By Paul Freedman
Annales Universitatis Apulensis, Series Historica,Vol.11:1 (2007)
Introduction: The subject of medieval cuisine possess intrinsic appeal as a curiosity, but dealing as it does with ephemeral pleasures, it does not immediately appear to be a serious subject of inquiry. This is not only because of historians’ preferences for the lives and culture of ordinary people, but intrinsic to the subject matter of food and the extent to which it is a fitting object of erudite commentary.
Michel de Montaigne recorded a conversation he had with a chef brought to France by Cardinal Giovanni Caraffa, the future Pope Paul IV and Montaigne’s patron. The conversation was actually rather one-sided as the chef lectured him on the “science of eating” (“la science de guele”) with what Montaigne describes as “a grave and magisterial countenance, as if he were speaking of some grand point of theology. He unraveled the rules regarding sauces and different salads according to their seasons,” but Montaigne found this slightly comical: “bloated with grand and magnificent words such as one might use in describing the government of an Empire,” and certainly not worthy of such high seriousness.
This slightly comical, fundamentally unseriousness remains a problem for anyone writing or discussing the history of cuisine. An historical approach to nutrition, or medical theories about digestion, or certainly ideas about body image are all respectable themes, but while the techniques and rules of cooking are not easily regarded as academically appropriate in the way that, for example, the techniques and rules of painting or music clearly are.