Richard M. Thomas
The Archaeology of Food and Identity, edited by K. Twiss (Center for Archaeological Investigations Occasional Publication No. 34, 2007)
In this chapter, both zooarchaeological and historical evidence are used to explore variation in patterns of consumption among different sectors of medieval English society (ca. A.D. 1066-1520). While in the early part of the period the consumption of meat carried a status value, the impact of the Black Death and the resultant shift in the balance of society and the weakening of aristocratic wealth and power changed this. The lower classes of society subsequently had access to a greater quantity of meat while the aristocracy shifted its focus to the consumption of wild birds. It is argued that this change in food consumption represents an attempt to reestablish social differentiation through diet.
Introduction: While the saying “you are what you eat” is often applied to describe our physical status and well-being, it is equally applicable within the context of social relationships. As Schiefenhövel notes, “There is probably no society that does not assign some status values to different kinds of food.” This phenomenon has been recognized throughout human history and may even have its roots outside of cultural contexts, such as among chimpanzees and bonobos, where food sharing is an important feature in maintaining social relationships. In this chapter, the relationship between food and the demarcation of social boundaries will be explored using medieval England as a case study.
English medieval society is an appropriate context in which to study this phenomenon given the fact that it was so highly stratified, as reﬂected in the ranking of different members of society and even in the ranking of animals, such as hawks and dogs. For the medieval aristocrat, it was essential to stand apart from the rest of society and to maintain and improve that position among the elite. Certain material assets, such as the ownership of land (and the people on it) and the right to keep deer in parks, exemplify attempts to achieve this. The maintenance of social boundaries also permeated down to more daily activities, including food consumption.
The medieval period was by no means static, however, and social relationships were in a constant state of ﬂux. It is the purpose of this essay, using a combination of zooarchaeological and historical data from elite, religious, urban, and rural contexts, to examine differences in the diet among the various social sectors and to explore temporal change in consumption patterns.