In the two thousand year span on which this chapter focuses, there is scarcely a topic that cannot be discussed as essentially concerned with food. This is hardly surprising since growing, processing, and consuming food has been the preoccupation of most people on earth until very recently. Nonetheless, the traditional historical focus on topics such as war, the rise and fall of empires and great leaders, social strife, and great intellectual movements has obscured the fact that human history is at its very core about obtaining basic nourishment. This is true not only of ordinary people but even of powerful rulers whose attempts to expand borders, seek new trade routes for exotic goods, and conquer colonial outposts are more often than not motivated by the need either to feed people with common staples or to entice them with rare edible luxuries. The ancient Greek city-states spreading in search of fertile arable land on which to grow wheat, medieval merchants carrying spices grown halfway around the earth, or Portuguese colonists manning their sugar plantations in Brazil with African slave labor-all these can be told as food histories. When examining these topics through the lens of food, what might have seemed to be familiar terrain suddenly seems new, and new vistas are opened both for teachers and for students.
Consider first one of the most momentous events in European as well as global history: the encounter of Europeans with Native Americans beginning with Columbus. The story can be told many different ways: Columbus the explorer and expert navigator, Columbus the Christ-bearer carrying the cross over the ocean to civilize the native populations, or Columbus the inept greedy ruler whose cruelty led to the decimation of millions of humans.1 Each version is both politically charged and historiographically situated in a particular time and place with its own unique concerns. Since the publication of Alfred Crosby's Columbian Exchange, historians have increasingly seen these events as essentially a food narrative.2 Columbus was clearly seeking a westward route to Asia to trade in spices and other luxuries. His journal is filled with reports of culinary and medicinal plants he expected to encounter in Asia, and to his dying day he never realized he had discovered a new continent. More importantly, American plants and animals, rather than Asian spices, were brought to Europe: the tomato, chili peppers, maize, chocolate, squashes, and potatoes, as well as turkeys. Conversely European species such as wheat, pigs, cows, and chickens were brought to the Americas. Of course European diseases were also brought to the New World and had a devastating impact on native peoples.
Further research in the past few decades has complicated the story. Europeans did not immediately accept many American plants; it took centuries to adopt the tomato and potato.3 Moreover, European settlers in the New World were reluctant to give up their wheat bread and European recipes, and corn remained the staple of the impoverished Native Americans, creating social and ethnic divisions based on diet.4 It took much longer than might be supposed for cuisines incorporating ingredients from both sides of the Atlantic to develop.
This is merely the best known of subjects retold as a food story, and it has generally made its way into textbooks and curricula in grade schools and colleges. But there are many other narratives that can be recast in terms of food history to excellent effect.
The most profitable way to approach this vast expanse of time, from ancient to early modern civilizations, is by focusing on several interconnected themes. A useful first theme is the examination of how foodways and culture are shaped by the ways in which people interact with their geographical setting, how they exploit natural resources, and what technologies they employ in processing food. The gradual expansion of trade networks is a natural extension of this topic. So too is the social meaning of individual ingredients and recipes, and the discussion of cuisine as an expression of cultural, political, and artistic values. This might lead to examining the impact of ideas-philosophical, religious, and scientific-upon eating habits and prohibitions. What follows is a chronological discussion of how these various food-related themes relate to successive periods in premodern history and how historians have dealt with these topics. Each section begins with a discussion of historiography then proceeds to pedagogy.
Most food historians speak of the relative newness of the field, how perhaps twenty years ago the topic of food history raised suspicious eyebrows or uncomfortable laughter. There certainly were people who did not consider it part of a serious curriculum. We can be grateful that that has changed, and dramatically-hence the proliferation of books and courses offered in universities across the country and abroad. But this narrative of sudden efflorescence can be countered with examples of what is undeniably food history written before the twentieth century, to show that current scholarship did not sprout up spontaneously without precedent, and that there have always been serious scholars writing about what undeniably has been a central concern to all people throughout history.
