This blog post was written by Maisie Brewster, one of the Library Graduate Trainees at the Warburg Institute Library, for History Day 2023 and explores library material relating eating in the Middle Ages.
The act of drinking and eating is first and foremost to sustain. It is primarily a process essential for human survival and, secondly, a process to provide a source of pleasure. Within the collections of the Warburg, drinking and eating is classified as an action and can be found in Classmark DC (fig. 1 and 2). This classmark encompasses the sources and studies of ‘festivals’ with the titles included ranging from Tutankhamun’s Cookbook: ancient Egyptian cooking (DCH 253.5) to the Elizabeth David Bequest, a collection of cookery books and historical material valuable to research into the social history of food (https://wdl.warburg.sas.ac.uk/collection/; this digital collection, when complete, will include approximately 150 of these: those which we cannot digitize for copyright reasons can be found in the Library under Banqueting classmark DCH 250-DCH 540).
Fig 1, Fig 2
This post will consider this classification of eating and drinking and the perceptions of these actions in the Middle Ages. Though by no means an exhaustive summary of the history of food and its societal implications, I hope to draw on the Warburg’s collections, particularly the Iconographic Database (https://iconographic.warburg.sas.ac.uk/home) to highlight the paradoxical relationship medieval people had with food, particularly in religious contexts its visual culture; to eat or not to eat, to feast or to fast.
Eating and drinking in medieval Europe was not simply an activity to placate hunger, to mark one’s social status nor a source of pleasure. Much like in today’s society, eating was also an occasion in which people were united and came together. Feasts certainly performed a key social function as common depictions, and the image that often comes to people’s minds when they picture a medieval feast, focus on the impressiveness and scale of these events. Artists often depicted the types of foods consumed by people at that time, elegant food presentation, and proper table manners. In these images wealthy individuals sit in their finest dress at grand tables as multiple servers and entertainers move around them.
Fasting, like feasting, was also an activity which bought people together, more so to unite oneself with one’s god. Fasting was a regular part of medieval religious practice. There were many rules, days, and times which dictated when a person should fast, for how long and how much. Fasting was proscribed as a penance and often a restricted diet was used as a way to recognise important events in the Christian calendar.
Figure 3, found on the Iconographic Database under the keyword ‘banqueting’, is from an illuminated manuscript Historia destructionis Troiae by Guido de Columnis. It is one of 187 miniatures that portray the most important scenes of the Trojan War against a background of the Gothic architecture of Venice. This miniature, from book 19, depicts King Priam of Troy, ‘with a retinue of a countless number of his nobles, [was] at a table loaded with different foods.’
Miniatures such as these not only indicated what sort of foods may have been eaten but also give us an idea of table settings and manners. On the table, guests would find bread, and often a knife, a spoon, and a napkin, but not a fork: fingers or pieces of bread were used to pick up food not eaten with a spoon. In this particular miniature, two knives are depicted as well as two salt cellars. These receptacles were often placed in prominent position at the head table (in this case either side of the king) and were a sign of status and prosperity. The social status of guests could be measured by their positions relative to the master’s large salt cellar: high-ranking guests sat above the salt while those of lesser importance sat below the salt.
However, despite the food and drink and the appropriate utensils laid out before them, no one in the image appears to be eating. Only the two dogs pictured in the foreground are eating, fighting over the leftovers. Within depictions of eating and banqueting in the Iconographic Database, this seems to be a common theme; tables laden with food, ready to be consumed but no one taking the necessary action. Images such as this expresses the medieval struggle to find balance between eating enough food to survive and eating to excess. As the concept of the seven deadly sins became more entrenched in liturgy and social life, concern seemed to increase about the depiction of eating, especially in manuscripts owned by wealthy laypeople who might easily be accused of gluttonous behaviour at their feasts.
In the earlier middle ages, it was desirable to implicate Judas as traitor through his solo act of eating at the Last Supper, as a contrast to the restraint shown by Christ and the eleven other apostles. The Last Supper, in most medieval depictions, represents one of two scenes; Christ’s benevolence as he blesses the food and the wine the twelve apostles are about to consume; and the betrayal, as Christ identifies Judas by his act of consuming food: “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me” (Mark 14:18).
Depictions of the Last Supper were typically found in manuscripts, particularly of the Gospels, thought the thirteenth century saw an increase in representations in other media including cathedral sculpture and wall paintings. The images of the Last Supper found in the Iconographic Database have predominantly been taken from a variety of manuscripts recounting the anonymous Speculum Humanae Salvationis, or ‘Mirror of Man’s Salvation,’ a popular theological work which survives in the region of 350 manuscripts, (an introduction to the text and it’s connection to the Warburg, a description and a summary can be found here https://warburg.sas.ac.uk/photographic-collection/index/religious-iconography/speculum-humanae-salvationis-introduction, here https://warburg.sas.ac.uk/photographic-collection/index/religious-iconography/speculum-humanae-salvationis-description, and here https://warburg.sas.ac.uk/photographic-collection/index/religious-iconography/speculum-humanae-salvationis-summary respectively). Many of these manuscripts, like many popular medieval texts, included rich illustrations to help poorly educated or even illiterate audiences follow along.
Figure 5, taken from a 15th century German manuscript (Chapter 16 of Speculum Humanae Salvationis) presents a visualisation of the aforementioned ambiguous relationship medieval people had with food; to eat or not to eat, to feast or to fast.
In this variation, Christ is sat at a rectangular table with eleven of his apostles on one side; the twelfth, Judas, seated alone and sat opposite the other followers. The table is laid with cups of wine, bits of bread and a lamb in a central dish. The inclusion of this type of meat, though rare in depictions of the Last Supper, is plausible insofar that it took place at the Passover and both Mark and Luke mention the sacrifice of the paschal lamb (And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” Mark 14:12). More commonly, bread, wine and fish are set on the table, with fish becoming a symbol of Christ as well as the accepted holy food in the early Christian period. Bread and wine also became central to the Christian faith with the institution of the Eucharist. In this context, ‘to eat’ became a very powerful verb as what they consumed was Christ, and by extension God.
However, despite this albeit modest feast set before them, much like at the feast of King Priam, neither Christ nor the apostles sat with him are seen to be eating. Only one apostle is caught in the act of consumption. This miniature captures the scene that Christ identifies Judas as the traitor by giving him the sop, the piece of bread to dip in the sauce of the Passover lamb. ‘“It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. (John 13:26). This condemnation is further visualised by the sinister black entity entering Judas’ mouth with the food. This entity, often represented as a bird and literally meant to represent Satan entering Judas (Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” John 13:27), marks not only his sinful act of betrayal, but also his solo consumption of food. Despite all this, this is also a moment of fellowship, of coming together. Sharing food with someone carried an implication of friendship and peace in the ancient world. By giving Judas the ‘sop,’ Jesus was giving him himself, an opportunity to repent before he left the apostles to carry out the plot.
In medieval texts, we find they often spoke of gluttony as the major form of lust, of fasting as the most painful renunciation, and of eating as the most basic and literal way of encountering God. Through the act of eating and fasting, medieval people were reminded that sin had entered the world when Eve ate the forbidden fruit and that salvation comes when Christians eat their God in the ritual of the communion table. Through exploring the act of eating using the Photographic Collection’s Database and the Warburg’s classification system, this paradoxical relationship with food is visualised and encourages further exploration of iconographic scenes and contexts to reveal further questions and themes surrounding the act of eating.