feasts of dolphin flavored with oriental spices -- 2/7/17

Today's selection -- from Legal Plunder by Daniel Lord Smail. Starting in the 1200s, the European merchant class, especially in Italy and France, became noticeably more well-to-do. The poet Dante saw it as a vice:

"The growth of European wealth in the form of household goods points to one of the dramatic transformations long associated with European history. ... After a hiatus of several centu­ries, wealth slowly began to rebound, not only in the great courts of kings and bishops but also in the houses of merchants and shippers, houses whose archaeological remains, as Christopher Loveluck has shown, provide evidence for great feasts of dolphin flavored with oriental spices and served on fine wares. The turning of the tide is beau­tifully captured by the manner in which wealth began to be deposited in monastic treasuries in Christian Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, wealth derived from the tribute payments made by the Muslim taifa states, which flowed north in the form of precious ob­jects made of gold, silver, and gemstones and silken cloths.

The feast of the Peacock

"Several indices suggest that household wealth continued to accu­mulate in European cities and towns in the later Middle Ages (1250 - 1500), in the teeth of famine, war, and plague, although this claim re­mains the subject of considerable debate. The trend is visible early on in Mediterranean Europe and later spread northward. It is attested in the archaeological record, which yields evidence for gradual increases not only in coins but also in metal dress accessories, household ce­ramics, and other consumer items. As noted earlier, the quantity of paper, a consumer product in its own right and a proxy index for linen production, takes off after 1250 or 1300. Domestic architecture became more elaborate. Major shifts in clothing fashions led to more tightly fitting clothes and hence to the growing importance of tailors, a trade dedicated to the cutting and sewing of fabric. In a different domain, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga noted the bitter hatred of the rich that suffused the literature and chronicles of the later Middle Ages, a sign of the growing wealth gap between rich and poor. In the reor­dering of the seven deadly sins that took place over the course of the thirteenth century, as Lester Little has argued, avarice replaced pride as the worst sin of all, a pungent commentary on the contemporary awareness of the perils of a greedy society. Sumptuary legislation, likewise, took off in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the arc of the initial curve neatly tracking the putative expansion of a con­sumer society. We even find growing concerns about the problem of theft.

Master of the Council of Constance Chronicle

"These transformations are apparent not only to historians of the present day; they were also remarked by contemporary observers. One of these was the chronicler Riccobaldo da Ferrara, writing early in the fourteenth century in praise of the good old days. Contemplating the soft comforts of his own age, Riccobaldo cast his thoughts back to the days of the emperor Frederick II, two generations earlier, to illustrate how much material progress had taken place:

During the age of this emperor, habits and customs in Italy were coarse. Men wore caps on the head made of iron plates, sewn with precious stones, which they called maiatas. At the evening dinner, husband and wife ate together out of a serving dish; no one used wooden trenchers during meals. Each family had just one or two cups. The evening meals were illuminated by window light or torches, with one of the servants or a slave holding the torch, for no one used candles made of wax.

"The men, he goes on to say, wore cloaks made of hide without any lining, and women were content to wear tunics made of rough linen, even on their wedding days. Unmarried girls and brides did not put any adornments in their hair. Food and wine were scanty and meat was served just three times a week. The glory of men lay instead in arms and horses, and also, for the nobility, great towers. It did not lie in the things becoming common in Riccobaldo's day, such as fine clothing and fancy belts or hats. It was a passage that tickled his fancy, for it appears in virtually all versions of his chronicle. It also resonated with some of his fellow chroniclers. Galvano Fiamma, writing in 1344, paraphrased it exten­sively, describing the transformation in a simple and memorable way: whereas a century earlier, the people of Lombardy had been accustomed to wearing unlined leathers and coarse woolens, today they bedeck themselves with gold, silver, and pearls. Others followed in the same vein. The trope was common in Italian early Renaissance literature. Some saw luxury as a virtue; others, notably Dante, as a vice."


Daniel Lord Smail


Legal Plunder: Households and Debt Collection in Late Medieval Europe


Harvard University Press


Copyright 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College


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