Subtleties, Power and Consumption: A Study of French and English Cuisine from 1300 to 1500
While it is difficult to fix precise dates to the Fall of Rome on one hand and the beginning of the Renaissance on the other, one thing is sure: referring to the time period as the Dark Ages ignores a rich history that includes innovations in art, architecture, fashion, the production of illuminated manuscripts, public spectacle, and cookery. However, some academics still make dark connotations when writing about medieval Europe. Historian Johan Huizingas influential book, Autumn of the Middle Ages, for instance, persistently employs the image of decay and decrepitude when he refers to life in fourteenth and fifteenth century France and the Netherlands. Even England, he claims, continued to hold onto disintegrating traditions well into the Renaissance. Many medievalists have contested this perspective in their works, as I will attempt to do through the examination of an often overlooked aspect of medieval feasting in France and England between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries known as subtleties. Elaborate edible sculptures produced in noble households, these creations often took the shape of human or animal figures but could also include edible castles and ships in which performers would entertain diners. While the phenomenon of subtleties have much in common with other art-forms of the period, there are also many ways that they differ. By examining these similarities and differences I hope to demonstrate not only that food studies can extend medieval art-related discourse but also how by studying food in general, subtleties in particular, the school of thought that believes that the late Middle Ages is more a dawning of an age rather than the waning of one, will have another weapon in its arsenal.
Making art out of edible material for the dinner table did not begin or end in the Middle Ages. Petronius, a companion of the Roman emperor Nero, reports in his book Satyricon, of being served a rabbit that was made to look like Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology (Scully 1995: 107). In the eleventh century, an Egyptian caliph reportedly celebrated one Islamic feast day with one hundred and fifty seven figures and seven table-sized palaces made of sugar (Mintz 1986 88). In the early nineteenth century, the French chef Antoine Careme became famous for his pieces montees, confectionery creations which he modeled after ancient Roman architecture. An indirect descendent of the subtlety can be seen today with the wedding cake. While the creation of food sculptures has a long history, what is important for the scope of this paper is that between 1300 and 1500 A.D. these creations have a name and share certain characteristics that allow them to be placed into a single category. Referred to in contemporary English as a soteltie and in French as an entremet, subtleties were originally intended as entertainment for diners between courses. A simple subtlety might consist of a set piece while the more complicated ones known as entremets mouvants included live participants and automatons.
The subtlety is a genre of performance: the food is the actor; the host is the producer; the chef, the director; the dining hall, the stage; the guests, the audience; and the servants, the ushers. As food historian Barbara Wheaton explains, entremets were amalgams of song, theater, mechanics, and carpentry, combined to convey an allegorical fantasy or even a political message (Wheaton 1983: 8). The stories these not very subtle subtleties told were analogous to the plot of a one act play. The play commences upon its presentation, and the moving edibles or the action around the stationary edibles enact the plot. These displays also provided an opportunity for a host to dine conspicuously thus demonstrating to his guests the marvels that wealth can buy. A medieval affinity for allegory can be seen in many art-forms including the plots of urban...
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