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The University of Southampton

Why did people eat fish on Fridays? Historical and cultural views on food.

Published: 29 November 2013
Professor Chris Woolgar

Perspectives from medieval days into how people in the past regarded food, regulated their diet and thought about taste were discussed by Professor Chris Woolgar at the Royal Institution as part of a presentation on Food the Brain and Us. He was one of a number of speakers giving short talks at the event, which was sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of its Science in Culture theme.

Chris, who is interested in the history of the everyday, explained how some people thought eating a particular type of food acquired certain moral qualities. As eating meat produced ‘lustful and gluttonous emotions’ so people were urged to refrain from eating it on days of religious significance; fish was seen as a less stimulating alternative.

Studying domestic accounts, details of the building of grand kitchens and early recipes give a fascinating insight into what people ate from the late 12th century. Highly spiced food with thin acidic sauces were popular but most elite food was ground to a pulp to make it easy to eat: forks did not come into common use until the 17th century. Preserving food was a real challenge before refrigeration; Chris spoke of the arrival of salted fish and dried meats, which had their own distinctive tastes. Sugar and citrus fruits became popular in the diets of the rich from the 15th century: records show Henry VIII possessed strainers for orange juice.

However, Chris warns the topic is more complex that many might think. “We must not assume people in the past regarded flavours and taste in the same way as we do today,” he says. “Historical accounts are rich in description but we would be unwise to give the words the same meanings that they possess today.”

The talk at the Royal Institution in October also included contributions from a neuroscientist, an artist and a chef and was introduced by Barry Smith, the Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London and the founding Director for the Centre for the Study of the Senses.

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