Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

The J. Paul Getty Museum

Food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance 

This presentation complements Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, an exhibition organized by the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (October 13, 2015–January 3, 2016).

The cultivation, preparation, and consumption of food formed the framework for daily labor and leisure in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It is not surprising to find activities centered around this subject abounding in the pages of manuscripts. Calendars in books contain lively depictions of the monthly chores necessary to produce sustenance. These images and others offer glimpses into the kitchens and hearths of the medieval home, revealing cooking techniques, kitchen tools, and popular dishes. Feasting scenes display both grand and modest tables set with edibles, as well as carefully arranged diners of different social classes, sometimes consuming to the point of gluttony and drunkenness. Integral to all aspects of life, food played a central role in Christian devotional practices such as the Eucharist—the consecration of bread and wine at the Mass. It also featured in biblical stories and saintly miracles, where it nourished both the body and the soul. While not as plentiful and varied as it is today, food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance nonetheless occupied people’s thoughts and filled the engaging tales and illustrations in illuminated manuscripts.

The Temperate and the Intemperate
Bruges, about 1475-80
Artist: Master of the Dresden Prayer Book
Author: Valerius Maximus
Miniature from The Memorable Deeds and Sayings of the Romans (text in French)
Ms. 43, recto

Set before a luxurious cloth of honor, the elevated banquet scene in the background features upper-class diners and an obedient servant arranged symmetrically in their proper places around a carefully laid table. In contrast, at the disheveled table in the foreground, rowdy peasants ply each other with drink while one of them falls asleep, a woman cavorts with a man seated on the floor, and a server crudely lifts her dress. At left Valerius Maximus, author of this text about ancient customs and heroes, gestures to the disorderly scene to explain the merits of temperance to the Emperor Tiberius (ruled A.D. 14 – 37).

Nature's Yearly Banquet
Many medieval manuscripts used in Christian liturgy and prayer begin with a calendar listing the holy days celebrated throughout the year. The images in these calendars often depict terrestrial and astrological time. Earthly time is represented by scenes commonly known as the labors of the months—the agricultural tasks, animal husbandry, and other daily activities corresponding to each month. These labors vary slightly depending on when and where the manuscript was made. Most of the calendar scenes shown here revolve around wheat—the foundation of the medieval European diet.

September: A Man Sowing
Paris, about 1415-20
Artist: Workshop of the Rohan Masters
Book of Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. 22, fol. 9v

The medieval agricultural cycle in northern Europe began in September, when wheat was sown. Here a peasant strides across a field tilled in parallel rows. He sprinkles golden seeds that he draws from a cloth draped around his neck. In the star-filled sky above is the astrological symbol for Libra that corresponds to the calendar month. The elegance of this toiling man and his movement reflects the graceful style of painting produced for the French court and other high-ranking patrons around the early 1400s. Some wealthy book owners belonged to the class of landowners who employed peasants to farm their family’s land and provide food for the household.

July: A Man Reaping
Bruges, early 1460s
Artist: Workshop of William Vrelant
Arenberg Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig IX 8, fols. 6v-7

Many crops were harvested in July after growing throughout the year from fall to summer. At left a peasant in a short tunic (which allowed for mobility in manual labor) takes a scythe to tall sheaves of wheat and stacks them on the ground. Wheat was one of the primary building blocks of the medieval diet, and a fruitful harvest was crucial for feeding all levels of society. At right is a lion representing the astrological sign of Leo that corresponds to the calendar month. Both the labor and the zodiac symbol are set against rolling landscapes evoking the northern European countryside that formed the locus for food production around Bruges, where this manuscript was made.

December: Baking Bread
Possibly Bruges, mid-1200s
Artist: Unknown
Psalter (text in Latin)
Ms. 14, fols. 8v-9

After wheat was harvested and threshed (beaten to release the grains from the chaff), it was transformed into one of the most common foods found on the medieval table: bread. In this sizable calendar image for December, the man on the left with rolled up sleeves reaches into a vat of dough to knead its contents. The man at right energetically loads the dough on a wooden paddle into a large brick oven, from which flames emerge. Massive ovens such as this were found only in the wealthiest households. Most cooks had to bring their dough to a town oven and pay a baker to transform it into loaves ready for eating. December was the month for stocking up on bread and slaughtering animals to prepare for the cold, spare winter months ahead.

January: Janus Feasting
Northeastern France, about 1300
Artist: Unknown
Ruskin Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig IX 3, fols. 2v-3

Tending the fields ceased in the winter months in northern European countries such as France, where this manuscript was made. Most January calendars depict the only activity possible in the cold weather: feasting. The small table shown here brims with various vessels and utensils, such as a bowl, a knife, and an ewer, suggesting the abundance of food reaped throughout the year and now enjoyed in winter (double click the image to zoom). The man at the table with three faces evokes the two-headed figure of Janus, the Roman god who looked both to the past and to the future, and from whom the word “January” may originate. The additional heads provide multiple mouths with which to quaff wine and gobble bread—the fruits of the year’s labors.

