Thinking With Food: The Welcome Rise of Food History

Pieter Aertsen’s “Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt”

Pieter Aertsen’s “Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt”

With Kind Permission from the North Carolina Museum of Arts


During Lent of 1522, a baker and his friend snuck into a monastery church in Zurich. When discovered by the caretaker and a monk, the baker whipped a sausage out from underneath his cloak and began a heated theological argument. With some difficulty, the monk had the men thrown out of the church, but not before he kept a piece of the sausage as ‘evidence’.

As many generations of Oxford historians will know, both academic and social life at Oxford is endlessly punctuated by the enquiry ‘what do you work on?’. My own response – ‘food in history’ – still used to get some bemused reactions when I was a young graduate student. Sausages do not strike everyone as the most obvious serious historical topic. Food had, until recent decades, been something of a runt in the litter of historical issues, only belatedly receiving the attention it deserved.

Thankfully those days are now long past: from the Annales school in France and dietary historians in England half a century ago, food has now sprouted everywhere, from conference panels to publication lists, seminar titles to course listings. Food is now recognised as a rich and varied historical subject. I was lucky enough to begin working on the subject just as its time came.

Recent years have seen work on representations of food in literature, on culinary techniques, on the material culture of food (such as cooking equipment), on diet and nutrition, and on historical cookbooks. Yet food history has often remained somewhat a subject apart, considered in isolation rather than as an integrated part of historical study. Part of the problem food has long faced is that while its importance in history is undeniable – Reay Tannahill famously remarked that ‘without food there would be no history’ – moving past food as a biological necessity has sometimes led not to the heart of historical issues but instead to deeper thinking about food.

Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that meat symbolism and taboos developed because animals were not just ‘good to eat’ but also ‘good to think with’. Food can provide similar advantages: uniting gender, economy, religion, and culture, it can provide a unique prism through which to view pre-modern society. My research asks what we can learn from not just thinking about food, but also thinking with it. In three varying parts of early modern Europe, I show how food can shed new and unique light on very old historical issues.

So what were the baker and the monk doing with the sausage? In Lent 1522, Zurich stood on the cusp of its Reformation, and a controversy over fasting and sausages became a key issue over which Huldrych Zwingli and his followers broke with the Church. After a meal of sausages amongst Zwingi’s followers at the beginning of Lent, evangelicals protested the Catholic seasonal dietary restrictions with symbolic fast-breakings: meat at lunch tables; boiled eggs in the fields for vineyard workers; egg-thickened soups in the bakers’ guildhall. While the Church admonished those who sinned by breaking Lent, Zwingli published a pamphlet using both theological and social arguments to defend a rejection of dietary restrictions.

Indeed Zwingli skillfully tapped into a rich seam of social and cultural criticism. Foods had powerful associations in popular iconography, their symbolisms connecting to far wider debates. The food of choice of the fast-breakers, the humble sausage, fit Zwingli’s archetype of the honest hard-working Christian everyman, while it also called to mind Swiss anger at mercenary recruitment for Pope and Emperor. Zwingli called their recruiters ‘butchers of men’, while other Swiss humanists called them ‘sausage-makers’. Sausages also brought to mind jokes about masculinity – especially next to ‘feminine’ eggs and dairy – all the more topical given Lent’s bans on marriage and sex. The question of Lenten food led down a rabbit hole of wider issues that illuminate the social and cultural context of the early Reformation.

Over 1000 miles to the southwest, another European community was also wrestling with the question of what a good Christian should eat and avoid. The Catholic reconquest of central and southern Spain replaced a heterodox Christian, Muslim, and Jewish society with a drive for one unified Christian Spain. Minorities faced forced conversion or expulsion, and an Inquisition was created to enforce uniformity and discover those lapsing into their old ways. Food emerged as a dangerous dividing line of identity and suspicion.

The early records of the Castilian Inquisition are full of minute culinary detail: women had their maids salt their meat; men who liked aubergines or didn’t like eels; people who refused lardy pastries or pieces of wild boar; women who made their own sausages. Here, the Holy Office thought, was a way into the inner-most beliefs of its defendants. Someone could pretend to pray, or lie about their faith, but the way they kept their kitchen and the way they ate were very strong evidence about their true identity. In the cases of many women accused of ‘crypto-Judaism’, seemingly mundane details of cooking and food habits were key pieces of evidence on their way to torture, imprisonment, and execution.

Food’s place in everyday ‘lived’ religion, and as a focus of persecution, was also in evidence in the early modern Inquisition’s macabre cousin, witchcraft trials. Just as many Inquisition cases began as personal quarrels and grudges, many accusations of witchcraft began with disputes over food, such as cases of milk magic where women accused each other of manipulating dairy yields. Both popular and intellectual beliefs about demons and witches were full of ideas about food. The tables at demonic meals were laden with foods that would never sate hunger: black bread made of the bones of murdered children; skewered sausages representing stolen male virility; poisoned cakes used to ensnare enemies.   

In a world in which food was always insecure, magical and mundane threats to food existed together: thieves and witches, bad weather and tempests, diseases and curses. In Orkney & Shetland, food thieves and witches appeared on the same court days, as in Zurich and Castile, food was a serious subject for the islanders, central to how their communities operated. If we look at their food history merely as something to think about, we are missing half the story.

Food takes us into the kitchens of early modern people to observe the great range of issues that touched food, offering more than just new detail of how people in the past lived. It provides us with a prism through which to analyse the dynamics of past communities. The rise of food history is welcome and long overdue. But we must make sure not just to construct a self-contained subject of study. Food is far too important for that.


- Dr Christopher Kissane

Associate Researcher in Economic History at London School of Economics (Balliol 2008-14)

Dr Christopher Kissane’s book Food, Religion, & Communities in Early Modern Europe will be published by Bloomsbury in late 2016.