Monday, March 7, 2011

Recommended Book - Food in Medieval England

A couple of weeks back I added this book to the page of Recommended Books, and I've been meaning to post something here about it since then.

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition
C.M. Woolgar (Editor), D. Serjeantson (Editor), T. Waldron (Editor)
Oxford University Press

This isn't a cookbook, nor is it one of those nice, easy to read books full of general information about medieval European cuisine. It's a collection of papers written by several authors, all detailing recent research into the study of the medieval diet, coming from a scientific perspective (e.g. archaeology) instead of a historical one (e.g. studying old texts).

There's a lot of neat information buried in these papers, but not all of it is easy to get to. Further, many of the papers highlight the promising work currently being done, but do not actually provide much in the way of results - mostly because the research is too new.

For example, until the 1980s or so, when animal bones were found at a medieval archaeological site, the researchers would make a note about them and then throw them away. They didn't realize the information that could be gleaned from them about animal size and age, butchering methods, dietary composition, etc. This has changed for the better, but it takes a very long time to gather enough evidence, study the remains, and to draw useful conclusions.

If the above makes it sound like this book is dry as a desert and useless to the average person with an interest in medieval history, that's certainly not the case. The nineteen papers included all provide valuable clues to what the medieval diet and lifestyle were like, making sure that it is all tied down to evidence instead of conjecture, which is what I expect from Woolgar and company.

There was however one point which made me groan loudly (thus annoying my wife as she was reading her email). In "From Cu and Sceap to Beffe and Motton", N.J. Sykes is noting the way bones were cut and suggests that it indicates the beef was used for making stew. That's all well and fine, but then he goes on to note that "... boiling would have counteracted the taste of tainted meat, ...." That's right, Sykes dropped the Moldy Meat Myth into an academic paper, and of course he provided nothing to support the (nonsensical) assertion. P'feh!

Other than that one (really bad) slip, this book is absolutely geekalicious. I'll be pulling new information out of it for months.

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