Monday 9 February 2015

'Poky pigges and stynkynge makerels': Food standards and urban health in medieval England

  • The owner of a filthy bakery in Norwich has been fined after inspectors discovered mouse droppings, out of date meat, and grime caked on to the floors inside.
  • Loose rodent bait was found in the flour store, mould was seen growing on the ceiling, and a hole in the roof had been given a 'bodge job' repair - with a bucket used to catch the drips

I wouldn't normally start a post with a quote from the Daily Mail but it illustrates Professor Carole Rawcliffe's seminar on food standards and urban health in medieval England very well. Not only that but much of her archival research is Norfolk based so there is contiguity. There is a misconception that medieval cooks and food-sellers smothered their food with spices to disguise the taste of rotten meat or fish; Carole dismissed this out of hand. She was also scathing of the 1930s' William Edward Mead who said;

The helplessness of our ancestors in the presence of diseases now almost entirely extirpated in civilised communities by means of intelligence sanitation is indeed one of the most striking differences between mediaeval times and our own 

As she went on to explain, not only were there rules and regulations governing the cleanliness and freshness of food markets, but laws regarding weight and measures, all of which were enforced locally and efficiently. Punishments for selling bad meat or bread were extremely harsh - for reasons that I shall come on to. Not only that but designs for market locations and buildings were carefully considered so that they could be as hygienic as possible. Taken as a whole, and combined with the delightful modern bakery mentioned above, Mead's quote can be dispatched to historic oblivion.

Food scandals, along with unsanitary premises, are also not new. Horse meat was often passed off as venison, and lean meagre specimens were inflated/plumped out using nails and other stuffing, whilst covered with fat taken from other meat. Court records from the Norwich Record Office show that the public was as unhappy about this as we would be now.

It was not just fresh food, but hot food stalls/cook shops which were an essential part of life. Given that many townspeople didn't have access to ovens hot food had to be bought. The reputation of cooks was very low, you only have to look at Chaucer's introduction to the unsavoury Cook in his Canterbury tales.

Now tell on, Roger; see that it be good;
For many a pasty have you robbed of blood,
And many a Jack of Dover have you sold
That has been heated twice and twice grown cold.
From many a pilgrim have you had Christ's curse,
For of your parsley they yet fare the worse,
Which they have eaten with your stubble goose;
For in your shop full many a fly is loose.

It is clear that they were alive to the dangers of reheating food and the effect that this would have on the gut. Reheating was outlawed, although given the evidence in medical books, clearly it happened and the nasty results recognised by Gilbertus Angelicus in his book,

Diseases of the digestive apparatus are discussed under the headings of difficulties of deglutition, canine appetite, bolismus (boulimia), disturbances of thirst, eructations, hiccup, nausea and anorexia, vomiting, anathimiasis (gastric debility), anatropha and [pg 40] catatropha (varieties of obstinate vomiting), pain in the stomach, abscess of the stomach, salivation, colic, dysentery and diarrhoea, intestinal worms, hemorrhoids, rectal tenesmus, prolapsus ani, fistula in ano, diseases of the liver, dropsy, jaundice and diseases of the spleen.

Once again it seems that an understanding of contemporary religion is the key to making sense of some of the thinking around health and food regulation. Just as the symbols in western religious art require a modern viewer to work to decipher them, it seems that knowledge of this type is required to understand other areas of life.

Firstly the church took an active role in helping the poor. It also encouraged others to do their duty by helping others. The Church taught that there were Seven Comfortable Works (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, giving shelter to strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned and, later, burying the dead) so the distribution of food was central. The lay folk's catechism was to 'Fede pore hungry men' and it was a powerful theme in the history plays. This tells us that they were certainly not indifferent to those people prepared to sell bad food, stinking beer and fraudulent measures. The selling of bad food was blasphemous. These people were going to hell according to the Coventry mystery plays. Traders were governed by church bells, there were inspections of fish on Friday and during Corpus Christie bad butchers/bakers were pilloried in front of the market cross.

Secondly, the church wanted to ensure that the wealthy didn't indulge their appetites and over indulge. Diet was central to Galenic medicine because it was from food that the humours are created. As now, you were what you ate. Not only that but you required appropriate food and drink depending on your age, sex, and class. Edward IV, one of our more over indulgent kings was instructed repeatedly on the value of self control.

He was of visage lovely; of body mighty, strong and clean made; howbeit in his latter days, with over liberal diet, somewhat corpulent and burly but nevertheless noy uncomely. He was in youth greatly given to fleshy wantoness, from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune, without a special grace, hardly refrains (Thomas More)

Soberness and moderation and the link with morality and good governance was stressed in various Regimen sanitatis... If you over indulge, you have no morality. Perhaps this is the Daily Mail's view (again) given their stories linking laziness, misery, so-called scroungers and obesity?

Thirdly, rulers knew that basic necessities were needed to prevent riots as their power was tenuous. As Francis Bacon said, rebellions of the belly are the worst. One way of keeping a fractious population under control was with subsidised grain. After a stampede at Blackfriars, Leadenhall was turned into a granary with a 'state of the art' market with emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness. The complex also included a church - this entire place built using the money of those wanting to buy a place in heaven. Other new markets around the country were built and there is evidence that they were properly set out, with goods being supervised to prevent cross contamination. For instance some were built on hills for ease of cleaning, with Kings Lynn having different days for different commodities, and its waste regularly washed out to sea on ebb tide. Some places had pits which were used for temporary storage then emptied after curfew.

Public health was also intimately related to the fear of plague, as well as civil unrest. Between 1400-1530 there were 24 outbreaks, as well as national epidemics. Plague was generally an urban phenomenon and decimated towns' populations. For instance in Yarmouth, pre plague there were plans to extend the already large church, however they were abandoned after the town was ravished. Academics maintain that people were supine in face of plague and yet Rawcliffe maintains that the efforts of the magistrates around plague prevention were in line with contemporary medical thinking. If miasma was the cause of the plague, then it is logical that stinking food in filthy crowded, unsupervised markets would jeopardise the community. Vendors were punished and their wares publically burnt, helping to advertise the power of elite - Edward I instituted laws about foodstuffs and this quickly filtered down to the provinces

The rules that magistrates instituted seem to be perfectly reasonable and based on practical experience. It was illegal to kill animals in the market; if meat was kept after 12 hours, it had to be salted; chopping boards couldn't be used for 2 days running; carts carrying food stuffs had to be covered because of miasma; they had sell by dates; pork couldn't be sold in the summer; and finally, oysters had to be sold on the docks directly to the public. This correlation of illness and diet affected both rich and poor; a rich heavy diet was as bad as extreme deprivation because they caused imbalance in the humours.

So diet was essential, and magistrates strove to balance want and over indulgence; the entire community was involved. The policing and enforcement of food regulations was done by 'naming and shaming', a form of organised neighbourhood watch. The leet courts had various responsibilities, including public health and they could issue hefty fines and punishments, for things like over large/malodorous dung heaps, nuisance, turfing lepers out of the community. There was a real commitment for keeping the town clean and healthy, not just for economic and plague prevention, but there was a moral and religious obligation.

After all, cleanliness was next to godliness. Something which the modern cook shops of Norwich could do well to remember.

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