Review article reproduced from History Today, volume 60, issue 4, April 2010
Suzannah Lipscomb on a book about how the English ate in the high middle ages and the early modern era.
Trying to shed some pounds before Christmas? Has your doctor recently told you to cut back on alcohol and red meat? Or is your spouse gently prodding you to lay off the stodge? Well, if you’re consuming less than 2lb of bread, 2lb of meat, and six pints of beer a day, then you’re doing better than our Tudor ancestors, according to Mark Dawson’s new study of the food habits of a wealthy Midlands gentry family in the sixteenth century.
Using household accounts, Dawson tells the story of five generations of Willoughby family food, from 1520 to 1604, a time when white manchet (chalk-adulterated dough) was the bread of choice, and the kingdom was discovering a new taste for a hop-infused ale, which they called beer.
Food, like clothing, comes in and out of fashion, and a longitudinal study like Dawson’s allows us to trace this. Pig meat, once cheap and commonly available, declined from favour, while rabbit-eating greatly increased (enough to justify the expense of the Willoughby’s very own ‘coninger’, one Thomas Hill, to catch them). Our perennial Christmas bird, the turkey, was an exotic novelty when it made its first entrance in the accounts in 1573.
Dawson’s study confirms, unsurprisingly, that red meat was the focal point of the Tudor diet. Meat carried more than a caloric value – it had a social and religious significance. The Willoughbys, like others, fasted from meat on Fridays and Saturdays, in Lent and saints’ days, but feasted on flesh the rest of the year. Some of the quantities are staggering: in 1566, a reduced household ate 80 pigeons in just one fortnight. This is despite the fact that contrary to the image of the Tudor lord throwing chicken legs over his shoulder, they mostly ate their own cows. Failing cows, they ate mutton, and when meat was off the menu, they resorted to vegetables, but even then, the ‘white meats’ (dairy) were preferred.
While some of the detail might be too much for the casual reader, scholars will find Dawson’s study meticulously researched and insightful.
Plenti and Grase: Food and Drink in a Sixteenth-Century Household, Mark Dawson, Prospect Books, £30.00, 336 pages, ISBN 978-1-903018-56-9