By Tovah Bender
When I was handed an upper-level undergraduate course called Medieval Culture at Florida International University, I decided to push the concept of “culture.” I wanted to showcase all of medieval culture, high and low, ideals and practice. I wanted students to appreciate the richness of the cultures and to experience the period—both major events and daily life—through the eyes of those who lived in the period. I also wanted to make the society tangible to modern students, to whom the premodern past is often a very foreign place.
This resulted in a course devoted entirely to the study of medieval primary sources in all their variety. When I teach the class, I emphasize sources that can be experienced through the senses; polyphonic music, recordings of texts in the original, and images of cathedral windows, in addition to imagining the smoke that filled a peasant’s hut, the cool quiet of a church interior, or the stench of a siege camp. All of these things help students to experience the time as their historical subjects would have done. This sensory experience also helps students bridge this divide with the past and see history through the eyes of their subjects. Taste is certainly a part of this.
One of the final texts that we read in this course is the Ménagier de Paris, a Parisian guide to housekeeping from the early 1390s, ostensibly written by a wealthy bourgeois husband for his much younger wife but likely intended for a larger audience. The first section of the book consists of advice on the comportment of the wife, including widely told parables such as the stories of Suzanne, Lucretia, and Griselda. The second section is a how-to guide on running one’s urban bourgeois home, including—in the Greco and Rose edition I used in class—nearly 20 pages of menus and 75 pages of recipes.
Students are fascinated by this text. The ingredients and the combinations of ingredients are all different from what they have experienced. They are also frustrated by what is left unstated. How long does one cook a swan? What is verjuice? Class discussion can wander from ideas about the ways that different foods function in conspicuous consumption, to food preservation, to local and international trade, and to the division of labor. All of this discussion ties together some of the major themes of the semester, and—really—of any history class. But the recipes also make the Middle Ages incredibly tangible as students think of the tastes of the ingredients and the physical challenges of creating some of these recipes.
I know that the Ménagier de Paris makes a big impression because two weeks later students are asked to submit a final project creatively reinterpreting one medieval source or source-type that they have encountered during the semester, and many students choose to work on the Ménagier. The assignment asks that they interpret the material of any source in a different genre or tell a modern story according to the rules of a medieval sourcetype. The projects are always fantastic and creative, and they always involve a lot of cooking.
These cooking projects vary greatly but all involve a good deal of thought in comparing medieval and modern tastes and cooking experiences. A student prepared Hippocras, and described it as what would happen “if a pumpkin latte and wine had a baby.” Another made a pottage, the cooking of which—the student admitted—was greatly aided by the well-stocked local grocery store. A different student described the local grocery store as a limiting factor; falcon and wood pigeon were nowhere to be found. The students all eagerly sampled medieval pottage, which the chef brought to class, while the graduate students to whom I gave a medieval sampler platter were a little less convinced by the merits of medieval cooking, despite enthusiastically polishing it off.
For many of the students, I believe the appeal of such a project was the chance to experience through their senses what they could only imagine when reading. Even as they might have been familiar with many of the ingredients, the combinations are sufficiently unfamiliar to most modern palates that it is difficult to imagine the outcomes of the recipes. As one student noted in his project report
“any contemporaneous reproduction of medieval art and writing, as a rule, would be but a facsimile of the original […] By exploring the realm of cooking and recipes, however, one may truly strive towards an accurate and tangible glimpse of at least one facet of medieval life.”
Even if modern interpretations are no more “accurate” than readings or musical interpretations, there is something decidedly tangible and truly enjoyable about them to students of the Middle Ages.
Tovah Bender is a permanent instructor of Medieval and Early Modern European History at Florida International University.