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D'ale istoriei și literaturii

Hunting for food in the Middle Ages

The life as we know it is a strange object made through time by all kind of things, events and feelings. In any case, today life is a word that lives because the history gives her the air she needs to breathe. I really don’t want to begin a philosophical essay but to show that every part of what we do is called history. Even the smallest roads go to a well known place. Just like them, every single thing made by man represents and defines a science named by us history.   I am sure that every one of us is interested in the social life of our ancestors; we all need to find out what they thought about life, how they believed, in what they believed or how powerful their faith was. It is in our nature to question our past in order to bring to light those events and all those years that are no longer kept in our collective memory. Sometimes, even today, a man or a woman is being judged by his or her clothes and of course by their manners. Normally, this is not moral at all but as we surely know it is the way for our society. One thing though, can make us feel better. People had the same ideas about each other four hundred years ago. 

In the Middle Ages, the most important aspect concerning the relations between people was the meal. The action, natural for all people, of eating had a lot of  interesting habits brought to perfection by the going time. So, during the 17th and the 18th  century, men and women had an obsession regarding  purity and individualism[1]. From now on, individual plates, knives, glasses, spoons, forks raise a real wall between those that eat at the same table. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was a custom  to put forth in the common plate, to lap up your soup with other two, from the same porringer; to eat your piece of meat from the same dish; to drink from the same pot without even thinking to use a spoon or a fork[2]. Starting with 1600 everyone begins to use his cutlery in order to take his food to his own plate from the common dishes or saltcellars. But, why all these precautions in a society that did not know very much about cures, microbes and biology?

Maybe, people did not fear filthiness, but they fear to get closer to each other. Then how can it be explained why the writings of those days that show us how to eat, with what or how to prepare the food uses for many times the word cleanliness or purity? A possible explication and I think it is a correct one is that what they understood by cleanliness is more similar to the word purity as the elegance of the manners. In those years people thought about filthiness, greedy and agitation to be a lack of consideration to all who were sitting at the table. It was forbidden, as a defiance of the good manners, to bring the food to your mouth using the knife but it was a habit to use him to offer your neighbors the cheese cut to pieces[3]. Another example: the fork was used in order to take almost all the food but was considered to be inappropriate for handling the olives. They were to be taken with the spoon, whilst the nuts were eaten using the fingers. From the 18th century it wasn’t necessary to cut the bread but only to break it.

The medieval writings tell us that those people who served the food were very careful and they had specific orders not to collect the rests remained from the meal in front of the guests because they might feel offended. On the other hand, if you want to use your spoon to take some food from a common plate you must clean it first if you used it before. Everyone at a table must be very careful not to stain the napkin  because a very filthy one might make someone feel bad or make him nausea. But it is more to be told about how a meal took place 4-5 centuries ago. Kings and nobility used that protocol to show their power and authority. The Romanian people posses from the 16th century a book known as “The teachings of Neagoe Basarab written to his son Theodosie”[4]. This book is very similar to Machiavelli’s “Prince”, but it is more than some pages with advice about republics, it is a masterpiece of knowledge describing how a king of Valachia must be in order to rule an orthodox country. It is hard for someone not orthodox to understand these moral and diplomatic way of life.

In one of his chapters, the author (not very well known, unfortunately), says it’s normal for the Goodman to eat among his best boyards.  These meetings were an opportunity of great joy and the king alone was the one who had to make sure that no matter how drunk his nobles were, he remains with his clear head and will[5]. To delight us, the author of the book says that not the people who drink, eat or make jokes put him in charge of the country, God did. So the king must do the God’s will not the one of his nobles. And then we are told what shameful things happen to a drunken king. It is a good advice for every person that gives a meal to let the people invited to sit how they want. By moving them as you want and divide them in people you like and whom you don’t like is going to make the last of them either sad or disappointed either with great anger towards you. Cause the heart of a man it is like glass. Once broken it is impossible to repair[6].

Another great writer, also Romanian, Dimitrie Cantemir describes in his book “Descriptio Moldaviae” how a meal organized by the ruler of Moldavia took place at the beginning of the 18th century[7]. When the king has his lunch, he is always joined by two of his most powerful nobles and by other two with lower importance. Sometimes at the meal participates the captains and the old soldiers. The queen usually has her lunch in separate room with her best friends. Rarely she joins her husband at  meal. In the sound made by clarions, the servants bring the food. After the food is put on the table the Bishop blesses it and water is brought for hand wash. The king sits at the table first and after him all the others do. The bishop has separate food because he is not aloud to eat meat, made from fish and milk. After a while when the heads are a little heated, it is time to drink a glass of wine; first in the name of the Creator, then to honor the sultan, but without naming it. The third glass belongs to the bishop who drinks praying the king. Then he blesses him and all of the people at the table raise and kiss the king’s hand. At the end of the meal, a lot of glasses of wine are drunk in honor of every person they can still remember.

