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Cooking and Dining in Medieval England Hardcover – 11 Mar 2008

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Prospect Books (11 Mar. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1903018552
  • ISBN-13: 978-1903018552
  • Product Dimensions: 24.9 x 18.3 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,262,232 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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The history of medieval food and cookery has received a fair amount of attention from the point of view of recipes (of which many survive) and of the general context of feasts and feasting. It has never, as yet, been studied with an eye to the real mechanics of food production and service: the equipment used, the household organisation, the architectural arrangements for kitchens, store-rooms, pantries, larders, cellars, and domestic administration. This new work by Peter Brears, perhaps Britain's foremost expert on the historical kitchen, looks at these important elements of cooking and dining. He also subjects the many surviving documents relating to food service - household ordinances, regulations and commentaries - to critical study in an attempt to reconstruct the precise rituals and customs of dinner.An underlying intention is to rehabilitate the medieval Englishman as someone with a nice appreciation of food and cookery, decent manners, and a delicate sense of propriety and seemliness. To dispel the myth, that is, of medieval feasting as an orgy of gluttony and bad manners, usually provided with meat that has gone slightly off, masked by liberal additions of heady spices.A series of chapters looks at the cooking departments in large households: the counting house, dairy, brewhouse, pastry, boiling house and kitchen.

These are illustrated by architectural perspectives of surviving examples in castles and manor houses throughout the land. Then there are chapters dealing with the various sorts of kitchen equipment: fires, fuel, pots and pans. Sections are then devoted to recipes and types of food cooked. The recipes are those which have been used and tested by Peter Brears in hundreds of demonstrations to the public and cooking for museum displays. Finally there are chapters on the service of dinner (the service departments including the buttery, pantry and ewery) and the rituals that grew up around these.Here, Peter Brears has drawn a wonderful strip cartoon of the serving of a great feast (the washing of hands, the delivery of napery, the tasting for poison, etc.) which will be of permanent utility to historical re-enactors who wish to get their details right.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Over the last twenty years there has been a growing interest in
medieval food, both as an academic subject and as a practical activity for
those involved in cookery and historical reenactment. The purpose of this
book is to further this interest by exploring late medieval English
domestic food in its broadest context, including all its more practical
aspects. To do this, it has drawn on a variety of sources, ranging from
historical records, recipes and illustrations, archaeological material and
architectural studies, and the benefit of extensive experience of cooking
and serving food in accurate historical contexts. In addition, it makes use
of a deep knowledge of traditional English material culture and cookery,
which can greatly inform the interpretation of a more distant past.
In pre-war England, good manners and breeding ensured that food, along with
politics and religion, was carefully excluded from the dinner table
conversation of all polite households. This was not because this topic was
without interest, but, quite to the contrary, it was of such great
importance that to enter into it could open up the most destructive of
social minefields. In reality, the tiniest details of the dinner had been
planned and re-planned to ensure perfection. Everything from the brilliance
of the silver and the writing on the menu cards, to the status of the
guests and the order in which they were seated, had been subject to the
closest scrutiny. On such minutiae reputations were either made or
Since the 1930s, this thousand-year old tradition has experienced a massive
decline. Tableservants are rarely found outside noble households, while
starched tablecloths of heraldic damask along with all the panoply of
tableware, manners, dress etc. which accompanied them, have virtually
disappeared from common use. In modern society the ready availability of
pre-prepared foods, combined with ever-increasing simplification of our
manners and eating habits, has allowed us to forget just how important a
part food played in the everyday lives of previous generations. Unless we
reverse this drift into ignorance, we can never gain a full understanding
of the economic, social and material cultures of the past.
Late medieval England provides an excellent historical context in which to
explore the full potential of food history studies. From this period we
have a wealth of historical documents, archaeological finds, and
architectural survivals from which to work, and it represents a long, well
established and relatively stable culture' much of which was to change
under the later Tudors. Using this evidence, we can begin to understand not
only the growing role of administrative and financial management in
households, but also the way in which food was used as a means of
maintaining and enforcing hierarchies. How would today's thrusting
middle-managers face up to serving their top directors at table, cutting up
their food precisely as they wished, using techniques worthy of a sushi
chef and etiquette so complex that only years of study enabled it to be
executed without fault?