Preparation and Consumption
After the harvest and the hunt, raw foods were prepared for consumption and then shared at meals and banquets, both simple and lavish. Most meals in the images shown here appear modest and spare, but contemporary accounts reveal that medieval feasts often involved spectacle and the theatrical presentation of dishes. For example, court artists could be called upon to add final visual flourishes—such as gilding on edibles—that would have impressed and amazed guests. Some illustrated texts outline ideas about the curative powers of particular foods and issue warnings against those that could cause gastric distress or imbalance to the bodily humors. Other manuscripts emphasize the morals surrounding eating, especially the perils of consuming to excess and the depravity of the glutton.

Harvest Scene
Bologna, before 1340
Artist: Attributed to the Illustratore
Author: Justinian
Cutting from Digest (text in Latin)
Ms. 13, verso

Gathering the edible products of the land, men busily collect fruit from a tree and pick grapes from a trellis. In the foreground, a woman milks a cow; at right a chubby-cheeked boy greedily stuffs his face as he tramples a basket full of grapes, making wine from the harvest. The Digest is a compilation of Roman law texts sponsored by the emperor Justinian (ruled 527–565). Here it explains the law of usufruct, wherein one has the right to use what is produced from another man’s land or animals.

Hunters Roasting a Boar’s Carcass
Brittany, about 1430-40
Artist: Unkown
Author: Gaston Phébus
Book of the Hunt (text in French)
Ms. 27, fols. 67v-68

Hunting was a popular sport of the nobility, and it was also the source of the most prized meats for the banquet table. In the Book of the Hunt, Gaston Phébus outlines the ideal methods and means of the chase, including the types of animals to pursue, how to care for and train hunting dogs, and how to track prey. The accompanying images in this copy of the text—depicting hunters deep in the woods—resemble the dense, decorative compositions found in medieval tapestries. The scene shown here illustrates the conclusion of a successful boar hunt: the beheaded animal is suspended over a fire and roasted for consumption. Phébus was an avid hunter who met his demise after a bear pursuit, collapsing while washing his hands before the feast.

The Holy Family
Paris, about 1440-50
Artist: Workshop of the Bedford Master
Book of hours (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig IX 6, fols. 180v-181

In this cozy domestic setting, the Virgin Mary nurses the Christ child while Joseph kneels before a fire and stirs a pot of porridge, a standard first food for babies. In the later Middle Ages, Joseph was increasingly emphasized as an active member of the Holy Family and a central figure in Christ’s life. He was portrayed performing household tasks such as mending garments, washing clothes, and preparing meals for Jesus. Still Joseph remained marginalized, as shown here by the luxurious cloth of honor on which only Mary and Christ sit, and his backbreaking task, which often fell to women in the home. Moreover, the cooking area appears divided from the space the mother and child occupy, reflecting not only Joseph’s isolation but also the separation of the kitchen, with its dangerous open flames, in a wealthy medieval residence.

The Last Supper
Regensburg, about 1030-40
Artist: Unknown
Benedictional (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig VII 1, fols. 37v-38

Christ is seated at the center of a semicircular table crowded with his twelve apostles. Judas sits alone on the opposite side. He devours a piece of bread with a black bird—a symbol of the devil—perched on it, reflecting the biblical passage where Jesus predicts that the one to whom he gives bread will betray him. Many medieval Last Supper images display bread, fish, and wine. In this case, there is perhaps one of the earliest depictions of a pretzel—a bread often included in later German images of the scene. Although Christ instructs his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood, his faithful apostles do not actually consume or imbibe. This could indicate their disassociation with the traitor Judas, and may also reflect a Christian avoidance of eating to excess—inappropriate behavior for the solemn Last Supper.

The Feast of Dives
Bruges and Ghent, about 1510-20
Artist: Master of James IV of Scotland
Spinola Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 21v

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the aristocratic table began to overflow with the increasingly plentiful foods available to wealthy individuals. Here a well-fed rich man dressed in fine clothes, fur, and gold jewelry enjoys a meal in his luxurious dining hall. Servants bring dishes, including a game bird artfully decorated with its own feather, a delicacy thought to be ideal nourishment for the pampered leisure class. Expensive silver vessels, meant to impress guests, line the sideboard against the back wall. According to the biblical account, when the beggar Lazarus approaches the door to ask for table scraps, the rich man sets his dogs upon him. The punishment for this lack of generosity is shown at right, as the rich man suffers in hell while Lazarus ascends to heaven.

Food for the Soul
Food not only structured daily life in the Middle Ages and Renaissance but also underpinned numerous stories recorded in Hebrew and Christian writings. Eating and drinking are mentioned often—in the origins of humanity with Adam and Eve, in the miracles performed by Christ and the saints, and in the religious practices of medieval Christians, both lay and monastic. The sustenance cited or depicted in illuminated accounts is typically limited to bread, fish, and wine, reflecting the simple diet of biblical times as well as Christian fasting, modesty, and piety. The texts and images present food as spiritual nourishment, inviting readers and viewers to consider the deeper meaning of what they harvested, prepared, and consumed.

