An entertaining survey of the table, Babylonian to Edwardian, examining the political and social forces that shaped what appeared on it.
“The meal and everything connected with it has been and, to a very large extent still is, a vehicle determining status and hierarchy—and also aspiration—no matter what pattern of society prevails,” British historian Strong (The Cult of Elizabeth, 2000, etc.) writes. From way back when, conviviality has been a cornerstone of civilization, though in this case keystone may be more apt, as Strong concentrates on upper-crust eating. Each chapter revolves around an archetypal feast, including the Greeks’ banquets (“expressions of equality—equality, that is, between members of a distinct group sharing the same values, and also political power”), the Roman convivia (tense efforts to marry personal frugality with lavish hospitality), and the Dark Ages’ uncouth revels (“the main purpose of barbarian feasting was to get drunk”). For each epoch, Strong has found a work of literature (or a wide selection) that captures its essential tone: the dramatic spectacles of the 13th century, which introduced form and color to the table; the ritualism of Renaissance events at which “super-abundance and luxury [were] the sole indicators of political power and status”; and the loosening of the corsets at 18th-century court dinners, where “the atmosphere was one of high fashion, flirtation, wit, and gossip.” In each case, the author carefully draws the connections between what happened at the table and shifts in social power—for instance, “the division between an upper class that ate meat and a peasant class denied it,” made explicit “through the imposition of restrictive game laws”—while he also pays attention to the evolution of etiquette, furniture, place settings, interior decoration, and attendant amusements.
A broad and transporting canvas, as redolent of social nuance and detail as the pieces of cutlery on a Victorian table. (60 b&w illustrations)