Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Social Significance of Food

Early modern Europe saw many things changing from the way that the world was anciently.  The politics, religion, and even the commonly known size of the world were all changing.  Through these changes, social stations and perceptions were also in a state of flux.  The identity of the person and the sociality with which they garnered and surrounded themself was changing to accommodate the growing population and size of the world.  In the midst of all this change, there was a driving force that was wielded by both rich and poor, good and evil.  Food.  This essay shall examine and discuss the social significance that food had in this early modern European world, and the ways in which it was used; as a weapon, as a currency, as a means to promote invention and advancement, as a symbol and as a medium for disease. 

Food has been an essential part of man’s life from time unmemorable.  It is one of the largest driving forces behind man.  Filtered down through the eons to the early modern world of Europe it is obvious that man had discovered that food could be used as a tool or weapon, and one that is most devastating when used ‘correctly’ on a mass scale.  This was iterated quite simply by Maxim Litvinov when he said “Food is a weapon”[1] in regards to the 1933 famine in Soviet occupied Ukraine.  On this same subject, Inky Mark stated that “…as many as 7 million were starved [by] Stalin’s artificial famine…”[2]  This concept of using the supply of food as a weapon is not a new one, as the idea of laying siege to a town and cutting off their supplies has been documented from some of the earliest texts and inscriptions existing, such as the Bible, Egyptian records like the Merneptah Stele, and the Lachish Relief.  The ruling classes of Europe would have been no different, and through the increasing of taxes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries likely contributed to the famines that were taking place across Europe.

The other side of the coin to a rise in taxes contributing to a famine is that it encourages and breeds invention and progress out of necessity.  Since the peasants were trying to produce enough crop to both sustain themselves, as well as to sell for money to pay the new taxes, there logically had to be improvements to the agriculture industry as in its current form, it was impossible for them to achieve.  With this necessity, the heavy plough was brought about and began seeing more use[3].  This allowed for faster and more efficient planting, which in turn equated to a larger and more productive crop.  The farmers were then able to have food for themselves as well as sell some of this crop to pay their taxes, and thus stave off the rich landowners for another season. 

Before the invention of the plough however, the life expectancy of people in Europe was not great.  This can be attributed in part to the large amount of fallacies, religious practices and beliefs, and commonly accepted superstitions of the day[4].   These beliefs probably came about simply in the manner that Nugent and Clark describe; ‘life sustaining nourishment is so important to every human society that food inevitably becomes a powerful cultural symbol’[5].  In fact, the need and want of food due to the famines coupled with the spiritual beliefs and symbolism of the early modern period in Scotland played a part in the witch-hunts of that era.  Larner found that there was a common theme running throughout the accused witches that they were promised by the devil that they would never want, and this in turn conveys the idea that to the lower-class people of early modern Europe, the ability to have food instead of hunger was more important than riches, to the point of enlisting the help of the devil[6].  Further in the symbolic nature of food relating to religion, bread and wine were very highly regarded commodities, as they were used for Communion to represent the body and blood of Christ, and as such were regarded as not only food for the body, but food for the soul[7].

Continuing with the symbology and the misguided superstitions relating to food, there was an idea of social class transference through the eating of certain food types prevalent at this time as well.  There was the conception that a food source that was considered crude or gross was associated by nature with the poor peasant class, and that the consumption of this food by people of a higher station would result in the undesirable aspects of the peasant class transferring to those of the higher class that ate it.  The opposite was also the same, but originating from the same upper class.  The fear was that if the poor were to consume the higher stationed food, the aspects of power and wealth would transfer down to the peasantry.  This had the wealthy afraid of being infected with the aspects of the poor, but also gave rise to the saying, ‘you are what you eat’, originally meaning both the station you held in life, and the possibility of gaining attributes of another class through the consumption of their food[8]

At the beginning of the fourteenth century there was an universal problem with malnutrition and an overall weakness in people due to the stress on the body that it caused[9].  This, coupled with the hygiene levels and living standards of the people, created perfect conditions for pestilence and disease to breed and take hold of the population on a mass scale.  This plague moved across Europe in the mid-1300’s quite quickly and left death and devastation in its wake[10].  There were some areas of Europe that did not feel the effects of this devastating plague as strongly as others, and Montanari speculates that it could have been due to a number of reasons, such as the amount of grazing animals, or the proximity to the coastline and its supply of fat and protein rich fish for the populace[11]. 

Food has always carried with it a certain social status-defining attribute[12].  The different social class of people was also determinable by the food that was available for consumption to a given person.  The rich and ‘affluent’ higher class were able to enjoy large portions of meats, grains, and confections, while the poor made due with breads and soups[13].  There was a common perception that grains, in particularly those that were made into breads, were the best and most desirable of the food staples.  There was a hierarchy to the types of bread that was associated with the class and station of the person as well.  The white bread was for the wealthy upper class, mixed bread for the middle class, and the dark rough bread for the poor[14].  The reason for the darker barley and legume bread going to the poor was that they were unable to afford the better-quality breads and that they would be able to digest this rougher stuff easier as the poor are more hearty from constant work and know no better[15]. 

With the richer classes deciding that meat was the food of choice for them, and because they usually held ownership of the land, the concept of hunting rights was developed in the thirteen- and fourteen hundreds in Europe, which further delineated the divide of classes through food, and ensured that the rich would have plenty of meat[16].  This is after all of the changes that had occurred in the way that animal farming was viewed, and with the onset of people eating pigs and even sheep, which was regarded as food for only someone that had no taste[17]. 

It can be concluded that food, whilst sometimes scarce, sometimes manipulated, and even sometimes misrepresented by popular beliefs, has always had an influential impact on man and the way that he shapes his society.  The politics, religion, and the size of the communities that were able to be sustained were changing, growing, and becoming more complex and food, and the way that it was used socially, had a very large hand in the shaping of this new early modern European world.   From the controlled famine by the onset of military sieges or monetary destitution by way of increased taxes, to the desire of having food and staving off hunger driving innovation and invention, food held its social significance through it all. 


Albala, K.  (2002).  ‘Food and Class’, Eating Right In The Renaissance.  University of California Press, Berkeley.   pg. 184-199. 

Baker, N.  (2011).  ‘Lecture 7:  Building Renaissance Europe’, HST150, SP4, Macquarie University.

Barrow, L.  (2011).  ‘Notes on Food’, Week 4, HST150, SP4, Macquarie University. 

‘Famine – Genocide in the Ukraine 1932-1933’.  (2004-2008).  Accessed on 30 Dec, 2011.

Montanari, M.  (1994).  ‘To Each His Own’, The Culture of Food.  Blackwell, Oxford.  pg. 68-97.

Nungent, J. and Clark, M.  (2010).  ‘A Loaded Plate: Food Symbolism and the Early Modern Scottish Household’.  Journal of Scottish Historical Studies.  Vol 30, No 1, pg. 43-63. 

[2] Ibid
[3] Baker, Lecture 7
[4] Montanari, To Each His Own, pg. 78-80
[5] Nugent & Clark, A Loaded Plate, pg. 43
[6] Nugent & Clark, A Loaded Plate, pg. 44
[7] Barrow, Notes on Food, Week 4, HST150, SP4 2011
[8] Albala,
[9] Montanari, To Each His Own, pg. 70-71
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid
[12] Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance, pg. 184
[13] Barrow, Notes on Food, Week 4, HST150, SP4 2011
[14] Ibid
[15] Ibid
[16] Montanari, To Each His Own, pg. 77
[17] Ibid, pg. 71-77

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