Adam and Eve Eating the Forbidden Fruit
Probably Nantes, about 1440-50
Artist: Master of the Oxford Hours
Author: Saint Augustine
City of God (text in French)
Ms. Ludwig XI 10, fols. 31v-32

Adam and Eve stand naked within the tree-filled Garden of Eden. In the biblical account, God instructs the couple to eat their fill of all the plants and abundant produce, but warns them not to take of the centermost tree. Here the serpent that winds its body around the trunk of that tree confronts Eve, convincing her to consume its fruit. Eve in turn offers it to Adam, shown enthusiastically biting into a red apple. This act of eating leads to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise, and also to their new self-knowledge. Their fall from grace, which Saint Augustine blames in this text for the ultimate mortality of humans, is the result of food too tempting to resist.

The Israelites Collecting Manna from Heaven
Regensburg, about 1400-10
Artist: Unknown
Author: Rudolph von Ems
World Chronicle (text in German)
Ms. 33, fol. 81v

After departing from Egypt, the Israelites embark on an arduous trek through the desert and begin to despair when their food supplies become limited. In response, God rains down manna from heaven, depicted here as golden spheres and white, fluffy clumps descending in abundance. The Bible describes manna as a kind of frost that covers the ground, white “like coriander seed” and tasting “like wafers made with honey.” The Israelites who surround Moses in the image point to the heavens in disbelief and scramble to collect the manna, since as the Bible states, it melts in the sun. With this daily nourishment, the Israelites survive in the desert for forty years. Manna is therefore both physical and spiritual sustenance—a sign that God is watching over them.

Saint Hedwig Refusing to Drink Wine; Saint Hedwig Praying before an Altar
Silesia, Poland, 1353
Artist: Court Workshop of Duke Ludwig I of Liegnitz and Brieg
Life of the Blessed Hedwig (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig XI 7, fols. 30v-31

At top Saint Hedwig (about 1174–1243) appears at the center of a banquet table, surrounded by attendants and her husband, Duke Henry I of Silesia. In her pursuit of a holy life, Hedwig abstained from wine, but her husband encouraged her to partake in order to cure her frequent illnesses. According to legend, when he tasted the contents of her glass one day, he discovered that the water had miraculously become wine. For the medieval reader, this story recalled Christ’s transformation of water into wine at the Marriage at Cana. Two cut-glass vessels in Poland became associated with Hedwig’s miracle and were treated as relics of the saint and her devotion. Similar glasses, referred to as “Hedwig beakers,” subsequently cropped up around Europe.

Saint Anthony of Padua
Ferrara, about 1469
Artist: Taddeo Crivelli
Gualenghi-D’Este Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig IX 13, fols. 193v-194

Saint Anthony of Padua, shown in a gray Franciscan robe, enters into a debate with a man who doubts that the bread and wine of the Mass are physically transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Anthony challenges him by saying that even the man’s mule would recognize the host as the body of Christ. Although the man starves the mule for three days, when a pile of food and a host are put before it, the animal immediately kneels down in reverence before the Eucharist. This story belongs to a genre of Eucharistic miracles found in saints’ lives. The artist Taddeo Crivelli’s naturalistic portrayal of the reverential mule, the emotion of Anthony’s expression, and the spatial depth created by the skillfully foreshortened animal all heighten the immediacy and drama of the tale’s climax.

Initial O: A Woman Receiving Communion
Probably Ghent (illumination), Cologne (text)
Artist: Workshop of Gerard Horenbout
Book of hours (text in German)
Ms. Ludwig IX 17, fols. 113v-114

Before the high altar within a grand church space, a well-dressed laywoman kneels in front of a priest who elevates a host (consecrated bread) as she prepares to receive Communion. This Eucharistic ceremony—the core of the Mass—commemorates and replicates the Last Supper, Christ’s final meal with his apostles. According to Christian belief, the bread is transformed into the body of Christ during the Mass. A portrait of a woman and her coat of arms elsewhere in the manuscript indicate that this book of hours was created for a female member of the van Aussem family of Cologne. This image would have reminded the patron of an integral, food-centric part of Christian devotional practice—the consumption of the Eucharist—as she read the book during her daily private prayer.

Initial D: A Nun Feeding a Leper in Bed
Engelberg, about 1275-1300
Artist: Unknown
Psalter (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig VIII 3, fols. 42v-43

A bedridden man covered with leprosy sores is approached by a nun bearing a bowl filled with a fish. The psalm text that begins below meditates on human suffering, and the inscription above states: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Victims of leprosy, a highly contagious disease, were forced to live in isolation from their communities, thus the nun’s visit demonstrates selflessness in feeding an outcast of society. This manuscript was made in Engelberg, Switzerland, perhaps for use in a Dominican convent. The image emphasizes both a nun’s task of caring for the sick and the central role of food in medieval Christian charity.

This presentation complements Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, an exhibition organized by the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (October 13, 2015–January 3, 2016).

Credits: Story

This presentation complements "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance," an exhibition organized by the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (October 13, 2015–January 3, 2016). The exhibition is curated by Christine Sciacca, assistant curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

© 2015 J. Paul Getty Trust

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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