By Patricia Shaw
Selim: Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature, No.1 (1991)
Introduction: The human condition is subject to a series of everyday physiological demands – eating / drinking, excreting, reproducing and sleeping – some of which lend themselves better than others to exploitation for literary purposes: those connected with what the Wife of Bath calls so neatly, on the one hand, “office” and, on the other, “ese of engendrure”, tend to find their literary reflection in Middle English in the plain-speaking fabliau genre, in works such as Dame Siriz, or Chaucer’s Merchant’s, Miller’s or Summoner’s Tales, not forgetting, either, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, sex, of course, although unspecified being implicit in any narrative dealing with adultery or suspected adultery (certain romances, for example). Sleeping, indeed, had already acquired literary status in classical writings, as the conditio sine qua non for dreaming and for all that dreams might signify, and we need look no further than The Nuns’ Priest’s Tale and the Parliament of Fowles to judge how productive a theme this was to be in Middle English writing both as a subject of literary discourse and as a stratagem for literary invention. It is the aim of this study to take a look at some examples of the reflection in Middle English narrative texts of the remaining physiological necessity – eating and drinking – in an attempt to analyse and evaluate the ways in which these all too human activities are exploited for literary purposes in the period with which are concerned. Since narrative literature, almost by definition, tends to occupy itself with the extraordinary, it will hardly be surprising if gastronomic allusions in Middle English texts tend to move between the two poles of excess and default, rather than centring themselves on the desirable but unexciting golden mean.
Excessive eating and drinking, for example – the deadly sin of Gula or Gluttony – provides an excellent excuse for the Middle English author to indulge in a little preaching on the subject, in such narratives as lend themselves convincingly to the inclusion or moralising contexts. Thus Chaucer’s Pardoner, having boasted to the pilgrims of his skill as a preacher, demonstrates realistically the truth of his claim by starting a story about a group of “riotous” “young folk”, who vices he can then proceed to deplore in a fire-and-brimstone sermon, attacking in the first place precisely, the sin of guttony, for they “eten .. and drynken over hir might” in “superfluytee abhominable”. It is no accident, obviously, that Chaucer has the Pardoner himself insisting that before he begins his take, he should (precisely) “…at this alestake/…bothe drynke, and eten of a cake.”