16th-Century Manners and Reformation Diets

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 18

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In today’s podcast we’re going to examine a fascinating new dynamic in culture that swept across Europe in the 1500s. We’ll see the emergence of cutlery, elaborate tableware, ritualized behavior at the table. We’ll see the beginning of food ideologies that are distinct from courtly fashions. And we’ll also observe the effects of the religious Reformations on eating habits, which produced new dietary freedoms, new fasting practices, and a moralistic thinking about food.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Food in Art Exercise

Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Begin by focusing on 16th- and 17th-century still-life paintings, which are extremely rich on the topic of food. Campi, Aertsen, Claesz van Heda, Beuckelaer, and Cotan are all excellent. Look for markets; kitchen scenes; and composite food heads, like those of Archimboldo. What do these paintings reveal about the ingredients available? When and why are New World foods depicted? Are these foods always symbolic—reminders of the passing of time or death, or harbingers of rebirth as are often found in depictions of Mary and the baby Jesus? Or are some artists simply interested in the beauty of fruits, vegetables, and dead animals? Who purchased these paintings, and why? Why are there lumpy peasants in village scenes in paintings by Breughel? Are they satirical or gently condescending? What is the intention of raucous Twelfth Night scenes with people clearly drinking to excess and cavorting with each other, while animals run around and children are unattended? When opulent ingredients are shown, we might assume that this is to flaunt wealth and sophistication, with beautiful vessels and exotic foods, then why do many Dutch still lifes depict simple cheese, herring, and beer? Finally, what do the kitchen scenes tell us about the experience of cooks in the past? Who is doing which tasks? Why are some done by women and others by men? What kinds of vessels are being used, and how do you think the cooking technology influenced both the time spent in the kitchen and the flavor of the food? Was it necessarily much more labor intensive than today? Also notice what is not depicted. Obviously, there is no refrigeration; how would this have influenced the way people shopped and cooked? Paintings can be a great resource for food history, and you are encouraged to undertake similar exercises for other periods throughout the course as well.

Suggested Reading:

Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance.

Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations.

Holt, Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History.

Martin, Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder in Traditional Europe.

Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.

Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating.

Visser, Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal.

Images courtesy of:

• Yeoman farmers: By John Slezer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Court culture: Taddeo Zuccari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Caravaggio Still Life: Attributed to Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Dutch Still Life: Abraham van Beijeren [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Cheese: Shutterstock
• Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door: Ferdinand Pauwels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Martin Luther: Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

• Desiderius Erasmus: Hans Holbein [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Fishmonger: Frans Snyders [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Christopher Froschauer: By Martin Sauter (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Ulrich Zwingli: Hans Asper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• John Calvin: Formerly attributed to Hans Holbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Council of Trent: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Saint Francis de Sales: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Arcimboldo Summer: Giuseppe Arcimboldo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons