By Nicola McDonald
Pulp fictions of medieval: England Essays in popular romance, edited by Nicola McDonald (Manchester University Press, 2004)
Introduction: ‘Eating people is wrong.’ Western culture has always treated the eating of human flesh as taboo. Reluctant or not, cannibals evoke fear, loathing or, at best, horrified pity; by disturbing the neat, almost sacred, divide between edible and inedible, they challenge the very integrity of what it is to be human. And that taboo is, apparently, timeless: just as today deeply ingrained codes of gustatory behaviour prevent us serving dead relatives or despised neighbours for dinner, so too in the Middle Ages it was neither proper nor permissible to feast on the flesh of another human being.
That said, cannibalism is not simply ‘wrong’; cannibals – more appropriately anthropophagi, since the former term signals little more than Columbus’ wilful slander of the Carib natives – inhabit a world of nightmare, but it is a nightmare in which cultural prohibitions are played out against fantasies of race, sex and imperialism. We don’t eat people, they do: medieval mappaemundi, like John Mandeville, conveniently locate the man-eater on the margins of the known world; responsibility for the gruesome tales of anthropophagy that, inevitably, surface nearer home is levelled at those already beyond the pale, Jews and other outcasts. Yet for all of its determination to purge itself of blame, and squeamishness aside, Western culture (medieval and modern) is no stranger to the notion that eating people is also a palatable pastime.
No fourteenth-century English cook is known to have prepared for consumption the flesh of a real Turk, yet the Turk’s Head, a sweet-and-sour meat pie shaped and decorated to resemble the outlandish features of a stereotyped Saracen, was a familiar late medieval dish. Instructions for how to prepare test de turt, all carefully delineating the colours and features of the upturned face, survive in no fewer than three manuscripts, two English and one, the earliest, in Anglo-Norman. Most medieval cookery books are assumed to serve the noble household – the cost and diversity of the ingredients (in particular meats and spices) and the quantities invoked require a large, well-funded kitchen – but Diuersa Cibaria, the collection which includes the Turk’s Head, found a broader, albeit still exclusive, audience: the earliest English manuscript belonged to Friar William Herebert of Hereford and the recipes’ explicit is written in his hand.
Neither Herebert nor any of the other fourteenth-century English householders who served up the Turk’s Head were, I am confident, practising anthropophagi. The dish is designed not to remind them of ‘Turks I have eaten’ but to bring a touch of exotic levity to the table. Like the cokantrice (a fantastical beast composed of the forefront of a chicken and the hind quarters of a suckling pig) or the popular plate of mock raw meat (‘how somme mete schalle seme raw’), the Turk’s Head is evidence of the medieval penchant for illusion, or counterfeit, food: dishes that surprise or entertain by the way in which they counter, either in composition or appearance, culinary and/or gustatory expectations.