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Elemental theory in everyday practice: food disposal in the later medieval English countryside

Food in the Medieval Rural EnvironmentElemental theory in everyday practice: food disposal in the later medieval English countryside

By Richard Jones

Ruralia (Processing, Storage, Distribution of Food: Food in the Medieval Rural Environment), Vol.8 (2011)

Introduction: For medieval rural communities the story of food did not necessarily end in its eating. Culinary waste or table leftovers formed a valuable, if potentially noisome, resource that could either be returned to the soil or fed to animals. This paper explores the afterlife of medieval food and its role in the cycle of agricultural production and consumption. It focuses in particular on the use of food waste as manure: how, as it were, soiled food became food for soil. Vital to the success of recycling food waste was its careful curation and subsequent distribution on the land. Using evidence from all over England, the paper reveals that lords and peasants held very different attitudes to food waste which influenced not only how and where it was stored and handled, but also how it was subsequently used in crofts, gardens, orchards, and fields. It argues that the development of complex disposal strategies was guided both by how and where food was prepared, but also by an appreciation of the elemental properties of particular waste products. Different wastes might be variously understood to be hot, cold, wet or moist, and this subsequently dictated how, where, and when they might be reused.

Disposing of waste is an integral part of the cycle of food production and consumption, raising just the same set of questions regarding processing, storage and distribution that others in this volume address in relation to the handling of food stuffs destined for the kitchen or table. Here the afterlife of food is explored in one particular setting, the medieval English countryside, although the insights that it provides might be applied other contexts too. Standing in the way of an enquiry of this sort is the scarcity of direct evidence that informs on this matter. Historical and archaeological sources only provide indirect evidence for the practices of rural lords and peasants, but if correctly interrogated, the scraps of information that can be gleaned permit the partial reconstruction of these activities. The application of a number of hypothetical models offers the possibility of plugging the remaining gaps.

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