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by Kent Bloom
Fabulous Feasts, by Madeline Pelner Cosman, is a collection of information about food, feasting, and food service concentrating on the period around 1400. There is a lot of discussion of the food described in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, as well as a few other imaginary and historical feasts. The book is copiously illustrated with color plates, woodcuts, and illustrations. In spite of devoting over a third of the book to recipes, this is not really a book about cooking, but rather a somewhat rambling treatise about food and service in the Middle Ages, with occasional expeditions into the Renaissance. It is an interesting and somewhat confusing book. I am reluctant to recommend it for the serious re-creationist, but find it quite reasonable as an introduction to some of the concepts of the more elaborate side of medieval life.
In the late 1970's, I attended one of Mrs. Cosman's lectures on Medieval Feasting at Castle Hill Early Music and Dance Week in Ipswitch, MA. The lecture, illustrated with many of the same pictures as in the book, was a combination of the amusing, the serious, and the debatable; concentrating on specific feasts and feasting habits, but with more emphasis on the Renaissance than in the book. Like the book, there was a great deal of mixing of times and places based on a theme. And Mrs. Cosman seems more interested in popularizing (and simplifying) Medieval Studies than in concentrating on specifics.
The book consists of six chapters, 100 recipes, and a bibliography. About a third of the book is illustrations, a third text, and a third recipes. The bibliography is extensive. It contains entries on Art, Gastronomy (food and beverages and their preparation), Literature, Music, and The Times (History, Philosophy, Laws, and Customs). Each of the chapters could stand alone as a separate topic. The common theme is that they are all related in some way to food.
The first chapter, also entitled "Fabulous Feasts", actually lives up to the title. Fabulous means "made up", or "exceptionally strange". Much of the chapter is devoted to analyzing descriptions of food in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Bills of fair are also given for the Coronation Feast of Henry IV, and for a funeral feast for a Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1424. To me, the most interesting part of this chapter is the description of the duties and responsibilities of the various "Noble Servitors". These are pages and persons of rank who cut bread, carved meat and fowl, sauced and served portions, poured beverages, and served beverages.
The second chapter, "Peacocks, Parsley, Princely Pie", goes into some detail about the foods, and combinations of foods, served at feasts. There is a significant itemization of the kinds of food used, with commentary on how it was served. There is also some commentary on how diets for the noble household are arranged for health, status, and taste. In addition, there is commentary on portion sizes, and a discussion of the kinds and quantities of spices used.
The third chapter, "A Chicken For Chaucer's Kitchen", is ostensibly a description of a trip to the markets in London to buy the ingredients for a Farsed (stuffed) Chicken. It is an excuse to describe in detail the locations and complexity of the markets. It covers many guild and city rules for merchants, both local Londoners and "foreigners" from England and elsewhere. In addition to discussing the various types and locations of merchants, the author dwells on descriptions of unfair and fraudulent dealings. She spends a lot of time describing the punishments meted out to those apprehended selling short or non-standard measures, undersized or improperly classified food (for example, charging for large eels, but only delivering medium eels), and rotten food.
The fourth chapter, "Fountain, River, Privy, Pot", is devoted to London's water supply. Sewage was a major problem in London in the 1300s. The availability of fresh water for cooking and drinking was the subject of much activity on the part of the City of London. The author describes an aqueduct system, and quarrels over excessive use by various people, particularly brewers. Separation of water and sewer systems was a continuing problem as well. And the author describes continual complaints from Edward III to the Lord Mayor about the stinks and scums which the city was causing.
The fifth chapter, "Sex, Smut, Sin, and Spirit", discusses various philosophies about food. There is a discussion of how food and feasting were sometimes combined with sexual debauchery. There is also another excerpt from Chaucer with a disgusting food story. And the author includes a discussion of the Sin of Gluttony. The author concludes that the church viewed Gluttony as the first sin. She discusses how over-eating and over-imbibing can lead to other deadly sins. She also describes how various clerics sought to curb food excesses.
The last chapter before the recipes, "Medieval Feasts for the Modern Table", is a paen to joys of holding "Medieval Feasts" for modern guests. There is a long list of suggestions about how to decorate, dress, recruit servers, and acquire appropriate ingredients. Many of these suggestions are quite reasonable. For example, she recommends covering walls with banners, tapestries, and rugs. And she describes how to create a table runner that will look authentic.
This book contains much good, and interesting, information. But it also has a number of flaws, not the least of which is that it is inconsistent in level and tone. It often goes from sweeping generalities to minutiae. Given it's shortness (only about 60 pages of text with a tremendous number of footnotes), a more complete treatment is probably unreasonable. But many of the details are redundant (for example, panterers are described three different times). And I would have liked more information about food, and feasting, and cooking, less about merchant law, and far less about sewage. I can understand the relevance of church philosophy to feasting, but again I would have preferred more about food and less about sin.
I can't decide if this is supposed to be a scholarly work, a work of popular history, or a recruiting pamphlet for medieval studies programs. The first five chapters contain 166 footnotes. But about 80% of them are to secondary sources, which I consider bad scholarship when the originals are available. (The author claims to have reviewed most of the originals.) The recipes are undocumented. The author includes a list of the manuscripts from which she extracted the originals, but no links to which manuscript provided which recipe. In addition, the bibliography is classified according to type but not annotated, so it is difficult to tell which sources are useful, and for what purposes.
The book is full of wonderful illustrations. There are eating scenes, food preparation scenes, bathing scenes, landscapes, and allegories. Most of the illustrations are from original sources, and many of them are in color. They are often well-chosen to illustrate points. And a lot of useful information about implements and service (as well as costume) is included in the illustrations. In fact, the illustrations are more valuable than the text for a serious re-creationist.
While I can recommend this book to the novice who wants to get an overview of feasting and food service, this is not a book for the serious re-creationist cook. It lacks detail. It relies on secondary sources. And it concentrates on the "fabulous". That is, it is mostly concerned with the unusual, both in practice and philosophy. It is a combination of excellent analysis and speculation intermixed. And the author's opinions are given indiscriminately mixed with the history and philosophy. The book is designed as much to titillate and shock as to inform.
In addition, for the serious re-creationist cook, the recipes are inconsistent as to authenticity. It is difficult to judge how authentic they are, as they are not tied to their sources. Most of the recipes are reasonable for SCA, that is, they are mostly made with period ingredients and combinations. Still, it's hard to decide about choices of ingredients and/or substitutions without any context. And there are a few inconsistencies, and a few typographical errors, in the recipes.
Over all, there are many better sources for recipes, but this is a nice coffee-table type book. There is an emphasis on the exotic, fictional, and exceptional over the ordinary. So while it is an interesting addition to a cook's library, but not a good place to start.