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Food Studies in the Renaissance

Professor Madeline Bassnett
Fall Half Course.

Today, food choices and practices express ethical, cultural, and spiritual identities, reveal political attitudes, and inspire emotions of both pleasure and anxiety. But how did food function in early modern England? This course will consider the multi-dimensionality of food, its practices and discourses, through a range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts. Our focus will be primarily on non-dramatic literature. This will allow us to consider both men’s and women’s texts and their respective use of food discourse, while also giving us the opportunity to examine instructional material such as dietaries and recipe books.

Food was of interest to religious and political writers: the Elizabethan state-issued Homilies warned readers of the relationship between gluttony and sin, while civil war Republicans and Puritans accused each other of the food crimes of excess, cannibalism, and self-denial. Writers of poetry and prose also drew on food metaphors and practices. Ben Jonson’s masque, Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, critiqued Jacobean consumption, while Elizabeth Clinton, Countess of Lincoln, encouraged mothers to breastfeed their children in The Countess of Lincoln’s Nursery. Civil war women such as Anna Trapnel and Sarah Wight wrote or contributed to pamphlets linking food refusal to prophecy, and poets such as Aemilia Lanyer and George Herbert drew on Christian associations of food with spiritual communion. John Milton’s Paradise Lost imagined the food of angels and provided details about Eve’s skill in food preparation, while Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” presented the aggressively sensual side of pre-lapsarian food. This relatively new field of food studies in the Renaissance is ripe—to paraphrase Francis Bacon—for tasting and swallowing, chewing and digesting.

View the syllabus here: English 9077A.

Department of English - The University of Western Ontario
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