Restricting meals in thirteenth century France

In the thirteenth century, the well off in France were already eating well - well enough to worry their kings, who frowned upon the drain on the Nation's wealth. And so, towards the end of the century, two kings tried successively to reign in luxury in both dining and dress. In fact, the stipulations for clothing are longer and more detailed; dressing well after all was the surest way to regularly display one's (real or supposed) status. But serving friends fine meals came close behind.

It is very unlikely that these strictures - or similar subsequent ones - were ever closely followed. Certainly, period cookbooks suggest much more ornate dining options. But for a food historian, the interest of the stipulations on food is that they provide at least a theoretical idea of what was considered reasonable and sufficient for even upper class diners. Which, in both statutes, is bracingly minimal. Note too that neither statute uses terms ("soup", "roast", etc.) for the various courses which later would be standard; at heart, each simply limits diners, with few exceptions, to three undifferentiated dishes (or even less for a small meal). It is interesting too to see cheese classified as other than a dish, except when it was served in dough (as in a tart or pastry) or more surprisingly cooked in water. It is striking too that the first statute singles out two fish (both then upscale) for fast day meals.

And so, as minimal as each of these are, they are intriguing and enlightening on a number of points.

While both texts are relatively obscure, the second has sometimes been cited even in modern works, ever since Le Grand d'Aussy summarized it in his 1782 work on French food history. Philip the Bold's statute however remains almost unknown, even since a writer in the Bibliothèque de Chartres discovered and published it. The statute is from 1279:
It is ordered for the common profit of the realm of France by the King, from the advice of his barons and his prelates:
First, let no duke, baron, count or prelate, nor knight, nor clerk, nor others of the realm, of whatever rank, serve more than three simple dishes to eat without any cheating or fraud, in such a manner that who wants to serve pottage, if there is that pottage or with that pottage meat or fish, let it be counted for one of the three dishes, and for Lent or a fast day one can serve another after the three dishes; note that neither fruit nor cheese must be counted as a dish, except for tarts or flans. The king does not want in this arrangement that pike be bought for more than 100 tournois sous, nor any lamprey more than 20 tournois sous.
Philip the Fair's later statute, from 1294, provides further details, including a rare mention of pottages made with... bacon or herring? Unlike the earlier statute, this one does not open with any suggestion of an upscale audience, and the mention of these two lower class options suggests that this statute was addressed to a more general public:
None will serve in a large meal more than two dishes, and a bacon pottage, without fraud. And for a small meal a dish and a side dish [entremets]. And if it is a fast day, he may serve two herring pottages, two dishes, or three dishes, and a pottage. And he will only put in a bowl one type of meat, only one piece, or one type of fish, not committing any other fraud. And all butcher's meat will be counted as a dish.  And we do not intend that cheese be a dish, unless it is in dough, or cooked in water.
Above all, both stand out for suggesting such minimal meals just before a period when not only aristocratic cookbooks but even popular poems and tales would portray far more varied fare across most, if not all, classes.


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