Saturday, 27 August 2016

In his cups

Daily Draw: The Green Witch Tarot, King of Chalices/Cups
In medieval Europe food was a prime economic and religious concern. Medieval people regarded gluttony askingchalices the major form of lust, fasting as the hardest renunciation and eating as the most basic way of communing with God. Peter Brown observes that ‘in the straightened Mediterranean, the kingdom of heaven had to have something to do with food and drink’
In the later thirteenth and fourteenth famine was on the rise. Unpleasant stories of hoarding merchants, cannibalism and infanticide in the sources suggest hunger and even starvation were not uncommon. The capacity to over-eat or give away food to the less fortunate was a mark of privilege or aristocratic status. What we now call conspicuous consumption medieval people called magnanimity or largesse.
In the folk literature gorging until one was sick became an image of unbridled sensual pleasure. Magic vessels overbrimming with food and drink were a standard feature in European fairy tales as were skies raining cheeses in medieval myth. One of the most common charities required of religious orders was to feed the poor and ill, pilgrims and wanderers. Sharing one’s meagre food with a stranger (who may turn out to be an angel, a fairy, God or even Jesus) was in folk tale and hagiography a signifier of heroic or saintly generosity.
The renunciation of food and drink seemed to medieval people the most fundamental asceticism which would control the body in a discipline far more basic than would the giving up of the less frequent gratifications of sex or money. Gunther of Pairis, a Cistercian historian and poet said in a treatise on prayer and fasting ‘Fasting is useful for expelling demons, excluding evil thoughts, remitting sins, mortifying vices, giving certain hope of future goods and a foretaste (perceptio) of celestial joys’
Catherine of Sweden’s hagiographer attributed to her the view that ‘abstinence prolongs life, preserves chastity, pleases God, repulses demons, illuminates the intellect, strengthens the mind, overcomes vices, overpowers the flesh and stirs and inflames the heart with the love of God.’ An anonymous satyr on the hypocrisy of monks is clear that food and drink are more difficult to give up than sex: ‘Many who are not lured by more serious faults are cast down by overindulgence in food and drink…Indeed thinned by fasting or vigils and repeated prayers, the stomach thinks not of a woman but of food; it meditates not on lust but on sleep’
It seems that food figured more strongly in lay women’s piety than in lay men’s. Women throughout Europe served Christ by feeding others and donating to the poor food that husbands and fathers were proud to be able to provide, save and consume. What would King Cups here think of that?
Source for this post Walker Bynum, C (1987) Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The religious significance of food to medieval women
Amendment. I found this You Tube of Caroline Walker Bynum speaking on Christian Materiality: Miracles in the Later Middle Ages. Fascinating.

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