Europe’s Dark Ages and Charlemagne

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 11

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The fall of Rome and the rise of Germanic tribal kingdoms brought significant culinary changes to Europe. In this podcast episode we’re going to examine the “barbarian” diet and the culture of “fast and feast” which emerged from the opposing ideals of Christian asceticism, German meat-eating virility, and classical moderation. Then we’ll take a look at Charlemagne’s dynamic rule and his important impact on food culture.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Service à la Middle Ages: Eating with Your Hands

Evidently, many people think that eating with your hands is inherently more pleasurable than distancing yourself from your food with a fork and knife—if you consider the popularity of foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza. However, these foods shield us from getting very messy with buns or a crust to hold onto. Imagine eating truly messy food without cutlery. This exercise is designed to help you appreciate the tactile qualities of food directly, exactly as they would have in the Middle Ages. It is messy, but it need not be barbaric. In fact, eating barbecued ribs comes very close.

For this experiment, try grilling something that would normally need to be cut with a sharp knife—a steak or thick pork chop, or a joint of mutton would be perfect. Plop it down on a thin slice of bread set directly on the table. Pick it up with your hands, and chomp away. There is a strange satisfaction, perhaps primal in a Freudian sense, of eating flesh this way. Can it be that because we evolved eating with our hands and teeth that there really is something hard-wired in us to enjoy eating this way? Or have we become so acculturated by cutlery that it is hard to enjoy food this way? To answer this question, consider the following: Did you try this experiment alone, or with others?

Suggested Reading:

Anthimus, De Observatione Ciborum.

Camporesi, Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe.

Montanari, The Culture of Food.

Images courtesy of:

• Map of Charlemagne’s Kingdom: Shutterstock
• Gregory of Tours: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Forest: Shutterstock
• Mead: By Evan-Amos (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
De observatione ciborum: By Published 1877 only typography [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Charlemagne: Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Einhard: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

• Rye Bread: Shutterstock
• Spelt Bread: Shutterstock
• Ergotism: Mathias Grünewald [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Serfs: By anonymous (Queen Mary Master) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Carolingian Miniscule: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Roquefort cheese: Shutterstock