Did gender have any appreciable effect on diet and the way food was prepared and consumed in the middle ages? This was the question posed by the ‘Diet Group’, which meets twice a year at Somerville College, Oxford and at which I was asked to give a paper yesterday.
Although I am, at least in part, an historian of gender, I confess I know very little, other than general knowledge, about food and diet in the middle ages. I was somewhat surprised to be asked by a colleague if I knew what nuns ate and could I provide a short contribution on the same. Instead, I proposed a brief paper on refreshment in Norman religious houses: instead of talking about what people ate, I talked about where they ate and practices centred on the infirmary, refectory and hospitality. Prior to giving this paper, I was concerned that what I had to say had little to do with gender and more to do with the differences between religious orders and social status.
I needn’t have worried. It turns out that all the speakers had similar concerns. Naomi Sykes from Nottingham University gave a very interesting paper on gender in the zooarchaeological record; in otherwords, do the animal bone assemblages from various contexts reveal anything about food and gender – were some animals considered more appropriate for men rather than women? In this, she managed to combine archaeological evidence with humoural theory and came to the conclusion that there were no definite gendered elements in diets that could be detected on the limited evidence we have available. Kay Lakin, who is at Reading, introduced some initial findings from her Ph.D. project on isotropic analysis of human bone. She, too, found it hard to distinguish significant gendered trends in diet.
In the afternoon, we were treated to a full hour’s paper from Chris Woolgar, who examined monastic accounts and visitation records from late medieval England to look at the diet of medieval women. This was a fascinating analysis of the sheer quantity of food that was consumed in various institutions and who might be consuming it, whether that be the nuns, visitors, or servants taking home pigs’ heads to feed to their families. He also came to the conclusion that it is hard to analyse the effect of gender on diet.
You might think that this is very dispiriting. We had a day of papers on gender and diet that concluded very little. You would be wrong. The papers only provided snapshots of medieval life and all stressed the need to consider social categories other than gender. Often, very good research can evolve from unpromising beginnings. The fact that we needed to ask the question in the first place, means little was known. Now we know a little more, and if the results are surprising, it is a reminder we may find something different in the sources to what we expect.