The pedagogical discussion within each section briefly recounts the major themes and sources so that interested historians unfamiliar with food history can better incorporate it into the classroom. Teaching strategies per se are not discussed, but incorporating primary documents for analysis, looking at images, and discussing influential ideas are, as with any historical topic, paramount.
While the cultural, artistic, and economic accomplishments of ancient Greece are a well traversed subject, how these achievements relate to food culture is less familiar and rarely covered in the curriculum today. On the other hand, food in antiquity was among the first topics studied from a historical vantage point. As the father of history in the Western tradition, Herodotus recorded many of the food habits of places he visited, especially Egypt. His comments on the bounty of the Nile are justly famous.5 Even more important is the Deipnosophists by Athenaeus, written in Naucratis in the early third century C.E. and essentially a compendium of food references in ancient Greek literature. Many writers in late antiquity were concerned with the food habits of the past; particularly good examples are Iamblicus and Porphyry, third-century A.D. philosophers who described the vegetarianism of Pythagoras, who preceded them by seven hundred years.
The systematic study of ancient foodways with an objective historical bent really began in the Renaissance, as scholars recovered ancient texts and began to comment on them critically.6 The first editions of classical food texts, most notably the Latin cookbook of Apicius, were also published in this era, giving readers a direct glimpse at ancient cuisine.7 It was also in this era that the first food encyclopedias were written about food habits around the known world.8 Unlike works on most other food history topics, such world food encyclopedias have been in constant production for the past five centuries, reaching a peak perhaps in the late nineteenth century, though the flow of such works is by no means abated today.9
To grapple in the classroom with this vast literature, the geography of Greece is a good place to start. Greece is a mountainous appendage dangling from the southeast edge of Europe and scattered on islands stretching across the Aegean Sea. Difficult terrain meant that political unification was correspondingly difficult, especially when compared with other ancient civilizations such as Sumer and Egypt. This may account for the development of independent city-states. More importantly, with the rise in population that preceded the classical era, finding enough arable land for growing wheat became a problem for most cities. On the other hand being situated near the sea meant that most cities developed naval technologies for fishing and traveling. Founding colonies was the natural solution to the problem of insufficient grain production. The Athenians founded cities around the Black Sea; other city-states spread to the southern Italian peninsula, Sicily, and as far as Massila (Marseilles in modern France). The Greek terrain and climate was also ideally suited to grape and olive production, both products that could be transformed into easily transported goods-wine and oil-and carried by Greek merchants.
The proliferation of wealthy citizens to a great extent necessitated the development of political systems that afforded them participation, democracy included. The interaction through trade with people across the Mediterranean gave the Greeks a cosmopolitan outlook. Most importantly, having wealth relatively evenly spread among the populace provided opportunities for patronage of the arts, theater, literature, and of course cooking. The professional cook was a stock figure in Greek drama. The Greeks also created the earliest known cookbooks, fragments of which survive in the work of Athenaeus.10 Principal among these is Hedypatheia of Archestratus, probably composed in Gela on the southern coast of Sicily.11 Archestratus's knowledge of where the best fish and bread could be found throughout the Mediterranean attests not only to wide trade networks and a Greek propensity to travel, but also to a certain connoisseurship among the Greeks. His criticism of those who ruin good ingredients with fussy preparation or overseasoning suggests that most people thought such dishes were a mark of distinction, but the true gourmand understood better.
In all cultures the appearance of culinary literature is matched by its ideological opposite: how to eat well in the interest of health. The dietary literature of the Greeks forms the foundation for all Western medicine. The Hippocratic authors devoted significant space to humoral physiology, but its fullest expression was in the works of Galen of Pergamum.12 Galen classified every known food according to its digestibility, usefulness for treating various disorders, and, most importantly, its propensity to increase particular humors within the body (blood, phlegm, bile, and melancholy). Since health was considered a balance of the four humors, diet was typically the first recourse for any distemperature. Food was considered an integral and essential part of the overall regimen for maintaining health in this holistic system. From these ideas about food we get a better appreciation for the Greek attention to the body, beauty, and physical strength since there are diets appropriate for athletes as well as dietary distinctions on the basis of age, gender, and occupation.
