Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Uncertainty and Doubt and Beef

On Monday I came across an article referring to a paper on medieval beef consumption.  This article contains the following eyebrow-raising statements:

One of the key conclusions of this article is that cattle and sheep were the main sources of meat throughout Western Europe, and that consumption of pork went into general decline during the 14th and 15th centuries, which López attributes to changes in farming after the Black Death.
... in northern France and England beef was the most popular type of meat.
... medieval cookbooks, like the Viandier and the Forme of Curye, had beef in their recipes more often than other meats.

I haven't yet read the paper that the article is referring to - "Consumption of Meat in Western European Cities during the Late Middle Ages: A Contemporary Study", Food and History, Vol.8 No.1 (2010) - but I'm certainly trying to get a hold of a copy.

What makes me question the quotes above (aside from the fact that the economics of the situation make heavy beef consumption unlikely) is that it doesn't mesh with the statistics I've extracted from various medieval cookbooks.

First, the statement that beef appears in the recipes in Viandier and Forme of Curye more than any other meat is just plain wrong.  Beef appears in 3% of the reciped in Forme of Curye, which is plainly less than the 13% of recipes that contain pork.  In fact, beef is sixth on the list in descending order of frequency - it appears just below rabbit (4%).  Fish / Seafood has the top spot, appearing in 22% of the recipes.

Beef does appear higher up in the statistics from Viandier.  There, it's in the second spot with 14%.  It's still below fish / seafood with 29% though.  What's more, poultry (13%) and pork (10%) aren't very far behind.

Note that there is some wiggle-room in these statistics.  For example, I've lumped together a lot of different kinds of aquatic life into the category "fish / seafood", and "pork" includes "ham", "bacon", and any part of a pig.  Still, browsing through the recipes I still find way more references to "pork" than "beef" in Forme of Curye.  Additionally, the number of recipes for a type of meat doesn't necessarily correspond to how often that meat was consumed.

The statement that beef was the most popular type of meat is possibly true, but the data I've seen doesn't support it.  In the dozen cookbooks I've pulled information from, only three (Ancient Cookery, The Good Housewife's Jewell & Ouverture de Cuisine) have beef appearing most often in recipes.  Fish / seafood has the top spot in the vast majority.  I suppose if you don't consider fish to be meat (e.g. as the church dictated) then beef's position improves, but it's still not the most common going by the numbers.

Lastly, the statement about cattle and sheep being the main sources of meat seems to be a real stretch.  Before 1500, sheep / mutton recipes are not that common - generally appearing in less than 10% of the recipes in French and English cookbooks (Du fait de cuisine being the exception).

There are all sorts of possibilities here.  It could be that the paper's author compiled the data differently than I did, and that lead to different conclusions.  It could also be that the article, which was written for a popular (sort of) audience, misinterpreted the author's conclusions.  Either way, I want to see the actual paper.  Something's off somewhere, and I want to make sure it isn't me.

1 comment:

Andreas Klumpp M.A. said...

I haven't read the original article yet either and with my experience in German medieval cookbooks (which were not included in the research by the way) I would support your data. But as far as I recollect the article on, it states, that the author included also a variety of other written sources. I would be much interested, if he also included zooarchaeological data, cause some researches in the past have clearly shown the wide gap between written records and archaeological finds(e.g. the old "the English didn't eat any veggies").