The Peasant Diet: Image and Reality
Patterns of Consumption and Standards of Living in the Medieval Rural World, September 18-20, Universitat de València (2008)
Introduction: At the end of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the peasant couple Masetto and Zerlina announce that for their part, assured of the bad end of the lecherous nobleman, they are going home to have dinner together (“a casa andiamo, a cenar in compagnia!”). Their light-hearted plans are in contrast to those of the aristocratic pair Don Ottavio and Donna Anna who will wait a year for her heart to heal from the murder of her father. Donna Elvira, representing middle-class sensitivity, intends to enter a convent, there to await the end of her life. The resiliently materialistic peasants are unaffected by Don Giovanni’s misdeeds, for their attention is focused on simple and immediate gratification: domestic comfort symbolized by eating.
In pre-modern entertainments for the educated classes the peasants were portrayed as uncomplicated, unscrupulous and unheroic, eager for their next meal and indifferent towards any sort of noble or renunciatory ideal. In literature the peasant is a creature of appetite rather than of thought; practical and self-centered rather than adventurous. Peasant embodiment was sometimes deployed to make fun of the high moral tone of the knightly or spiritual quest. Sancho Panza is a classic example, a foil to Don Quixote’s chivalric delusions. On the road, Sancho nostalgically recollects meals at home. At inns that his master suspects of harboring sorcerers or other enemies, Sancho attempts to find something decent to eat. As governor of an island he is harassed by the attentions of his doctor who won’t let him eat anything. Yet even in its seemingly fixed literary role, the peasant as principle of the most elemental materialism is subverted and rendered more complicated: after all, Sancho has been persuaded to join the mad Don Quixote’s adventures and is the victim of his own delusions that overcome his supposed attachment to physical comfort.