Even the great philosophers paid attention to food issues, most infamously Plato who considered cooking a form of pandering to base appetites, and much less noble than medicine, which as an art taught patients to eat well. Plato's denigration of the animal functions of the human body and praise of intellectual pursuits arguably left a long legacy to Western culture, in which eating has been considered mere maintenance, something one should not expend too much energy considering. The fact that Plato could take the normally raucous symposium, usually enlivened with naked flute girls and drinking games and turn it into a philosophical discourse, gives some indication of his influence over ideas about food and drink. Other philosophical schools were equally influential. The Stoics maintained that remaining dispassionate in the face of life's travails gave one inner strength and virtue, and therefore detachment from pleasures such as food made one stronger: the sober and abstemious life was to be preferred. The Epicureans too, despite their reputation through the ages, thought of happiness in life as characterized by maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain. This translated into a lifestyle that was exactly the opposite of sybaritic, since luxuries make one dependent. We can never be sure of finding them, the Stoics concluded, thus the greatest happiness is found in a simple diet.
The fact that so many thinkers recommended abstemiousness suggests that at a certain point the simple Greek diet based on grain, vegetables, pulses, dairy, and olive oil gradually grew more luxurious and wealthy people were eventually able to use food as a mark of distinction. This was certainly true in the Hellenistic world, in the wake of Alexander's conquests, when a common language and currency facilitated trade across a much broader region. Most importantly, trade routes with the East opened up, new fruits such as oranges, peaches, and apricots appeared, followed by the trees that produce them, including trees that require grafting such as the apple. Spices too arrived from India, pepper as well as cinnamon and a new sweetener which remained a rarity in antiquity but would have an enormous impact in later centuries-sugar.13
Food scholarship on ancient Rome, like food scholarship on ancient Greece, was pursued by later historians of later times, including the Renaissance, though Rome was given precedence, given their greater familiarity with Latin. Thus early editions of the primary sources discussed below were among the first books in print, notably the cookbook of Apicius; the medical works of Celsus, which were rediscovered in the Renaissance; the agricultural manuals of authors like Cato, Varro, and Columella; and the Satyricon of Petronius, rediscovered in the seventeenth century. These works and many others, including Virgil's Georgics, Juvenal's Satires, and Martial's Epigrams, laid the foundation for an excellent understanding of Roman foodways among scholars. Starting in the Renaissance, archaeology added to this, though it did not reach a scientific stage until the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, new approaches to history in general had an effect on the study of food in ancient Rome, most notably social and economic history, the history of women, and culinary history.14
In the classroom, discussing the history of Rome through food offers countless possibilities. Imperial Rome engulfed the Hellenistic world and adopted its values alongside its luxurious imports. But in the early Republican period that preceded the conquest of Greece, Roman culture was quite different. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to characterize the early Romans as a fierce people, concerned mostly with conquest and farming. It is nonetheless true that the earliest prose work in Latin is the farming manual of Cato the Elder.15 It is essentially a guide to investing in land and exploiting it to maximize profits, which in his day meant concentrating on value-added crops like grapes and olives that could be processed and sold in cities. Valuable fruits and vegetables were cultivated as was anything that could turn a profit. The farms Cato describes are not the massive slave-run plantations (latifundia) that would later supply the army of the Roman Empire with grain, but rather fairly small operations using a few slaves and hiring workers for the harvest.16
With the expansion of the empire, great fortunes were to be made, especially in grain production. Huge latifundia using slave labor produced grain, which was then ground in great quantities to feed both armies and growing cities. As Juvenal quipped, bread and circuses (i.e., chariot racing) were enough to keep the masses contented.17 Juvenal's Satires are an excellent way to introduce the social meaning of food in later Roman culture. In one, Juvenal berates his friend for accepting an invitation to a dinner where the host eats fine delicacies and drinks excellent wine while the friend is given scrappy leftovers. Presumably the insult was intentional, to demean the guests. In another satire, Juvenal invites his friend to his country house to eat homegrown natural and rustic foods of the finest quality. This is a type of gastronomy that devalues the extravagant and elite, in favor of true good taste.
