Buckwheat Porridge, Three Miles Thick

Paul Strohm

  • Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life by Herman Pleij, translated by Diane Webb
    Columbia, 544 pp, £23.50, June 2001, ISBN 0 231 11702 7

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, having raised the siege of Belrepeire, finds its inhabitants gripped by famine. They have slack skin, ashen complexions and sunken bellies. Parzival knows what must be done to avoid the frenzied scenes which would otherwise ensue now food is again available: ‘Faultless Parzival proceeded as follows. He first shared out the victuals neatly himself … He did not wish them to gorge themselves on empty stomachs, so he gave them enough and no more, and they were pleased to follow his advice. He gave them some more in the evening, steady affable man that he was.’

Parzival offers a regulatory presence, a kind of superego, to a society which seems to have been even more unable than our own to maintain a coherent or consistent attitude towards the consumption of food. The premodern world had to reckon with both prevalent scarcity and erratic abundance in its food supply. Our problems concern distribution rather than production: famine can, and does, occur in the presence of plenty. Similar forces were, of course, at work in the Middle Ages: severe exactions were visited on peasants and tenants by a rapacious nobility. Nonetheless, scarcity was the main problem. Fernand Braudel, in Capitalism and Material Life, describes the Middle Ages as a period when ‘famine recurred so insistently for centuries on end that it became incorporated into man’s biological regime and was built into his daily life. A few overfed rich do not alter the rule. It could not have been otherwise. Cereal yields were poor; two consecutive bad harvests spelt disaster.’ Agriculture was so precarious partly because only one planted seed in five flourished; in winter the peasantry was often tempted to eat seed corn, thus delaying but at the same time guaranteeing catastrophe.

Even Wolfram (c.1170-c.1220) himself, who seems to have enjoyed secure employment as a knight in the service of a lord, wasn’t protected from hunger. With characteristic wryness, he notes that the conditions during the siege of Belrepeire are not unusual: in his own house he, like the mice, sometimes searches in vain for the tiniest scrap of food. Excepting the inhabitants of a few royal courts and well-endowed monasteries, no one in the Middle Ages was invulnerable to scarcity, and even for those lucky enough to live in such places, diet was seasonable, cyclical and variable.

No wonder that, when harvests were good, or stores became available, or a court or monastery had a temporary surplus, overeating was the result. Eating, and the fantasies surrounding food, tended constantly towards extremes of austerity and hyper-indulgence. The Church calendar acknowledged and to some extent regularised this situation, by organising the liturgical year around a cycle of fasts and feasts. Monasteries officially honoured the stringencies of the Benedictine rule, but at the same time their inhabitants consumed staggering amounts of meat, wine, butter and eggs. Large quantities of meat were served every day in special unofficial dining-rooms called ‘misericords’, fast-days notwithstanding. Noble feasts boasted mountains of slaughtered game among wine-spouting fountains, and cooked meats resewn in the animals’ own skin and fur or feathers; poetic sotises added charm to the consumption. Special feasts routinely equalled, or even exceeded, those Rabelais imagined in Grandgousier’s household; Pleij cites a menu of ‘nine thousand loaves of white bread, forty-eight hundred gourmet breads … sixteen hundred roast pigs, sixteen hundred pieces of roast veal, and sixteen hundred legs of mutton … six hundred partridges, fourteen hundred rabbits, four hundred herons, thirty-six peacocks, and six horses laden with confectionery.’ Little exaggeration is required to describe this as a bulimic society, one bent on extremes of self-abnegation and indulgence, which allowed scant opportunity for a dispassionate attitude towards food.

Medieval people don’t seem to have behaved as rationally as Parzifal did and the absence of any judicious decision-making about food consumption raises a number of questions to do with the concept of the medieval ‘self’. I see no reason to exempt medieval people from Freud’s idea of personality formation, which sees decisions about ingestion as fundamental to the non-neurotic personality: ‘Expressed in the language of the oldest – the oral – instinctual impulses, the judgment is: “I should like to eat this,” or “I should like to spit it out”; and, put more generally: “I should like to take this into myself and to keep that out.”’ This process superintends the development of a robust relationship between objective and subjective, and ultimately the capacity of judgment itself. The ability to make judicious decisions about what, or how much, to eat indicates a general capacity for orderly decision-making. Bad eating habits can indicate a more wide-ranging dissatisfaction with the world.

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