The meal is over only when the king puts his napkin on the table. One of his servants understanding that, hits with his silver stick in the floor. At this sign, all the people raise up. At least, those who still can. Those that are too drunk to move are carried away. When the king turns his back to wash his hands after the meal his servants grab everything they can because for them it is an honor to eat from the meals organized by the king. On the king’s command, the nobles are taken to their houses with music. The day after, they all go to him, they thank him for the honor given to them and they apologize for the mistakes made at lunch when they were drunk. Another example of how such a meal was given by the ruler family is the one in the honor of Paul from Alep and his uncle, the Patriarch Macarie by the king Constantin Şerban[8]. Paul from Alep says that he observed the Romanians have the custom of bringing the food to the table with music. His remarks about the habit of drinking a large number of glasses in the honor of several persons are very funy because he says he felt like being shudder after all those cups of wine. Paul from Alep tells us that at the beginning of the meal, a candle was lighted near a Madonna[9].

The Swedish diplomat Clas Brorsson Ralamb, another guest of Constantin Şerban, appreciated that the food was very good and that there were a lot of dishes brought during the meal. He also observed the whole ritual of drinking in honor of different persons and, of course, he participated[10]. It is time now to see what people ate.  In 1526 the citizens of Sibiu send for the wedding of Radu from Afumati with Ruxandra, daughter of the former king Neagoe Basarab, wine, fresh fish, 2 oxes, 32   lambs, chickens, flour, bread and oat[11].  The inhabitants of the town of Cluj also served the ambassadors who went to Wiena or Buda with chickens, ducks, sheep, lambs, rams, cows, rabbits, pigs, sausages, fish, vegetables, fruits, milk, drink and many more[12]. The Romanian people treated their guests in the same manner; their kings paid for the food brought to all of the diplomats that came to their country. So, a Polish secretary crossing Moldova in 1557 writes that he received at the place were he was staying an ox for food. The same treatment was given to Jacob the Paleolog to whom Alexandru II Mircea sent chickens, meat, candles, bread, wine, oat and hay[13].

A very important food was the fish, used by Romanians when they were keeping the fast. John Newberic, an English merchant wondering in south Basarabia around 1582 describes how the roes were prepared. Therefore, they were cut in very small pieces and kept salted for three days and three nights in a barrel with a hole made in order for salted water to flow[14]. Then the roes were washed very well and put again in the barrel for another three days. After that, they were pressed with some heavy rocks, being now ready for transportation. Another Englishman, Bargrave[15] tells us that the town of Galati is a market were you can find great fish at a very cheap price. He writes that sometimes the villagers caught huge sturgeons. The same Paul from Alep, whose writings we have mentioned above, describes a royal hatchery near the city of Iasi. We should remember first that these hatcheries were a royal monopoly. Paul writes to us that the fishes from the hatchery were those with roes[16].

Here is one example of how fish was prepared for the meal. You take the fish, then cut him in small pieces and put salt over it.  After that, you take a pan and pour wine into it, sugar, vinegar, but you got to be careful with the amount of each one of them. When the wine is boiled, it is time to put in the pan the pieces of fish. After a short time, you can put oil over the fish, as well as cinnamon, thyme, mace, onion and pepper. The fish is ready when the juice is thick[17]. At the beginning of the 18th century, there  are around 64 recipes involving fishes known in Romania, 20 recipes of food made from different vegetables alongside with recipes that used meat, eggs, sausages and fruit. Many of these recipes had advices of how to use the drink if the food was too spicy. For a perfect meal with more dishes, the cook must choose the perfect sauce for each dish.

The same Paul from Alep, in one of his writings, tells us that in Valahia he found orchards with apples, peaches, pears, cherries, plums, quinces that are very well tended[18]. Across time, history showed that the nobles and the kings loved to hunt. Greeks and Romans appreciated hunting boars. The same feeling was shared by Germans and Celts. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, till 1000 A.D. hunting the boar was considered a ritual by nobles and kings. Fighting the boar face to face was a heroic act. But around the 14th century, the boar was an animal that was no longer appreciated and his hunt became discredited. The Romans loved this animal for his willing to fight and his force, naming him with words like acer (tempestuous), ferus (ferocious), fulmineus (flying), rubicundus (wroth), saevus (furious), torvus (forbidding), violentus (violent);   Christianity transformed him in an impure animal, part of darkness[19].

