Tory Historian's blog: the ambivalence of our interest in mediaevalism

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, July 02, 2015

Tory Historian's interest in the history of food ought to be well known to readers of this blog though not much has been written about that recently. But a new book on the subject is always good news, especially when that books is by the great Massimo Montanari.

Medieval Tastes, first published in Italian and now in English by Columbia University Press is a fascinating account and analysis of what we know and what we can surmise about life and food in the Middle Ages, a long and ever changing period.

In his introductory chapter Professor Montanari tackles the ambivalent attitude so many of us take towards the Middle Ages (a vague and simplified term along with "long ago"), on the one hand hankering for some strange notion of purity and supposed healthfulness (an attitude that disregards the reality of life for most people, including the rich in those centuries) and on the other hand seeing those centuries as uniformly dark and oppressive (which disregards the many and varied achievements).

The two attitudes, which he calls the "tenebrous" and the "luminous" Middle Ages have grown out of different post-Mediaeval historic and literary developments.

The obscure Middle Ages and the luminous one live side by side today in the collective imagination, which has digested and assimilated both premises, blending them in an unforeseeable manner. But when it comes to food, the Middle Ages are decidedly and exclusively good, for they represent the nostalgic dream of a pure and uncontaminated past that guarantees authenticity and quality.

Things change when the marketing of the Middle Ages introduces theme events, festivals, and rural and municipal feasts - all very common in many European countries - offering historical processions with ladies in costume, knights in noble combat, archery contests, games in the central square along with reconstructions of artisans's shops and markets and all kinds of amenities under the aegis of a Middle Ages filled with warmth and goodness, genuine humanity and profound sentiments. During those festivals, however, even the other Middle Ages are revealed (and later become preponderant), reflecting the obscure and malevolent, with their classic stereotypes of black magic, witches, torture, poisoning and exorcisms of fears and anxieties that are in us but that we prefer to relegate to a finished past.

Even gastronomy enters into this world of festivals when the tenebrous Middle Ages cohabit with the luminous Middle Ages. this would seem to be the "good" side, with its habitual trousseau of platitudes about the healthfulness, tastiness, and purity of medieval food. But beware: here, we are no longer talking about simple products, or products that boasts "medieval origins". Here, we are talking about cuisine and recipes prepared in the medieval manner, or presumed such.
Marketing of entertainment tends to follow certain fashions and one just has to accept that. Of greater interest is what transpires from that rather muddled attitude to "mediaeval food" and customs and that is a complete lack of desire to understand, merely to use the expression "mediaeval" as a symbol of various modern fears and longings.

There will be more as TH progresses with the book.

1 Responses to Tory Historian's blog: the ambivalence of our interest in mediaevalism

  1. No doubt you know of David Friedman’s interest in mediæval cuisine and his other culinary interests à la the Middle Ages, found on his website?

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