanges among different peoples who, little by little, interact and integrate ever more fully. This integration results both from what we might call internal factors – the jarring moments of initial contact and subsequent coexistence provoked by the era’s different migrations – and all the more so from external ones, as the need to distinguish oneself from the other7, especially in terms of religious identity, coaxes fairly diverse groups to coalesce in order to solidify their own identities and values8. This does not mean, even in the most extreme simplification of things, that a unified Europe emerges, let ← 12 | 13 → alone a fixed, unchanging one that remains stable over the course of a thousand years. Quite the contrary: we must treat this new identity in its nuance. Choosing to understand Europe as a geographic, cultural, political, ethnic, or religious concept throws a wrench into the neat equation at every turn. And as difficult as it is to capture a geographic understanding of Europe, it is all the more challenging to capture its fixing in the imaginary, where Europe’s plastic boundaries can – and do – mutate according to the situation. If the so-called barbarians9 assume the identity of the other in the moments following their arrival, they are eventually assimilated, and the identity of the other transfers more or less permanently in directions east (Asia) and south (Africa), foreign lands full of dracones and leones. In the north, the border remains blurry and indiscernible; to the west, there are the Herculean columns – and, beyond those, only the endless sea10.

The history of food, understood here foremost as a history of cultural choices, parallels the development of the idea of Europe itself: it is a history of distinction and integration; of visions of us and of the other; and of rejection and assimilation. All these processes together lead to the construction of a new European identity, and this should not leave us much surprised. In the last few decades, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have come to recognize food’s fundamental – if, to be sure, not exclusive – role in the formulation of collective identities at scales small (the family) and large (the nation or the continent). If the individual and community construct themselves by virtue of shared, typical ways of thinking about, producing, transforming, and consuming their own food, it is only through their encounters with others – others who have thought about, produced, transformed, and consumed their ← 13 | 14 → foods, perhaps different ones altogether, differently – that the I and we become aware of their difference11.

Our appeal to Europe and to a European identity does not mean that our journey should take us wandering into the remotest corners of the continent. If we were to venture there, we would find, even at the end of the Middle Ages, real others, peoples and communities still wildly estranged from the European identity just, to some degree or other, created. Europe should be understood more than anything else as an ideal, an idea, a cultural space within which one can move, a reference point to have ever at the ready. The history of food makes it possible to see how this Europe gets constructed and consolidated piece by piece – despite profound differences among the peoples who come to comprise it. The long duration of the Middle Ages allows us to apprise historical evolution and verify changes between our points of departure and finish. The conventional endpoint, posted with the discovery of America in 1492, acts merely as a handy chronological marker at which to finish our journey. By that point, however, a European food identity is already well enough established; and it is not at that moment that it undergoes its most significant evolutions and revolutions. This is why we start our journey much earlier, with the fall of the Roman Empire, when all those identities destined to fuse into European synthesis are still very distinct.

If identity-making is largely an outward-looking labour, it proves especially instructive to examine the testimonies left by travellers, their journeys giving them possibilities to “see” the other, the different, and to compare him with the people and ways that are one’s own. Likewise, some who never leave home at all come to know the other by way of ← 14 | 15 → their own tables, their own markets, their own bookshelves; and their writings, too, make for good reading now. Hence the idea of introducing the final ingredient here, one that I hope might serve as a common thread throughout this brimming chronicle: the journey.

The journey

There are many reasons to travel and many ways to do it. And people are not the only ones to travel: things travel, and, with even greater speed, ideas do, too. In the long run, the reasons and means of travel change, and so too does its speed. It seems wise to spend a few moments at the outset getting to know the travellers who will be our company on this journey. Right off the bat, we must dispense with one of so many myths tied to the mistaken notion that these are “dark ages”: the fact is that a static, stable, stationary Middle Ages simply does not exist. Indeed, in Europe, notwithstanding the dangers of the road and the difficulties of travel by land and sea alike, there is constant travel12. ← 15 | 16 →

Résumé des informations

ISBN (Broché)
Date de parution
2019 (Avril)
Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 196 pp.

Notes biographiques

Antonella Campanini (Auteur)

Antonella Campanini is a researcher in Medieval History at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. She teaches courses in the history of food cultures and traditional products and the history of cooking.


Titre: Food Cultures in Medieval Europe
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198 pages