The feast of Trimalchio in Petronius's Satyricon is among the most fascinating sources in all of food history.18 In it, the upstart host tries to throw a lavish banquet that ends up as a embarrassing disaster, in the worst taste imaginable. Dormice dipped in honey and sprinkled with poppy seeds are served, among other culinary perversities. Petronius was himself a wealthy patrician and the arbiter of taste under Nero, and this story appears to be a warning to the newly rich not to try to pretend to have taste, which mere money cannot buy. On the other hand, some of Trimalchio's dishes bear a close resemblance to the recipes found in Apicius.19 There we find dormice, sow's wombs, flamingo tongues, and a riot of contrasting flavors in each dish: garum (a salty fermented fish sauce), honey, sapa (boiled-down grape must), pepper, and other exotic spices. There are also simpler dishes, but it is difficult to determine to what extent these recipes reflect common Roman taste of the time when the historical figure Apicius lived, the first century C.E., or were merely recipes compiled several centuries later, perhaps even as a primary source for food history. After all, thanks to this cookbook, Apicius's name became a byword for extravagant luxury in the ancient world.
Food references run throughout the comedies of Plautus and are found in the letters of Seneca and the epigrams of Martial-it is fairly safe to say that eating was one of the major preoccupations of the Romans, including the emperors themselves. Although it is certainly written with an ideological bent and intended as a negative lesson, the biography of Heliogabalus attributed to Aelius Lampridius is remarkably detailed about that emperor's deranged customs.20 Among these are banquets with fake food; food of all one color; food from the same ingredients served in every meal for days and days; and strange foods like camel's heels, cockscombs taken from living birds, and peacock's tongues-dishes Apicius is also said to have served. The account is probably not strictly true, but it makes for an excellent exercise in interpreting historical sources.
Christianity and the Early Middle Ages
Not surprisingly, the history of the early Church was well documented by early historians and theologians beginning in the New Testament and extending to the present. Food was of central concern, first in distinguishing Christians from Jews (by their abandonment of kosher food regulations), and eventually in defining Christian food practices such as fasting. Saint Basil and Saint Jerome are excellent sources for this topic. Medieval theologians commented on food practices extensively, and the entire system of fasting for Lent was reassessed during the Reformation, essentially as a result of historical criticism, since Protestants emphasized the Bible as having greater authority than tradition. Ulrich Zwingli is the best example of reinterpreting the meaning of the Eucharist and fasting by reference to practice in the scriptures. Modern scholarship is also rich in regards to the food practices of Jews at the time of Jesus and thereafter, as well as to the transition to Christianity.21
Any discussion of the food history of the early Church must naturally take account of Jewish food rituals and observances, in particular the sacrifice of animals to atone for sins, the complex Levitical laws defining clean and unclean meats, and the role of fasting as an act of penitence both on special holy days like Yom Kippur and for emergencies like impending battle. The early followers of Jesus did not cast these food practices aside entirely-often, they reinterpreted them. Though Christians proclaimed that the Age of Grace had superseded the Age of Law, they believed that food laws continued to be necessary, though in a different form. Avoidance of unclean animals, most notably pork, was abrogated. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was said to replace temple sacrifice, for the expiation of sins. But the case of fasting was a little more complex, since like Old Testament figures like Moses and David, Jesus and the apostles fasted. The question was whether communal fasting was required on a regular basis or only during special occasions to appease God's wrath. Eventually the Christian church adopted set dates for fasting, most notably Lent, Saturdays, and the vigils of saints' days, and defined fasting as eating just one meal per say, and abstaining from meat and animal products, rather than complete abstention from food. The original logic was primarily medical in origin. Since meat was believed to be the most nourishing substance, it was understood to be most readily transformed into flesh, blood, and ultimately sperm, in both men and women (both of whom were believed to have sperm). This, they felt, stimulated the libido and inclined people toward sin. Therefore a humorally colder and drier diet, composed of vegetables and bread, was better suited for atonement. There was not, as might be supposed, any real concern for animal welfare in these injunctions.
