Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eating in the Renaissance

Having just taken a trip back in time at the annual Renaissance Faire in Wisconsin, I thought it appropriate to write about Renaissance food –or what passes for it these days.

While these faires aim for accuracy to a degree (forget the adults with fairy wings and chain mail walking around), they don’t seem to be as super-strict as other re-enactor events, which I've heard actually will rope off their living spaces and allow nothing "modern" to cross that line.

Of course, in reality, how would you celebrate a time period where a bath was taken perhaps once a year and fleas were typical home companions? What about plague and other pestilence? How about catching, killing, plucking and cooking your own food?

Despite the real-life grisliness of the period and its lack of anything that could be termed a "convenience," I still find the Tudor/Elizabethan, Medieval/Renaissance time periods fascinating.

The clothing, at least of the upper classes, was beautiful, especially the excess in dress of the Elizabethan and Tudor periods. Beautiful to look at, not comfortable to wear, I'm sure. (How often was clothing washed or cleaned, I keep wondering?)

It paid to be rich or noble-born, of course, especially when it came to food. Being wealthy or highborn meant sumptuous feasts, fresh foods, amazing desserts. For the peasantry, it meant plain foods and mere survival.

The rich had roast gosling and "prinsels" (whatever those are.) The poor were lucky to have meat if they could poach it, afford it, or could raise it.

And as the Falconer explained, they certainly didn't have Royal Falcons to help catch a meal. (Common hawks, more likely, which tended to shred the prey.)

The modern-day Faires offer their own interpretations of suitable food, of course, ranging from the requisite roast Turkey legs (not for me), or roasted mushrooms. Fish would fit the time although in reality, it would more likely be looking back at you. Or how about this 15th century recipe for Fish and Fruit Pie from France? I don't know where you'd get eels (or want to - it makes me think of the stories told by the Surgeon Barber with his leeches, but that's another story), but it uses tuna and has a modern interpretation for those so inclined. Or you can simply do as fairgoers do and eat the modern day equivalent of English fish and chips served in newspaper cones.

For some interesting food and other such medieval fare, I love looking at the Gode Cookery site. You can even cook like it's 1545 from an authentic cookbook - if you can decipher it, that is.

Medieval Mysteries

While I haven't yet read any books specifically defined as mysteries set in that time period, several of my favorite books based in that time frame have included some kind of crime. Ann Benson's Plague Tales began with Doctor Alejandro's crime – desecrating a human body. The recent follow-up, The Physician's Tale, offers a unique twist and a connection to modern medical research.

Other favorites include Judith Merkle Riley's books like the intriguing Oracle Glass, which centers on fortune telling and chicanery in France's ancien regime. This and her other books as I vaguely recall do offer several banquet scenes, offering a brief fictional look at what the well-to-do might have dined on then.

Another interesting glimpse of meal preparation in that time is represented on the cover of the Renaissance-set mystery, Bella Donna, which I recently noticed on Amazon.

For some fascinating glimpses into Medieval life, I enjoy perusing the medieval manuscripts that can be found online. The mostly religious pages, such as those offered at this French site, offer a unique view of the food and practices of the time that no Renaissance faire can recreate.

Even better are the views provided by 17th century Dutch painters like Claesz, De Hooch, Rembrandt, and others whose realistic still lifes provided a glimpse at the food and dining of the time.

For more information on the subject of food and art, the interesting (but costly at $35) book, Food in Painting, From the Renaissance to the Present (2004) looks like a good way to while away a few hours.


Gayle said...

My family attended a Renaissance Faire one summer, and we really enjoyed it. I don't know how the people in costume managed not to faint from the heat, though.

Jim and Joyce Lavene have a new Renaissance Faire cozy mystery series. The first book, Wicked Weaves, comes out in September.

zhadi said...

FUn post, Chris! I am a veteran of Ren Faires, from the big one in Michigan to smaller ones in Southern California. I was (go figure) a swordfighter and either dressed in cavalier gear (breeches, boots, big sleeved white shirt) or gypsy and it was much more comfortable than the regulation peasant or noble gear. Ugh to velvet in summer weather, says I! You didn't mention the ubiquitous turkey legs (usually burned on the outside and raw on the middle). :-) Or the Ale boothes....hee hee...

I have to read those mysteries, Gayle!

Marian Allen said...

I used to attend SCA events (Society for Creative Anachronism) here in the Middle Kingdom, Barony of the Flame. I was Lady Maude McEwen (a poet)when I was there, and Edwina the Absent when I wasn't there.

Terrie Farley Moran said...


This is fascinating and fun.


CC_Authors said...

And let me tell you, it was a BLAST doing the research for Wicked Weaves! All the Ren Faires Jim and I could handle! We had a really good time writing it too. Our editor, Sandy Harding at Berkley, kept saying, "I hope you're not having TOO good a time!" HA! If you can't have a good time at your own Ren Faire, what good is writing?

Joyce Lavene

Donis Casey said...

Chris, Ellis Peters and Priscilla Royal both write wonderful Medieval mysteries, if you're interested. Edward Marsden does a great series of mysteries set in Elizabethan times

Juno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juno said...

(Now with Correct Spelling!)
Huzzah! Bristol is my home faire! I'm in the nobel's guilde, and get to wear 30 pounds of red velvet. We survive by getting used to wearing our outfits over 5 weeks of rehearsal. As for food, the nobels have a feast table for lunch that has to be period accurate, ie, a lot of dried fruit, cheese, and bread. However if you are very lucky and get to sit at the queen's table, you may actually get the whole almond milk pudding, stuffed pheasant thing.