24 March 2011
Sponsler, Claire. “Eating Lessons: Lydgate’s ‘Dietary’ and Consumer Conduct.” Medieval Conduct. Ed. Kathleen Ashley and Robert L.A. Clark. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 1-22. Print. Medieval Cultures 2
In Sponsler’s essay, Sponsler explores the medieval relationship between eating, morality, society and status, power, and subjectivity through John Lydgate’s “The Dietary.” Sponsler evokes theories and claims by theorists, critics, and writers like Norbert Elias, Chandra Mukerji, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, Marcel Mauss, Claude Levi-Strauss and many others in order to substantiate her many made claims in her essay “Eating Lessons.” Sponsler’s claims investigate and support the importance of consumption and table manners to medieval society and the logic behind and the effects of such customs and the conduct texts through which they are disseminated. Her essay deconstructs the ways in which food and eating were of integral importance as food, being taken into the body, effected the body’s integrity. Lydgate’s poem advises on matters non-dietary as well in that the physical body is seen as the locus and meeting point for not only food, but also other commodities, economics, individuals, communication, education, and so forth. Sponsler claims that Lydgate’s poem essentially teaches his audience that moderation and negotiation amongst and against the many potentially harmful indulgences in an abundant environment (life) is the answer to all ills and to preserving one’s self and one’s way of life. By moderating these other elements (not just food) that merge in the physical body, one’s morality is kept in check. Sponsler also notes Elias’s claim that these table manners were a way of enculturating an individual into the English community of standards and norms and of further solidifying the ranks of social status and their reflection through conducting oneself accordingly. Interestingly, Sponsler also brings into question the amount of agency Lydgate allows his audience in terms of whether or not they are bound by abiding to the rules and regulations of dietary and social behavior into the hierarchical structure of medieval society or whether or not Lydgate’s advices are empowering and liberating to a burgouise audience in that he emphasizes the privatizing of something traditionally communal and aristocratically emulated.
1. Relation of eating to body.
Being that food is taken in to the body, food and consumption challenge the notions of the boundaries of the physical body and effect the integrity of the body.
Eating becomes ritual and food becomes symbolic.
Food and consumption directly affect the functioning and well-being of the physical body and in turn affect the mental well-being of the body.
2.Relation of eating and food to social status
Being that English customs highly dictated the processes of eating, table manners were indicative of social status and education.
The types of food and the way one ate demarcated one’s social privileges.
Elias notes that table manners were a way of further inscribing individuals into their proper social ranks.
3. Aristocratic or Bourgeoisie audience and implications
Sponsler notes that Lydgate’s poem is directed towards a middle-class to upper audience in its assumptions such as the fact that Lydgate takes for granted that his audience is male, the head of the household, may need to be advised not to sleep in late, and does not perform manual labor.
In terms of proliferating table manners as a way to further inscribe individuals into social ranks, Lydgate’s text seems to bind his audience to practicing health, morality, and appropriateness in adherence to strict societal laws.
However, Lydgate’s text may also seem revolutionary in its restraint against emulating aristocratic eating habits, such as lavishness and excess, and in this way frees his audience from the structures of hierarchical society.
- In what ways is our society similar to medieval society in its treatment of food, eating, health, and morality?
- (hint: consider organically grown foods and price, raw, vegan, vegetarian diets, diet fads, etc)
- Do you feel that “The Dietary” is as effective in keeping individuals in their respective social classes as it is effective in teaching proper health, manners, and morality? Is Lydgate’s text more oppressive than it is liberating or educational?