Fasting was also a particular concern for clergymen and ascetics, who intended to stay celibate year round. Neither the Church nor individual orders within it could forbid meat since many passages in the New Testament insist that all food is good, yet severely limiting it became an ideal. Some ascetics undertook extraordinary feats of self-abnegation, not only bringing themselves to the brink of starvation, but going without sleep and other physical comforts.22 Monasticism took a more balanced approach, and the Rule of St. Benedict offers a glimpse of the practical compromises made in the feeding practices of a working monastery, including allowing wine for the monks.
Of course not all concerns in these centuries were holy minded. These were also extraordinarily tumultuous years that witnessed invasions of Germanic tribes, the disintegration of the Empire in the west, and serious famines. Massimo Montanari has also described a profound cultural shift from the neat, well-manicured wheat fields of the Romans to the Germanic love for forests themselves as well as hunting and the gathering of wild food.23 Indeed much of Europe reverted to forests during this period, the population declined, and farming receded onto the best land. This general dearth is perhaps reflected in Charlemagne's Capitularies, which ordered regions throughout his empire to grow specific foods so his army would have something to eat when they passed through. Intellectually this era has also usually been characterized as relatively barren, and certainly as regards food writing, dietary, agricultural, and botanical knowledge it is fairly bereft. One exception is the work of a Greek physician in the classical tradition, Anthimus, who visited the court of the Franks in the sixth century and composed a little book about the properties of foodstuffs. He made great concessions to local customs including eating raw bacon and drinking beer, but otherwise the bulk of classical learning regarding food was lost.24
The Middle Ages
Compared to other subfields in the history of food, the Middle Ages have enjoyed a long and sustained record of scholarship. Deep interest began in tandem with the formation of nation-states, when scholars sought to learn the history of their native folk customs and elevate them as worthy of equal reverence beside classical civilizations. This meant publishing new editions of medieval cookbooks and studying food from the antiquarian's perspective, not always very sympathetically.25 Early commentators could not appreciate the medieval aesthetic for heavily spiced, sweet-and-sour concoctions. In the words of one historian, "These spices played, alas! a great role in the abominable ragoûts in which our forefathers delighted."26 By the twentieth century a wide array of scholars took direct interest in medieval food, the nutritional status of medieval people, the systems by which they farmed, and food as an essential part of the economy.27 Food was studied from nearly every angle except the actual cooking and eating of it. This trend continued among Annales School historians who not only wanted to get a better sense of ordinary people's lives over long periods of time, but also approached the topic scientifically, preferring to bolster their arguments with statistical analysis.28 More recently European scholars have focused more on the cultural side of medieval food history, how food was used as a marker of distinction, what motivated the far-flung trade in spices, and what the many medieval cookbooks really meant.29 Translation of cookbooks has also been a major part of the scholarship on medieval food.30 There are many excellent overviews of medieval cuisine as well, from both national and international perspectives.31
The so-called high and later Middle Ages (1000-1500), offer an excellent opportunity to introduce the topic of climatic change and demographics across a long period. In a nutshell, Europe grew warmer from the year 1000 until the fourteenth century. The longer growing season and expanded arable space to the north stimulated greater production of food, which in turn led to population growth. Quite simply, when opportunities are positive, people get married and set up households earlier, which expands the fertile years for childbearing, while better nutrition lowers the infant mortality rate. All these phenomena are ultimately connected to food, as are technological innovations such as improved plows that could cut through the heavier soils of Northern Europe; the horse collar, which made the horse a viable plow animal; and crop rotation systems, which require less fallow and provide fodder for animals and fertilizer in the form of manure. Improved waterwheel and windmill technology made possible the grinding of greater quantities of grain, which in turn supported greater populations and the growth of cities. Of course this general pattern is oversimplified here, but it places food at the center of the narrative.
