Food and technology – Cooking utensils and food processing in medieval Norway

Food and technology – Cooking utensils and food processing in medieval Norway

By Ingvild Øye

Processing, Storage, Distribution of Food. Food in the Medieval Rural Environment (Brepols, 2011)

16th century view of Bergen
16th century view of Bergen

Introduction: Preparation and consumption of food represent one of the central aspects of all cultures. That food and food processing also signify some of the most conservative aspects of culture, as has often been claimed, are perhaps less obvious. As a basic and continual physical need, food embodies relations of production and exchange, linking the domestic and wider socio-political spheres. It does not only reflect biological needs and functional aspects but also habitual practises that structure action and, unconsciously, perceptions of identities and difference between people. Demand for food and the ways of making it may be seen as the interplay of traditions, availability, tastes, practical devices and technological possibilities, but also strategic decisions and social roles. Certain aspects of cooking could also give it a special importance in situations of change, and, according to J. Goody, what changes took place were often related to the changing nature of social stratification. A question to be looked into in this paper is whether these considerations are relevant for the medieval period, with all its far reaching transformations where, among other aspects, urbanisation and commercialisation played an important role in socioeconomic and cultural change, and processes of cultural transmission. Such processes also affected food – production, distribution, food processing and consumption, as well as technologies.

Here, I focus on the last elements in the long chain of food preparation, cooking and the technology applied to it, to discuss the questions of cultural transmission, and degree of stability or change – adoption or rejection of foreign and new commodities and practices related to certain types of food processing equipment, not only just of artefacts but also the cultural conceptions and underlying human behaviour patterns. By comparing archaeological evidence of cooking utensils from urban and rural contexts in Norway ca. 1,000–1,500 AD – in this case new technologies represented by imported ceramic vessels versus domestic steatite vessels and new types of stone griddles – my aim is to examine how new ways of preparing food were transmitted, either incorporated into routinised practises, ignored or transformed. Which parts of this special material culture were resistant to change and which were taken in? This question is, of course, closely connected to the whole technological chain of food processing, from raw material to edible food.

There were also several methods of cooking. My focus is on equipment for boiling; Old Norse seiða, corresponding to Old English séoðan, and baking; ON baka, equivalent to OE bacan, originally denoting to cook something by dry heat, and not necessarily only bread.

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