‘At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor’: Christmas Dinner in Tudor & Stuart England

Mark Hailwood

screen-shot-2012-12-18-at-8-19-47-pmChristmas dinner is undoubtedly one of the most popular Yuletide rituals in Britain today – but what is its history? If you like, as any good historian would, to have a bit of historical context up your sleeve to bore your relatives with over the Christmas period, then I offer up to you the following morsels about the ritual meal’s sixteenth and seventeenth century character…

A cycle of midwinter celebration was established in Britain in the early part of the Middle Ages, so by the sixteenth century the Twelve Days of Christmas – running from 25th December to 5th January – had already been the focus of festivities for centuries. The holidays kicked off with Christmas Day itself, and after attending an early morning church service the attention quickly turned to feasting. From Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas Day, people were encouraged by the Church to restrict their diet, with Christmas Eve kept as a strict fast day on which meat, cheese and eggs were all forbidden. Come Christmas Day then, appetites had been sharpened for the first unrestricted meal in weeks.

So, a big dinner was already central to Christmas Day ritual by the start of the sixteenth century, and by the first half of the seventeenth century we start to find evidence of certain foods having a close association with Christmas celebrations. The ‘minced pie’ – then a mixture of meat, fruit and spice baked in pastry case – appears in seventeenth century records. So too does ‘plum porridge’ – a beef broth with prunes, raisins and currants in it. For the main meat dish beef or brawn (meat from a pig or calf head), both stuck with rosemary, were the favoured options. Continue reading

Food for Thought III: A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque

Mark Hailwood

This is the third and final post in a series introducing some key theoretical concepts through the history of food and drink (see here for the first, here for the second). The previous post concluded on Pierre Bourdieu’s point that the cultures of different social groups were relational to one another. But what was the nature of this relationship? It can be interpreted in a number of ways. Elias, for instance, as I mentioned in the previous post, tended to think that the cultural practices and preferences of the elites gradually ‘percolated’ down through the rest of society. Sometimes a similar argument is made with reference to the term ’emulation’ – the idea that lower social groups tend to ape the culture of higher social groups, and that this in turn causes those higher social groups to reinvent themselves to maintain their sense of distinctiveness and superiority.



A rather different way of looking at the relationship between the cultures of different social groups can be seen in our next concept that has proved popular with historians of food and drink – Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of ‘carnival’. Bakhtin was a Russian literary critic, most famous for his book about the French Renaissance humanist Francois Rabelais, published in 1965 (although written under the Stalinist regime during WWII) Rabelais and His World. In the book, Bakhtin argued that Rabelais’ work provided a valuable insight into what he called the ‘folk culture’ of early modern Europe. If Elias’ conduct books could reveal the eating and drinking culture of European elites, what Bakhtin termed ‘official culture’, then Rabelais had written a carefully observed account of the consumption practices and dispositions prevalent amongst ordinary men and women. Continue reading

Food for Thought II: Sociology – Civility and Habitus

Mark Hailwood

In this second of three posts introducing some key theoretical concepts through the history of food and drink (see here for the first) I’m going to move on to think about some of those borrowed from sociologists. The last post ended by stating that a concern with change over time plays an important role in the types of theories historians tend to like and dislike: and it helps to explain why they have been taken with our next key concept – the notion of the ‘civilising process’.

Norbert Elias

Norbert Elias

This was a theory first posited by the German sociologist Norbert Elias, back in 1939, but its main impact on Anglophone historians only came when it was translated into English in 1969, as: The Civilizing Process, Vol. 1: The History of Manners (1969). Its central claim was that between the middle ages (c.800AD) and the nineteenth century the manners of Europeans had become gradually more ‘civilised’ – by which he didn’t necessarily mean ‘better’ or more ‘progressive’ (he wasn’t passing judgement) but marked by increasing levels of self-restraint and self-control, especially with regards to violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table-manners and forms of speech. By reading conduct manuals – guides to appropriate forms of social etiquette, a very popular genre – from across these centuries, Elias identified a shift away from an aristocratic honour culture in the middle ages which had seen aggression, violence, and the excessive consumption of food and drink as acceptable and laudable, towards an increasing sense of shame and repugnance towards all of these behaviours. Continue reading

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