The most prevalent system of exploiting the land was serfdom, at root a system of land tenure whereby a village farmed scattered plots collectively and paid a landlord to whom they were personally subordinate. This payment could take the form of labor service (several days of the week devoted to working the agricultural property, or demesne, of the lord of the manor), or fees paid in money to the lord in order to inherit land, to marry, and, sometimes, to use the mill. Another way of extracting revenue from serfs was to take a portion of what they harvested. Whatever the form of tribute they paid, serfs were legally bound to the soil and could not leave at will. Their methods also tended to be traditional: since this was essentially subsistence farming, taking risks and failing could mean starvation. There were many different forms of serfdom throughout Europe. Its dominance was seriously challenged by the arrival of bubonic plague in 1348. The plague was so devastating that it reduced the European population by one third. This completely reversed the demand for labor: peasants could increasingly dictate terms since landlords were desperate to keep them on the land. The initial reaction of the nobility was to pass laws tightening their hold on peasants as well as on laborers in cities, and this prompted rebellions everywhere. In the long run, feudalism changed, rents replaced services owed, and there was greater freedom of enterprise.
Since labor was scarce in the years after the bubonic plague, wages were generally high, and so was the standard of living of survivors. The amount of household income spent on meat increased. In many respects this was the golden age of meat, and this is reflected in cookbooks that contain many recipes for preparing it. It is not that wealthy people did not eat vegetables, they most certainly did, but they could also afford more expensive meats and could prepare them and dress them in ways that were aspirational, often in imitation of their superiors, which incorporated exotic spices and sugar.32
While the Crusades were one impetus for the revival of the spice trade, growing wealth back in Europe also provided incentive for spices and luxury items to be imported from the East, carried primarily by Muslim merchants from Asia and Venetians and Genoese in the Mediterranean. Spices were used for several reasons. As quasi-medicinal drugs they could be used to correct foods and were incorporated in composite pharmaceuticals. Most importantly they were symbols of status, and as middling ranks of people began to take notice, the upper classes had to invent new recipes to maintain their distinction. This is a prime impetus for fashions to change. It is also the reason cookbooks began to proliferate, as a way to teach the latest culinary fashions to up-and-coming chefs.
The most famous cookbook of this era was attributed to Guillaume Tirel, nicknamed Taillevent, who was chef to King Charles V of France. He was even ennobled for his services, with a coat of arms bearing stewpots. Many of his recipes can also be found in earlier cookbooks, so the text of his cookbook, known as the Viandier, is not exactly original. Even more interestingly, the recipes are copied in later cookbooks, such as the guide written for a young bride by the anonymous author of the Ménagier de Paris, who was perhaps a lawyer or professional. This suggests that people down the social scale were indeed emulating their superiors and trying to recreate elegant meals, though perhaps without such great expense or in such enormous quantities. Other cookbooks were composed, such as the English Forme of Cury written at the court of Richard II, the Catalan Libre de Sent Sovi, and several anonymous Italian cookbooks.
The late Middle Ages also witnessed a revival of classical learning, much of the material for which came via Arabic translations from Greek, which were in turn translated into Latin. Aristotle was the most important text used in the new universities, but medical literature like Galen's work and Arabic texts based on it by authors such as Avicenna, Rhases, and Isaac Judaeus initiated the revival of ancient dietary medicine. Agricultural texts which revived many classical practices were also composed, among them Pietro Crescenzi's.33
Finally, the impact of religion on eating habits was no less profound than in other eras. Not only was fasting thoroughly entrenched, but exemptions could be purchased by individuals or even whole cities, permitting them, for example, to eat butter or other animal products during fasting periods. How people, and in particular religious women, interpreted these strictures has been the subject of many detailed studies, some suggesting that ascetic women suffered from a form of anorexia.34 The motivation to fast as well as to take the Eucharist as nourishment must be understood in historical context, which of course is totally different from the context that produces modern eating disorders.