If Romans considered the hunt of the deer to be without passion and glory because the animal keeps on running, starting with the 14th century the deer changes places with the boar. And this is not a particularly thing known only in France and England but in entire Europe. Romanian king Dimitrie Cantemir[20](1710-1711) writes to us that hunting it is a habit considered by rulers to be very pleasant. He says that for the country of Moldavia the hunt made possible his medieval appearance.   The noble Dragos came in the territory of Moldavia by chasing a bison. That is the legend of how Moldavia was established. Cantemir tells us that the kings used when hunting peasants from the villages surrounding the forest in order to scare the animals and direct them where the hunters with hounds were. The king paid for every animal caught. The most valuable were the deers and the bears. The animals considered impure such as foxes, bears and wild cats were given to the peasants[21].

Writers from Middle Ages thought about the boar that he was ugly and black, that he was a traitor and full of pride having two terrible weapons worthy of hades. The boar was described as an animal that don’t looks up, only with his snout in the earth, and when he was satisfied he wanted rest. He was the enemy of Christ. He was the devil[22]. This change of opinions has not only religious fundaments but political as well. From 13th century only the kings possessed large forests were hunting a deer riding was possible. Nobles and captains remained as servants with the hunt of the boar, which is done even by foot. The Christian Church made the boar an animal despised by everyone by putting him in her book of beasts. The only sin from the mythological seven that it’s not associated with the boar was that of being avaricious.  The deer becomes with the Christian church a blessed animal. His ten antlers are considered to be a symbol that comes from the Bible as being the Ten Commandments that Jesus gave to the people to protect them against their three great enemies: sorcery, devil and human world[23]. Many authors wrote about the deer making him the animal of Christ, symbol of fecundity and resurrection because his antlers  grow every year.

The deer becomes an image of baptism, an enemy of evil. Pliniu says that the deer fights all snakes by forcing them to get out of their hole in order to kill them. The Christian writers use that phrase to show again what benefic animal was the deer. It is invoked even the psalm 42 that says “as the deer pleases the water from the well, like wise my soul pleases You, my Lord”[24]. The hunter can now become a saint. An example is the legend of saint Eustache, a roman general that sees one day, when hunting, a crucifix between the antlers of a deer. From that day the hunter and his family choused for eternity the Christian religion[25]. The Church didn’t manage to suppress the hunting as she wished. It was impossible: during the Middle Ages kings and nobles hunted and shared their capture. But the Church was able to transform this desire to hunt, making them less savage and cruel. In order to do that, the bear and the boar were to become despised animals. Strange or not, it was for sure effective.

[1] Philippe Aries, Georges Duby (coord.), Istoria vieţii private, vol. V, De la renaştere la epoca luminilor, trad. De Constanţa Tănăsescu, Editura Meridiane, Bucureşti, 1995, p. 326

[2] Ibidem

[3] Ibidem, p. 328

[4] Învăţăturile lui Neagoe Basarab către fiul său Theodosie, trad. de G. Mihăilă, Editura Minerva, Bucureşti, 1970, pp. 258-265

[5] Ibidem

[6] Ibidem

[7] Dimitrie Cantemir, Descrierea Moldovei, Editura Ion Creangă, Bucureşti, 1978, pp. 137-140

[8] Dan Horia Mazilu, Voievodul dincolo de sala tronului. Scene din viaţa privată, Editura Polirom, 2003, p. 213

[9] Ibidem

[10] Călători străini despre Ţările Române, vol. V, Editura Ştiinţifică, Bucureşti, 1973, pp. 610-611

[11] Dan Horia Mazilu, op.cit., p. 218

[12] Ibidem

[13] Călători străini despre Ţările Române, vol. II, Editura Ştiinţifică, Bucureşti, 1970, p. 413

[14] Ibidem, p. 516

[15] Călători străini despre Ţările Române, vol. V, Editura Ştiinţifică, Bucureşti, 1973, p. 486

[16] Dan Horia Mazilu, op. cit., p. 219

[17] Ioana Constantinescu, O lume intr-o carte de bucate, p. 103 apud Dan Horia Mazilu, op. cit., p. 222

[18] Ibidem, p. 217

[19] Michel Pastoureau, O istorie simbolică a evului mediu occidental, trad. De Em. Galaicu-Păun, Editura Cartier, Bucureşti, 2004, p. 72

[20] Dimitrie Cantemir, op. cit., pp. 140-142

[21] Ibidem

[22] Michel Pastoureau, op. cit., p. 76

[23] Ibidem, p. 82

[24] Ibidem, p.83

[25] Ibidem, p.85

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