fd-Mer-Gaul-rv-art – 2/8/04
A review of the book “Creating Community with Food and Drink in Merovingian Gaul” by Raymond Van Dam.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Note: This review was first published by The Medieval Review, an on-line journal of reviews, http://www.hti.umich.edu/t/tmr/ .
Effros, Bonnie. “Creating Community with Food and Drink in Merovingian Gaul”. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Pp. xviii + 174. $50.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-312-22736-1.
Reviewed by Raymond Van Dam
University of Michigan
rvandam at umich.edu
Thanks for the gift of wine and fish, bishop Avitus of Vienne wrote a benefactor in the early fifth century. But, he then sighed in frustration, despite his appetite he was constrained from sampling these delicacies. This tension between feasting and fasting is the basis of Bonnie Effros' very interesting survey of the rituals associated with the provision and consumption of food and drink in early medieval Gaul. Her book focuses on the social relationships nourished through the sharing of meals, and on the use of food as a "symbolic language" (4) for the maintenance of power and hierarchy.
In the first chapter Effros discusses the social significance of feasting for the creation of Christian communities. She argues that bishops and monks wanted to demonstrate that their churches and monasteries were lavish sources of food. Sometimes clerics and ascetics directly supplied refreshments or hosted meals; at other times they were assisted by saints, whose miracles might create unlimited wine or beer. Providing food was a way of enhancing authority and prestige. "Feasting constituted a powerful form of gift exchange and patronage, and played a highly symbolic role in the display of status and identity in sixth- and seventh-century Gaul" (16). Clerics also used their feasts to encourage people to accept orthodox Christian beliefs and behavior. By defining and restricting membership in the community of true believers, regulations about food and sharing meals effectively isolated pagans, heretics, and Jews. As a result, clerics were always concerned lest their liturgical vessels be contaminated through demonic forces.
The second chapter discusses how clerics and monks used food and drink in order to define their own identities, both more widely in Gallic society and within monasteries. In contrast to local notables, bishops and other clerics did not form alliances through marriages, and they could not participate in warfare. They created ties of loyalty instead through hosting meals, which were "the best opportunities to interact with and gain the support of well-armed lay contemporaries" (27). They also celebrated banquets on saints' festival days in order to bolster the civic pride of their sees. The organizers of monasteries highlighted the role of communal meals in order to promote fellowship and a sense of inclusion among all the monks. In contrast, extreme asceticism might limit the formation of social networks among both clerics and monks.
Because cloistered nuns were likewise isolated from networks of political patronage, they faced the same tension between fasting and feasting. In the third chapter Effros argues that nuns nevertheless hosted meals to enhance their social standing. Some bishops might be alarmed at this prospect, and Caesarius of Arles tried to impose restrictions on the provision of banquets by the nuns in his sister's convent. Even though Radegund adopted Caesarius' Rule for her convent at Poitiers, she understood the need for influential supporters, and she matched her personal austerity with meals of delicacies offered to visitors like Fortunatus. Radegund was hence both more ascetic and more generous than Caesarius had recommended for nuns: "early medieval noble women in monastic houses gained access to greater authority both as a result of their patronage of feasts and abstinence from food and drink" (54).
In the fourth chapter Effros wants to analyze the connections between eating and healing. Even though many people were healed at saints' shrines after swallowing something sacred, such as holy oil, medicinal herbs, or dust mixed with water, this chapter in fact discusses not cures of illnesses, but the maintenance of health through a dietary regimen. Anthimus, a Greek doctor who served at the court of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric in Italy, composed a treatise about the medicinal value of various foods for the Frankish king Theuderic. Perhaps his treatise was a diplomatic gift from one king to another, "a more theoretical rendition of a well-prepared banquet" (65). Whatever the motives, his advice was probably ineffective, since the recommendations in his treatise about dietary discipline would have challenged the important role of feasting in establishing social connections.
The last chapter discusses funerary rituals of feasting. Early medieval tombs and cemeteries have of course yielded much tableware, including glass cups, ceramic plates and bowls, bronze spoons, and sometimes vessels filled with food or drink. Because the dead seem to have been expected to participate in such graveside meals, their memories lingered in their families and their communities. Such celebrations then reassured family members that they too would be remembered after death. Some bishops complained about excessive revelry, but others were prepared to condone these private celebrations of remembrance. Eventually they promoted the celebration of the Eucharist as a substitute, "thereby allowing the faithful to commemorate their ancestors under the watchful eye of the Catholic clergy" (91).
Future studies will need to refine Effros' suggestions, in particular by acknowledging distinctions in various regions and at various times. Even though Effros suggests many important themes for analysis, such as differences between Roman and Frankish customs or between urban and rural practices, her discussions tend to conflate the available texts and other sources into a rather generic early medieval system. Subsequent studies might also consider the significance of the actual food being consumed, as well as the symbolic implications of the methods of its preparation. The raw and the cooked provide ready metaphors for aspects of class and gender in any society. These culinary metaphors furthermore affected ideas about Christianity. As a process cooking in particular neatly linked up with the mechanics of healing at saints' shrines. Saints were chefs, softening the stiff joints of paralyzed suppliants, but allowing unrepentant sinners to boil in their fevers. Effros' fine survey now sets the table for subsequent feasting on the subject of food in the early medieval period.
Copyright 2004 by Raymond Van Dam, <rvandam at umich.edu>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.