Historiographically, the Renaissance was an invention of nineteenth-century scholars and remains problematic as a distinct time period economically, socially and indeed culinarily. As an intellectual movement, recovering ancient texts, reading them in Greek, and publishing them doubtless marked a major reorientation. Galen, for example, was read in the original, and there was a major revival of his writings, and thereafter the Hippocratic corpus. Many new dietary writings were written in the Renaissance as well, and they eventually departed from Greek medical orthodoxy. Apicius, as has been mentioned, was rediscovered in two manuscript copies made at Fulda in the ninth century. How scholars of the era interpreted this cookbook is not entirely clear, but they probably did not imitate it as they did with other classical arts. The first librarian of the Vatican, Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina, who was also among the first to read Apicius for many centuries, wrote in his own cookbook and dietary that modern cuisine was decidedly superior. After a recipe for blancmanger, a thoroughly medieval dish of pounded chicken, sugar, rosewater, and almond milk bound with rice starch, he says, "I have always preferred this to Apician condiments, nor is there any reason why the tastes of our ancestors should be preferred to our own, for even if we are surpassed by them in nearly all the arts, nevertheless in taste alone we are not vanquished."35 On the other hand, this comparison suggests that he may have tried the old recipes.
As for modern scholarship on food in the Renaissance, which in this case extends into the sixteenth century and beyond, there are specialized studies of dietaries and fine dining, as well as food from a literary angle, and modern translations of Renaissance-era cookbooks.36 In terms of the lives of ordinary people, the social and political structure and virtually all other topics relating to food, the Renaissance is merely an extension of the Middle Ages, and the decisive changes occurred in the sixteenth century, which ushered in the early modern period. For the most part even works with the title Renaissance in them are about the early modern era.
The Early Modern Period
In traditional historiography, three major events signal the passage into the early modern period-the discovery of the New World by Europeans, the Reformations of the Church, and the development of the nation-state. Each is in its own way related to food, as the example of Columbus at the start of this essay shows. Food scholarship on this period has been divided between the quantitative analyses of nutrition, trade, and food regulations on the one hand, and the more cultural studies of consumption, social history, and ideas about food that dominate more recent work. Interestingly, much of the best work has not been done by historians, but in related fields, by anthropologists and sociologists. Sidney Mintz's influential Sweetness and Power and Stephen Mennell's All Manners of Food are two of the best examples.37 The former traces the impact of sugar production on the world economy, slavery, diet, and a host of other topics. Mennell compares English and French cookbooks as reflections of each country's unique social and political structure, the English based more on land with a representative government, while the French court, being more centralized, monopolized standards of taste. As with other periods, the culinary history of early modern Europe has also emerged as a distinct subfield.38
The most important factor separating the early modern era is a shift in the economy, prompted by a demographic surge. The rise in population drove down the demand for labor and wages sank. The gap between rich and poor widened, and the social meaning of food according to class intensified in line with increased stratification. Not everyone suffered and in fact industrious protocapitalists and nobles fared well, especially in procuring foodstuffs or luxury items. This was a time of agricultural innovation-introducing new crops and using new rotation systems, intensive cultivation, and irrigation systems-and an awakened interest in agriculture in general.39 There were also numerous agricultural treatises composed in this era.40
The development of the modern nation-state also figures prominently in the food history of this era, partly in the emergence of distinct national cuisines, but also in the elaboration of manners, which are said to have become more complex and refined as the state increasingly monopolized violence. Hence the banishment of sharp knives from the table, the introduction of forks, and the proliferation of books on manners like Erasmus's De Civilitate Morum Puerilium, so up-and-coming young men could fit into polite courtly society.41
The Reformation also directly affected consumption, especially regarding fasting prohibitions. When early reformers examined the Bible closely they realized that although Jesus and his disciples, like Old Testament figures, did fast, these were voluntary fasts undertaken for special occasions. These fasts might be either private or public, but were always designed to appease God's wrath in an emergency or atone for sins in hope of forgiveness. They were not regularly scheduled, and they did not involve merely giving up meat. The latter were traditions added in the early Middle Ages, and at least according to the more fundamentalist sects, they needed to be abandoned. Martin Luther was characteristically uninterested in such outward forms of devotion and believed they could be useful exercises for the faithful, but were not essential for salvation. But for the Reformed tradition, springing from theologians like Ulrich Zwingli, these arbitrary fasting rules had to be abandoned, especially since they were so often abused by means of purchased dispensations. In the end, the Reformed churches did not entirely abolish fasting, they merely restored the Biblical form, especially public fasting during times of distress.
