In January 1605, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) received a bill from his butcher. Over the course of roughly six weeks, between December 11, 1604 and January 29th, the purveyor of meats delivered to the astronomer’s home no less than “260 pounds of beef, 83 pounds of lamb, and 54 pounds of veal.”[i] At this point in time, the older of Galileo’s two illegitimate daughters was only a toddler but within a decade the plentitude of her father’s table would stand in sharp contrast to the abstinence foist upon her. Born in 1600, Virginia Galilei was confined within the restrictive walls of the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri soon after her thirteenth birthday. Thereafter, the cloistered Virginia – or Sister Maria Celeste – could savor little more than fading memories of abbondanza.[ii]
The contrast between the abundance of Galileo’s larder and the poverty of the convent’s kitchen reflects the seeming ambiguous place meat had in medieval and Renaissance culture. Although featured on the tables of the social elite, meat – especially red meat – was associated with society’s more unsavory, bawdy, and crude types. To be sure, meat came to be seen by some as a critical component of a healthy diet but proponents of flesh faced the obstacle of tradition, which held that the temperaments of animals directly affected consumers. Hence, for example, “eating rabbit causes fear” while “eating goat incites lasciviousness.”[iii] But the larger issue was of a more general nature. Meat was moralized.
Consider, for example, the personification of gluttony as represented by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) on Table Top of Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony, his girth emphasized by the round table laden with an impressively large haunch, gnaws on the bone of some roasted beast. His appetite insatiable, Gluttony chows down as a serving woman brings him still more! Is it any wonder that Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the corpulent comic foil to the regal Prince Hal, is characterized as cuts of meat or the beasts from which they were carved: “chops,” “guts,” “sweet beef,” “sow,” “a little tidy Bartholomew boar pig,” “a Manning Ox with pudding in his belly.”[iv] Clearly, Shakespeare’s audience, like Bosch’s viewers, identified meat as an enticement that leads to sinful excess and reveals the folly of intemperance.
Similar to Bosch, Anthonius Claessen (ca. 1538-1613) set meat enticingly in the center of his painting, A Family Saying Grace before a Meal, and he, too, included a servant, platter in hand, entering the room. But these likenesses are inconsequential. Claessen’s pious family, unlike Bosch’s sinful glutton, can conquer temptation.
In A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, 1551, the Netherlandish painter Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) visualized the ambivalent place meat held in Renaissance society. Aertsen crammed the foreground of his painting with sausages, pig’s feet, the heads of a boar and a cow, roosters ready for the plucking, a side of beef, a bowl of curd, molded cheeses… and four fish, two fresh, two smoked. Through the stall’s doorway and windows we see two very different scenes. In the right background, just behind another hanging carcass, people indulge in life’s pleasures at a tavern. In the open landscape in the left background, the Holy Family gives the little they have by way of material goods to those in need. Significantly, the Holy Family – Joseph, leading the donkey bearing the Virgin and Infant Christ – align with the two fish on the pewter plate within the butcher’s stall. As an adult, Jesus would multiply two small fish and five barley cakes in order to feed five thousand.
Like Carnival – a time of indulgence – and Lent – a time of abstinence, meat and fish were not typically mixed. While it is true that sixteen of the seventeen courses served at the 1368 wedding banquet of Violante Visconti and Duke Lionel of Clarence combined meat with fish – gilded veal with gilded trout (3rd course), or beef pies with cheese and eel pies (8th course) – eating fish and meat on the same day, let alone at the same meal, was not the norm. In fact, the week was divided into fish days and flesh days. If the division had religious significance, it increasingly had economic justification. Londoners, it seems, not only had a hardy taste for meat, they associated it with the raucous times of festivals of Misrule. As the city’s population grew and consumption increased, shortages occurred, most notably in 1552/3 when fishing ships were diverted to London quays to avert famine. Government action was required to halt future depletions of meat stocks. By the 1580s secular regulation overtook religious custom. “The week was almost halved in favor of fish. Butchers were not officially allowed to sell on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday…. And though they had a market on Monday, by 1605 they were not allowed to kill or dress carcasses on Sunday.”[v]
So, as the Holiday season approaches and menus are devised for the feast of Roast Beast, as Dr. Seuss would have it, I advise all to choose judiciously whether to serve meat or fish. The choice is laden with nuance.
16th Century Recipe for Yuletide Mincemeat Pie from A Propre new booke of Cokery, 1545:
“Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced & seasoned with pepper and salte and a lytel saffron to colour it / suet or marrow a good quantitie / a lytell vynegre / pruynes / great reasons / and dates / take the fattest of the broath of powdred beefe. And if you will have paest royall / take butter and yolkes of egges & so to temper the floure to make the paest.”
(Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to colour it. [Add] a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunes, raisins and dates. [Put in] the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And, if you want Royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and [combine them with] flour to make the paste.)
Or try this one instead…
[i] The quantities are indeed impressive but Galileo’s taste for meat was by no means unique. In 1348 the first of several outbreaks of the plague swept across Europe cutting in half the populations of cities such as Paris, London, Hamburg, and Florence. The demographic shock, it has been suggested, left the living a greater portion of pork, mutton, beef, and poultry on which to feast. Hannele Klemettilä, The Medieval Kitchen. A Social History with Recipes (London: Reaktion, 2012), page 63. To what extent a devastated populace had the energy and resources to raise domestic animals for consumption is, I think, debatable. It has been argued, however, that arable land was left fallow due to the same drop in population. As a consequence, there was a reduction of fodder for cattle feed and this, in turn, points to pattern of subsistence farming. There was little left for market. Harry Kitsikopoulos, “The Impact of the Black Death on Peasant Economy in England, 1350-1500,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (2002), pages 71-90.
[ii] Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter. A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 1999).
[iii] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pages 79-80.
[iv] Sandra Billington, “Butchers and Fishmongers: Their Historical Contribution to London’s Festivity,” Folklore, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), page 101.
[v] Sandra Billington, “Butchers and Fishmongers: Their Historical Contribution to London’s Festivity,” Folklore, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), page 98.