Food for Thought: An Introduction to Theory via the History of Food and Drink

Mark Hailwood


Most historians are not especially enthusiastic about theory. We tend to have an aversion to dealing with abstract concepts, and struggle to see how they might apply to what we work on. Instead, we feel much more at home when we are dealing with context; with specific evidence grounded in, and bounded by, time and place. But like it or not, theoretical concepts have played a major role in shaping historical research – though they are concepts usually borrowed from other disciplines, not produced by historians themselves – so ignoring theory is really not an option.

Doc Brown's thinking cap: not essential for understanding theory

Doc Brown’s thinking cap: not essential for understanding theory

This is as true of food and drink history as other types of history – perhaps more so. The history of drinking, for instance, might just seem like a series of amusing anecdotes (see my alehouse characters series) but really it is all about how we interpret the instances of eating and drinking that we find in the archives, how we use them to tell stories about the societies and cultures that they take place in. For this, historians of eating and drinking tend to rely on various theoretical concepts developed outside of history to try and make sense of the rituals of food and drink consumption that we find in the archives.

So, in the various courses I have taught about the history of food and drink in early modern England I usually have to broach theory at some stage. Trying to teach theory to undergraduate historians is rarely the easiest of teaching assignments, so what I try to do is to show how ideas have been applied to the specific field of food and drink history to help students see their relevance. The aim is not to provide them with a complete mastery of the concepts we discuss – I wouldn’t claim to have this myself – but rather to give them an introductory sense of them so that (a) when they come across mentions of them in the literature they will have an idea of what they mean, and (b) to provide them with a platform to build from should they wish to delve deeper into these concepts in their essays and projects.

Anyway, when recently backing up some computer files I came across the lecture I usually give on this theme, and thought that it might also work well as a series of blog posts that could serve as a very basic introduction to some of the key theoretical concepts used by historians – structuralism, habitus, the civilising process – that might be of interest to undergrads, postgrads, or anyone else who is keen to (or perhaps for a course they are taking, has to) engage with some theory but is a bit daunted by the prospect of delving straight into [insert archetypal daunting theory book here]. Anyone who is a master of these concepts might like to read on and helpfully point out where I get them wrong!

The lecture is a bit long for one post, so I’ll break it down into 3 posts over the next couple of weeks. Part I, below, deals with ‘Anthropology and Structuralism’; Part II will look at ‘Sociology: Civility and Habitus’; and Part III at ‘A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque’. Tuck in… Continue reading

Woodford’s woes: debt and divine favour in early modern England

Jonathan Willis

Lately I’ve been reading and writing about a large number of godly lives. This is a fascinating genre. Individual stories have always played an important role in Christianity – the gospels themselves, of course, are first and foremost accounts of the life of Christ, written by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Confessions of Augustine; the hagiographical accounts of the lives (and deaths) of saints; the intensely spiritual and personal visions of mystics like Julian of Norwich: all these are examples of how life writing of different kinds has played an important role in shaping religious belief and practice in the millennium and a half following the birth of Christ. However, we see two new and distinctive developments occurring in the early modern period. One is the growth of something which starts to look recognisably like modern autobiography: a warts and all account of the trials and tribulations of an individual life, from start to end.[1] The second is the invention of the so-called ‘spiritual diary’ – that puritan specialism, which combined observations on daily life with deeply personal soul-searching: prayer, godly meditation, and the anatomisation and identification of sin. This is where my interest in these documents primarily lies, because the Ten Commandments (about which I’m currently writing a book) were one of the main tools used by puritan authors to forensically examine their spiritual health.

Augustine - father of the spiritual autobiography?

Augustine – father of the spiritual autobiography?

Continue reading

Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part II

Laura Sangha

Once you start looking, it is surprising how many politicians, poets and pioneers have found the answer to the question ‘what kind of society do you want?’ in Scripture, taking as their model the New Jerusalem described by John of Patmos in Revelation. John’s ecstatic vision predicts that following Judgement Day, New Jerusalem will be the earthly location where all true believers will spend eternity with God. This heavenly society became the model that people would evoke for centuries to come. Why was it so enduring?