Perhaps more importantly, the Calvinist churches favored frugality and abstemiousness year round, as opposed to the fast and feast mentality of the Middle Ages. Exactly how dour the Puritans really were is still a matter of debate, as even the strictest of Puritans-English, Dutch, or Scottish-still kept wine cellars and drank beer for breakfast. Alcohol was simply too deeply ingrained in this culture to even think about abandoning it.42 Nonetheless gastronomic simplicity, very much akin to that of the ancient Stoics who influenced Calvin, remained an ideal.
Most importantly the Reformation reexamined the central food ritual of Christianity, the Eucharist. The Reformed Churches insisted that Jesus was merely speaking metaphorically when he said "This is my body," and that therefore the bread is merely a memorial of his sacrifice. The Catholic Church upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation, which posits that the substance of the bread miraculously transforms into the body of Jesus and the wine into his blood, even though the accidents or external form remain as bread and wine. Luther adopted a position somewhere between the two, called consubstantiation, including both the real presence of Christ and the presence of wine and bread. It was these doctrines as well as the maintenance of all the fasting regulations among Catholics, that proved to be the most divisive issues, permanently rending Christianity into separate sects in this period.43
The early modern period also witnessed the transformation of nutritional theory and the gradual if not complete breakdown of humoral physiology. Scientific approaches to the study of food and the body were evident in two distinct schools. The iatromechanical school was inspired by the work of Santorio Santorio, who attempted to quantify nutrition by carefully weighing all the food he ingested and excreted for many years to determine which foods were best for the maintenance of weight and health. The iatrochemical school, inspired by Paracelsus and van Helmont, began to think of digestion and other bodily processes in chemical terms, substituting sulfur, mercury, and salts for the four humors. In practice these separate medical systems were jumbled and no truly scientific study of nutrition emerged until the nineteenth century, leaving great room for rampant quackery as well as weight loss diets and religiously inspired diets-none of which entirely disappeared with the advent of modern nutrition.44
Lastly, the topic of globalization can also be told as a food story. It begins not with Columbus, but with the Portuguese and their contacts with East Africa in the course of the fifteenth century. Here the slave trade began, and presaged the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and Brazil. By the time Bartholomeu Dias had reached the Cape of Good Hope, it was clear that traveling directly to Asia across the Indian Ocean was possible, which would cut out the Venetian middlemen in the spice trade with Asia. In other words, the Portuguese had found what Columbus was looking for, a direct sea route to Asia. They set up outposts in India, Indonesia, China, and for a while Japan, until the Dutch stole many of these colonies in the seventeenth century. In the wake of Columbus, other Europeans, financed by large nation-states as well as new corporate bodies like the Dutch East India Company, entered into the business of colonization. The English eventually settled along the Eastern coast of North America, the Dutch in New Amsterdam, and the French in Quebec. Most of these new colonies were founded specifically to produce and export luxury items, including tobacco, or to carry new drinks like coffee, tea, and chocolate. It has been argued that caffeinated stimulants were the perfect drink for business-minded nations, and they eventually replaced beer and alcohol for morning and midday refreshment, sweetened, of course, with sugar.45
The transition to the modern era can also be told largely in terms of food history. Agricultural innovations in eighteenth-century Europe, the earliest stages of industrial food production, the continuing globalization of the economy, and expansion of trade in consumable goods hinted at the momentous changes that would happen in the modern era.
In conclusion, the history of premodern Europe has always been about food production, processing, and consumption, and it has always been featured in historical works to some extent, though it is only in the past few decades that food is taking center stage in publishing and in the curriculum.