How Catherine de’ Medici Changed the French Court and Cuisine


By William LandonNorthern Kentucky University

The Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici, was the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had died shortly after her birth in 1519. She spent some of her youth in the household of Filippo Strozzi and his wife, Clarice de’ Medici. The grand, spectacularly decorated Strozzi palace in Rome was a hub of cultural exchange. Catherine learned how a woman of her standing was to present herself not only to the aristocrats but also to the wider social world.

Portrait of Catherine de’ Medici
Catherine de’ Medici must have learned how to present herself to society especially aristocrats when she was in the household of Filippo Strozzi. (Image: Château de Chenonceau/Public domain)

Catherine de’ Medici’s Perfume Fashion

Catherine was elegant, although not beautiful, fond of fabulous gloves and the most delicately revealing dresses. And, like nearly all men and women of her time, she had been trained to carry a small sachet of herbs on her person, which would be wrapped in a handkerchief and held to the nose to blot out the noxious ambient aromas that frequent plague outbreaks left behind.

But Catherine and her fellow Florentine aristocrats took that tradition a step further. The friars at the ancient pharmacy at Santa Maria Novella—which is located on the Via della Scala in Florence and which you can still visit today—began to seek ways to preserve the herbs and spices used for the plague sachets. 

They discovered that if alcohol was added to the spices, their aromas were transferred to the alcohol and that the alcohol could then be applied directly to one’s gloves and skin—particularly the wrists and neck. Contrary to what many believe, bathing was not uncommon in the 16th century amongst Italian elites, especially in Florence. Perfume was not, therefore, used to cover body odor but rather to add allure.

Mother of Kings

Catherine became very fond of wearing perfume, and she took that Florentine practice with her to France. She was married to Francis I’s second son, Henry, in 1533, when she was only 14 years old. In time, Henry became King of France. Catherine’s relationship with her husband was strained at best. 

He gave her very little attention, choosing the bed of his mistress, except when he desired to procreate for dynastic purposes. Henry died young, but Catherine had given birth to several sons—three of whom became Kings of France and over whom she held tremendous sway.

The court Catherine moved to in 1533 was rough, dirty, and uncivilized compared to that of the Medici—this was not the court of Louis XIV. When Catherine began to request that Florentine perfumes be sent to her in France, these were for her own use, but one suspects she hoped the French court would begin to use them as well; not to attract the opposite sex, but this time, in fact, to cover body odor.

This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the RenaissanceWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Non-appetizing French Food

And then, Catherine had to contend with French cuisine. Like the French court’s atmosphere, the food Catherine was subjected to, from her perspective, was barbarous. The meat was often spoiled and the vegetables weren’t fresh. Do keep in mind that when Catherine married in 1533, the New World had only been explored for some 41 years. The cultivation of tomatoes and potatoes would not happen for over another century.

Portrait of Catherine de’ Medici
Catherine de’ Medici thought French cuisine to be barbarous, just like the French court’s atmosphere. (Image: Germain Le Mannier/Public domain)

In 16th-century Medici-controlled Florence, the cuisine generally consisted of unsalted crusty bread, olive oil, freshly procured meats, and freshwater fish, especially trout, salt-cured meats, grains, legumes, and greens. Outside of Florence, and Tuscany more broadly, it was common practice to add salt to bread. But Florentines viewed salted bread as something only barbarians would eat. They added salt to their bread and olive oil only when they were preparing to eat it.

Civilizing French Food and Court

Catherine was living in an exile of sorts. She missed the fresh-roasted meats, fish, grains, legumes, and greens that had been so readily available to her in Florence. Thus, she ordered her chefs, her bakers, and her gardening experts to make the most of the French foods available. They developed numerous flavorful sauces to cover up the taste of spoiled meat and to add savor to the blandness of the other dishes served. 

Before Catherine de’ Medici, carefully crafted sauces were not part of the cuisine at the French court. By importing Florentine culture to the French court, Catherine had begun the process of ‘civilizing’ it. And, by the time she died in 1589, she had shaped the French court so that it resembled her family’s court in Florence, but on a much grander scale.

Common Questions about How Catherine de’ Medici Changed the French Court and Cuisine

Q: What did Catherine de’ Medici learn in the household of Filippo Strozzi?

Since their household, the Strozzi palace in Rome, was a hub of cultural exchange, Catherine de’ Medici spent her youth there learning how to present herself in front of others in the world, especially aristocrats. This also included presenting oneself to the wider social world with the help of gloves, elegancy, dresses, and especially perfume.

Q: Why was perfume used in the 16th century?

Contrary to popular belief, using perfume wasn’t to cover body odor. Using perfume was actually with the goal of adding allure. Catherine de’ Medici especially took this to new heights after using alcohol added to spices used for perfume. In this way, the scent and odor were transferred to the alcohol which could be applied directly to the skin and one’s gloves.

Q: Why didn’t Catherine de’ Medici like French cuisine?

In Catherine de’ Medici‘s eyes, the food in the French court was barbarous. One reason was that the meat was spoiled and the vegetables weren’t fresh. Another problem was that in Florence, where Catherine had been raised, Florentines viewed salted bread as something only barbarians would eat. They added salt to their bread and olive oil only when they were preparing to eat it.

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