How would they react in the staff dining room, if one of their toadying
colleagues was sent a personal portion of exquisite food from the
director's table, on the director's special instruction? Only the medieval
Lord and his meddling wife and son sitting by his sides knew just how to
use such techniques to tweak his household into perfect obedience.
Using the same body of information, we can go on to discover how medieval
buildings, just like those of today, were the physical embodiment of
preconceived human and resource management concepts. At a practical level,
this meant that the sequence of rooms from larders to dining tables was as
close to a smooth-running production line as possible, but within this,
there was frequently subtle sophistication. This might include security
barriers and surveillance systems, as well as the deliberate introduction
of practical inefficiencies in order to obtain management benefits. Some of
these had origins back in the late thirteenth century, when the lord
stopped dining in the great hall, and retired into his chamber close to the
kitchen. Once he realised that no one could now see his fine food, he
removed his chamber to the opposite end of the hall so that everyone still
had to stand up and show each delicious dish the respect it deserved as it
was paraded under their noses. His food might lose a few degrees in
temperature, but the prestige made this so worthwhile that the custom
continued for a further three hundred years. This clearly shows that the
understanding of architectural change cannot be complete without a
knowledge of food history. Even in the last twenty years the lack of such
knowledge has seen leading architectural historians publishing completely
speculative, unreasoned nonsense, with servants dining in unlit cellars,
and great nobles
scuttling down underground passages to make spectacular appearances in
halls which, in reality, they had vacated centuries earlier.
Much more could be said along these lines, but we really should expect that
archaeologists should know that a boiler is not an oven and that food
historians should know that meat is roasted in front of a fire, not over
it, but these and other very basic misunderstandings are still commonplace.
We should feel great sympathy for those involved in historical re-enactment
who wish to give great accuracy to their work, but still find it difficult
to obtain the essential information they require. Although later research
will surely find faults in this book, it will at least improve the present
situation, and hopefully fuel further useful debate.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Anders on 2 Mar. 2010
Format: Hardcover
What a wonderful book! P. Brears knowledge of the medieval world is amazing. This is not "just" a cooking book....though I bought it just because I was looking for a good medieval cooking book. This is a history of cooking in medieval England. Of cooking, dining, living and of all the practical things of cooking and living in the Middle Ages, in the castles and country houses....with such an incredibly amount of details.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By H. Toon on 29 Mar. 2009
Format: Hardcover
Not too high brow for the everyday reader to pick up, but still highly detailed and informative.
I've not tried out any of the recipies yet, but even without any of these I would consider it an essential book for medieval re-enactors and anyone with an interest in the period, particularly in aspects of architecture and cooking.
If you like castles, and thinking about how they actually worked when intact, this book will give you food for thought (excuse the pun!). There are numerous diagrams showing how the various kitchens / ovens / and other rooms in a castle fitted and worked together - for many specific castles in the UK. Look around your favourite again after reading this book and you will see it in a completely different light.
I have read the book right through initially, and envisage dipping in and out in future when I want to recreate something specific, visit a particular site or just top up my knowledge.
Definitely one to keep on the bookshelf, or even closer to hand.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Clifton on 23 Aug. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Good, enjoyable book, lots of detail and many facts. It starts with explaining the mechanics and management of how food was obtained and cooked in all stratas of society, but mainly in the "grander" gentry (and upwards) houses. The layout of splitting the dscriptions up into functions such as water supply, the dairy, the brewhouse, the bakehouse, etc., works well and their interactions explained. There are also recipes included for you to try if you feel like "going the whole hog" and experience what medieval food actually tasted like.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By M. Thomas on 3 Aug. 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book has a wealth of detail in this book covering the end to end of food in a well-off household in the mediaeval period (and applicable to the Tudor/Stuart period also): organisation structure, accounting, procurement, cooking (by department) and serving. And lots of practical receipes also.

The comment on re-enactor's "pottage" at the start of one chapter was a bit harsh (but fair).

My only slight quibble is there are a few key facts left unexplained, and unreferenced in the notes/biblio. For example, "on fish days, dinner was often 1 hour later". Why? Source? We need to know!
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0 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Mike Richards on 23 Aug. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
great useful knowledge
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