Shakespeare: The strange way people looked at food in the 16th Century
- 20 April 2016
- From the section Magazine
It may seem a peculiarly 21st Century preoccupation, but people in Shakespeare's England were also obsessed with food, writes Dr Joan Fitzpatrick.
The 16th Century had plenty of diet books.
Andrew Boorde's Compendious Regiment (1542) warns against eating and drinking to excess and often remarks upon the behaviour and diet of English people, noting that the English spend too long sitting at dinner and supper, feeding on heavy meats before lighter ones, which isn't good for their digestion.
William Bullein's Government of Health (1558) takes the form of a dialogue between John, a self-confessed glutton, and Humphrey, a man of moderate habits.
In Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare's notorious glutton, we're presented with a character who defies both dietary and religious authorities by eating and drinking to excess whenever he pleases.
It was generally believed that eating meat was divinely ordained and the dietary authors promoted meat as more healthy than a vegetarian diet, although it had to be considered whether or not a specific meat was suited to one's "humour", occupation, and even nationality.
For example, bacon was thought fitting only for labourers or those involved in physical activity because it was difficult to digest and vigorous work would help this process.
Chicken was regarded more favourably and was specifically recommended by some as a food for the sick, but it was expensive in Shakespeare's time so only the wealthy would eat the bird's flesh.
In Shakespeare, capons are an indulgence - they are a favourite of Sir John Falstaff , and in The Two Gentlemen of Verona Launce's dog Crab steals a capon-leg from Sylvia's table.
Boorde thought that beef was "good meate for an English man", a view that disagreed with ancient medical authorities such as Galen who believed that beef was a cold and heavy meat that provoked melancholy.
It was thought that the cold English climate made English stomachs hotter than those of their Mediterranean neighbours and so better able to digest a meat like beef, which was also more tender in England as the cattle fed on pasture.
In Shakespeare's time beef was thought to stir up courage, something emphasised by classical philosophers and evident in Henry V when the French Constable says of the English soldiers "give them great meals of beef, and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils".
On the other hand, it was believed that beef caused stupidity, something Shakespeare refers to twice - in Twelfth Night when Andrew Aguecheek observes "Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has; but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit", and in Troilus and Cressida when Ajax curses Thersites: "The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!"
Beef might be served in pies, which the English were especially fond of. They also liked pasties, like today's, enclosed in a pastry crust and baked without a dish, which usually had only one filling, venison being a popular choice.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor Master Page offers a venison pasty to Slender and Sir John Falstaff for dinner. The Lenten pie referred to by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet wouldn't have contained any meat because Lent was a time for fasting and fish would have taken the place of meat at the dinner table.
These days we are generally encouraged by health professionals to eat more fish and reduce our intake of red meat but in Shakespeare's time fish was considered inferior to meat. People viewed it as less nourishing, but it was also associated with the Catholic practice of not eating meat on Fridays.
"Fish days" had been introduced by the government for economic reasons, to encourage the fishing industry and bring down the high price of meat, but the fish days were disliked by England's Protestants because they reminded them of England's Catholic past.
In King Lear the disguised Kent says to Lear: "I do profess to be no less than I seem, to serve him truly that will put me in trust, to love him that is honest, to converse with him that is wise and says little, to fear judgement, to fight when I cannot choose, and to eat no fish."
This all suggests that Kent is a loyal Protestant and therefore a man who can be trusted. In Shakespeare's Henry IV part 2 Falstaff criticises Hal's sober brother, Prince John. "There's never none of these demure boys come to any proof; for thin drink doth so overcool their blood, and making many fish meals, that they fall into a kind of male green-sickness; and then when they marry, they get wenches."
"Green sickness" was an anaemic disease commonly attributed to a virgin's sexual fantasies that could be cured by a sexual encounter, and by the phrase "get wenches" Falstaff means "produce girl children". In other words, Falstaff is suggesting that Prince John is weak and effeminate because he is not properly nourished.
However, Falstaff himself eats fish - a receipt in his pocket shows he has enjoyed "anchovies and sack [Spanish white wine] after supper". Anchovies and also herring, preserved in salt or pickled, were commonly sold as snacks in taverns, which would explain why they bother Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night ("A plague o' these pickle herring!"). While eating fish occasionally or as a snack was fine (at least acceptable to someone like Falstaff), to eat "many fish meals" was suspiciously Catholic.
Animal flesh was preferred over fish and also considered healthier than "fruit", a term that included not only what we consider fruit today but also what we consider vegetables. Fruit was believed to be full of water that could cause a harmful imbalance in the body. It was generally believed that before the biblical Flood the human constitution was stronger and fruits contained less moisture but that after the Flood fruit provided less nourishment and made men more vulnerable to disease.
It was believed to be at this point that God ordained the consumption of animal flesh by humans. Dietary authors advised eating fruit only occasionally, and before meals, avoiding the French habit of eating it after meals (for dessert).
Find out more
This is a shortened version of Joan Fitzpatrick's talk, "'Wolf All?' Shakespeare and Food in Renaissance England," for Radio 3's The Essay, to be broadcast at 22:45 BST on 27 April - catch up on BBC iPlayer
But people still ate fruit, which was sold in the streets and markets and picked from bushes and in hedgerows by those who could not afford to buy it or be fussy about what they ate.
New and fashionable fruits, such as apricots and melons, were being imported into England from southern Europe and dried fruits such as raisins and figs were also available to those who could afford them.
Pumpkin seeds have been found in excavations of the Rose and Globe playhouses and so it's possible that pumpkins or pumpkin seeds were consumed by wealthier members of the audience. Pumpkins were considered especially watery - in The Merry Wives of Windsor Mistress Ford describes Falstaff as "this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpkin".
For modern readers one of the strangest ideas to emerge from early modern dietary books is the fact that human breast-milk was recommended as a drink for adults as well as children.
Bullein claims "the best milk that helpeth against consumptions is woman's milk". When we recognise this, references to milk and milkiness in the plays begin to make more sense.
Lady Macbeth worries that her husband is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness". The line is clearly figurative, but might there be a literal suggestion too?
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These accusations of milkiness suggest two kinds of weakness - the producers of milk were weak because they were women, and the consumers were the weak, the old, the sick, or babies.
Milk from animals and other "white meats", such as butter and cheese, were usually manufactured by women and they evoked distinct national stereotypes, butter being especially associated with the Dutch and cheese with the Welsh.
Boorde recommends that butter be eaten "in the morning before other meats" (or foods), noting that "French men will eat it after meat" and "Dutch men doth eat it at all times in the day".
In The Merry Wives of Windsor Master Ford claims he wouldn't trust a Fleming with his butter but most of the references to butter in this play and in Henry IV part 1 are made by or about Falstaff. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Sir Hugh Evans, conforms to stereotype by looking forward to a dessert of cheese: "I will make an end of my dinner; there's pippins and cheese to come".
Pippins, a variety of apple, were considered difficult to digest, especially if eaten raw and cheese was thought helpful to close the stomach after a meal. Cheese was traditionally a food for the poor but after 1600 it became more fashionable, especially hard cheese that took more time to mature and was imported from abroad.
In Shakespeare's time people thought that sugar was healthy, indeed it was used as a medicine to treat lots of conditions such as stomach problems. Boorde approved of all food and drink containing sugar as especially nutritious and it was thought that old people craved sugar.
Like our ancestors we too believe that some foods are better for us than others, even if we wouldn't agree with them about what those foods are. But we also share with our ancestors the belief that good health, above all other things, is what matters most.
Dr Joan Fitzpatrick is senior lecturer in English at Loughborough University.
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