Another aspirational model - Thomas More's Utopia.

Another aspirational model – Thomas More’s Utopia.

Ideal Aspirations for All

As we saw in the previous post, the concept of a New Jerusalem is not static, it is a flexible idea that is taken up and defined according to the historical context it is used in, and in line with the intentions and aims of the person evoking it. It can be used to support the establishment of racial equality, the welfare state, or (perhaps?) resistance to industrialisation. But in each of the examples I discussed, you can see that the New Jerusalem is something to aspire to, it is an ideal society, a target, a goal. It is a place where injustice, discrimination and fear have no place, and where people can develop to the full, in co-operation with others. Continue reading

Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part I

Laura Sangha

James II

James II: funny, entertaining, shocking

Since September last year, I have spent four hours a week discussing, with sixteen University of Exeter students, what it meant to be a Protestant in England from the Reformation right through to the early eighteenth century (thus partly explaining why I have had so little to say on the monster recently). Those 168 hours have been intellectually exciting (Calvinist consensus, avant-garde conformity, objects as sources), sometimes funny (‘performing’ sermons, ballad recordings, James II), hopefully entertaining (puritans vs the alehouse, museum visits, James II), perhaps dull (Ralph Thoresby’s sermon notes, burial patterns as excel spreadsheets), often shocking (king killing, Diggers, James II) and always immensely rewarding. Two central ideas have underpinned our exploration of English religious cultures of the time, encapsulated in the unwieldy module title:

‘A New Jerusalem: Being Protestant in post-Reformation England’.

Half inspired by Alec Ryrie’s excellent study of the ‘lived experience’ of Protestantism up to 1640 (Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, 2013), it is the concept embedded in the other half of the title that I want to offer some reflections on in this post. As usual a small idea rather grew in the writing, so today I will look at some examples, whilst in a second post at the end of the week I will provide some summarising thoughts. Continue reading

We the People, 1535-1787: Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part III

Brodie Waddell

In 1787, a rag-tag band of rebels and revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to write a constitution. They decided to begin the document with a phrase that has since become rather famous: ‘We the People of the United States’.

We the People - Constitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1About 250 years earlier, in the 1530s and 40s, there were a series of new translations of the Bible into English that included an intriguing phrase amongst the Psalms: ‘Let us knele before the LORDE oure maker. For he is oure God: as for us, we are the people of his pasture, and the shepe of his handes.’ The phrase was integrated into the new Book of Common Prayer in 1549, so from then on English congregations would routinely sing this together, collectively declaring themselves to be God’s people. Continue reading

Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part II: Some evidence from manuscripts

Brodie Waddell

According to a crude survey of published texts, ‘the people’ were invoked frequently in print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in times of political turmoil such as the 1640s and 1688-89. However, published texts are notoriously unreliable representatives of actual contemporary discussion. They were produced by the literate, for the literate, often using carefully crafted rhetoric.

Manuscripts can bring us slightly closer to a less skewed view of ‘the people’. Although obviously they too were only produced by the literate elite, they occasionally purport to record the voices of the illiterate and they tend to be less polemical as they were not intended to influence a wide audience. Unfortunately, there is no manuscript equivalent of the huge sample of published texts that have been transcribed by the Text Creation Partnership, though the Folger Library is giving it a go with its own manuscript collection. The State Papers Online is also promising, but only the calendars, rather than the original documents, have been transcribed. The closest to an equivalent to EBBO-TCP is probably the corpus of 240,000 transcriptions on the wonderful London Lives site, though these only cover the period 1690 to 1800 and the early material has many irregular transcriptions.

I’ve mostly drawn on my own little collection of notes from various archival documents (and published editions thereof), amounting to just over 600 pages in total, in which I found about 70 mentions of ‘the people’. Of course my notes are heavily biased in all sorts of ways, with a notable focus on the late 17th century, thanks to my current obsession with the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s. Still, it’s better than nothing. (In what follows, I have not included references, but I’m happy to supply them upon request and I have included links to any quotations taken from London Lives.)

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

So, with that methodological stuff out of the way, who are ‘the people’ in these sources? Continue reading