Carnival in the High Middle Ages

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 13

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The following episode transcript and images will remain for posterity. Enjoy!

In today’s podcast, we’re going to learn about great innovations in medieval European cooking. We’ll see how contact with Islamic civilization during the crusades and the Reconquista, changed European cooking forever, We’ll examine their sophisticated use of exotic spices and herbs. And we’re going to trace the food rituals and exuberant indulgence of Carnival, and even take a look at some outlandish folktales relating to food.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Libellus de Arte Coquinaria: Making Walnut Oil

Walnut oil

This is the very first recipe in the manuscript owned by the Royal Library of Copenhagen. The language, if you look carefully, is very similar to Old English, and if you read it aloud, it is almost intelligible. More interesting is to make the oil. You’ll need fresh raw walnuts for this. It is easiest to heat the mixture first, and then pound or process, and then wring them out in a good, sturdy dish towel. This oil is fabulous on a salad or drizzled onto bread. This is the original and a very literal translation, so you can see the cognate words.

Man skal takae en dysk maeth nutae kyaernae, oc en aeggy skalae full maeth salt, oc latae them samaen i en heet mortel oc stampae thaet wael, oc writhae gomaen et klaethae, that warthaer thaet oly.

“Man shall take a dish with nut kernels, and an egg shell full with salt, and let them together in a hot mortar and stamp that well, and wring through a cloth, that will be oil.”

• Anthropological Exercise: Participant Observation

Attend a festival such as carnival in New Orleans or a local food festival, state fair, or similar event. Ideally, this should be one where people can drink, get a little rowdy, and perhaps listen to loud music. Join in, but take note of how people behave differently than on other occasions. Have strangers approached you or talked to you without prompting? Are people closer than they would be normally? Are they speaking more loudly or wearing clothes they wouldn’t ordinarily? Note any unusual behavior.

After the event, consider what function the festival served. Did it bring people together in ways beyond physical proximity? Was there a communal bond created and, if so, on what basis? Did anyone “perform” his or her identity through food—perhaps a particular dish or ethnic cuisine? Now consider ways these insights might heighten your interpretation of festivals in the past.

Suggested Reading:

Bell, Holy Anorexia.

Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.

Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women.

Camporesi, Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe.

Flandrin, Arranging the Meal: A History of Table Service in France.

Grewe and Heiatt, eds., Libellus de Arte Coquinaria.

Henisch, Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society.

McAvoy, Consuming Narratives:Gender and Monstrous Appetite in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Pleij, Dreaming of Cockaigne:Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life.

Images courtesy of:

• Map of Viking Invasions: By Max Naylor (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Fermented shark: Shutterstock
• Mould board plow: By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Medieval village layout: The Great Courses
• Horse Collar: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Waterwheel: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Hunting game: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

• Raised dais at a banquet: Jean Fouquet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Bayeux tapestry banquet scene: By Myrabella (Own work) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
• Grand banquet: By Anonymous 15th century painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• cubebs: Shutterstock 
• Long pepper: Shutterstock
• spikenard: Shutterstock 
• galangal: Shutterstock
• Almond milk: Shutterstock 
• Verjuice: By The original uploader was BorgQueen at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Herbs: Shutterstock 
• Carnival in Rome: Johannes Lingelbach [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Battle between Lent and Carnival: Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Fishing: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Butter Tower: Daniel Vorndran / DXR CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
• The Land of Cockaigne: Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Peasant Wedding: Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Walnut oil: Shutterstock
• State fair: Shutterstock