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A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet

A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet

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A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet

442 pagine
7 ore
May 1, 2015


To read accounts of late medieval banquets is to enter a fantastical world where live lions guard nude statues, gilded stags burst into song, and musicians play from within pies. We can almost hear the clock sound from within a glass castle, taste the fire-breathing roast boar, and smell the rose water cascading in a miniature fountain. Such vivid works of art and performance required collaboration among artists in many fields, as well as the participation of the audience.

A Feast for the Eyes is the first book-length study of the court banquets of northwestern Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Christina Normore draws on an array of artworks, archival documents, chroniclers’ accounts, and cookbooks to re-create these events and reassess the late medieval visual culture in which banquets were staged. Feast participants, she shows, developed sophisticated ways of appreciating artistic skill and attending to their own processes of perception, thereby forging a court culture that delighted in the exercise of fine aesthetic judgment.

Challenging modern assumptions about the nature of artistic production and reception, A Feast for the Eyes yields fresh insight into the long history of multimedia work and the complex relationships between spectacle and spectators.
May 1, 2015

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A Feast for the Eyes - Christina Normore



Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet




CHRISTINA NORMORE is assistant professor of art history at Northwestern University.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2015 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. Published 2015.

Printed in the United States of America

24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15    1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-24220-0 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-24234-7 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226242347.001.0001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Normore, Christina, author.

A feast for the eyes : art, performance, and the late medieval banquet / Christina Normore.

pages ; cm

Includes bibliograpical references and index.

978-0-226-24220-0 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 0-226-24220-X (cloth : alk paper) — ISBN 978-0-226-24234-7 (e-book) 1. Fasts and feasts—Europe—History—14th century. 2. Fasts and feasts—Europe—History—15th century. 3. Dinners and dining—Europe—History—14th century. 4. Dinners and dining—Europe—History—15th century. 5. Entremets—History—14th century. 6. Entremets—History—15th century. 7. Europe—Court and courtiers—Social life and customs—14th century. 8. Europe—Court and courtiers—Social life and customs—15th century. 9. Fasts and feasts in art. 10. Dinners and dining in art. I. Title.

GT4842.N67 2015



♾ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).



Introduction: Setting the Table

1. Between the Dishes

2. Spectator-Spectacle

3. Efficacy and Hypocrisy

4. Dining Well

5. Stranger at the Table

6. Wedding Reception






This project has been over a decade in the making, and the debts I have incurred in the process are truly legion. Funds from the University of Chicago and the Fulbright Commission in Belgium allowed for research in Europe, and the staff of the Bibliothèque royale / Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Brussels, made my work there particularly pleasurable. The Robert H. and Clarice Smith Fellowship from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and the A. W. Mellon Fellowship at the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame provided vital time for writing. My thanks are also due to many friends, colleagues and mentors. Both as an adviser and as a friend, Rebecca Zorach has always been a constant and irreplaceable source of support and inspiration. Linda Seidel and Jaś Elsner pushed me to reconsider both the parts and the whole—my apologies to Jaś for having still written a book about feasts. Anne Harris, Anne D. Hedeman, Steve Perkinson, and Bret Rothstein generously read the whole of the current version and gave invaluable suggestions: this book is the better for it, and I am sorry only that constraints of space and time meant some advice went unheeded. Erik Inglis and Martha Wolff can be held responsible for this project’s having begun at all—Erik having first set me on Margaret of York many years ago when I was thinking about what to write for an undergraduate thesis at Oberlin, and Martha having juxtaposed readings on the Feast of the Pheasant and Hesdin that made me wonder what other implications banqueting might have for the broader visual culture. Dawna Schuld and Jeffrey Saletnik have been providing what probably feels like endless support and feedback since the project began; I am not sure which bits of this text are mine anymore, but I suspect the good parts belong to them. For their thoughtful comments and general good humor at various stages of this endeavor, my thanks also to Roberta Baranowski, Joy Beckman, Susan Bielstein, Katy Breen, Kenneth Brummel, Anthony Burton, Paroma Chatterjee, Holly Clayson, Huey Copeland, John Crocker, Kelsey Cowger, Stephen Eisenman, Jesús Escobar, Hannah Feldman, Shirin Fozi, Julie Fritz, Rachel Furnari, Ruth Goring, Agnès Guiderdoni, Ann Gunter, Scott Hiley, Seth Hindin, Jeehee Hong, Matthew Johnson, Tom Jones, Danielle Joyner, Christina Kaier, Mark Klassen, Jessica Keating, Richard Kieckhefer, Aden Kumler, Kristine Larison, Travis Lee, Rob Linrothe, Lia Markey, Susie Phillips, Scott Miller, Barbara Newman, Julia Orell, Jo Ortel, Rainbow Porthé, Zoe Saunders, Kara Schenk, the Sisters of the Bethlehem Convent of the Poor Clares, Rob Slifkin, Claudia Swan, Krista Thompson, David van Zanten, and the many students and faculty who have provided feedback on presentations I’ve given from this material. Finally, thanks are due to my family for their love, patience, and curiosity: Lorraine, Calvin, DB, George, and Joey. It is my greatest good fortune to have you in my life.


Setting the Table

The life of Christ and the late medieval court converge on the left wing of the Melbourne Miracles of Christ altarpiece from around 1500 (fig. 1). Standing before a table of guests at the wedding at Cana, Christ lifts his hand to perform his first miracle, turning the water being poured into jugs into wine. At the high table, the calm witnesses to this marvel are richly arrayed in the fashions of earlier fifteenth-century elites. It has even been suggested that the faces of some guests are borrowed from the official portraits of the dukes and duchesses of Valois Burgundy, who ruled the Lowlands and parts of France from 1385 to 1482.¹ For a modern viewer, this image might seem to undermine the sacredness of the scene with its courtly intrusions. Jesus here appears to be a performer rather than a savior, enacting what was in fact a common banqueting trick of transforming one food into another. Alternately, a court feast has been elevated to the status of a sacred ritual, making a secular meal into something uncomfortably close to the Eucharistic feast of which the wedding at Cana was believed to be a sign.²

The Melbourne Wedding at Cana traverses many modern boundaries, linking secular and sacred and melding late antique with late medieval, just as the Jesus it portrays is caught in the act of transfiguring water into wine. In drawing on the wider phenomenon of court banqueting, it further hints at the porous nature of the boundary between the high art of painting and the low arts of the table with their messy mixture of the visual, the theatrical, and the culinary.

Modern scholarship has only recently begun to appreciate the social and political ramifications of festival’s centrality within late medieval and early modern elite culture.³ Even less studied, but inextricably linked to these realms, is the importance of feasting for artistic production and reception. Patronized by trend-setting rulers such as the Valois dukes of Burgundy, feasts were a major art form in the late Middle Ages. Banquets engaged the talents of leading artists in a wide range of media as well as the participation of aristocratic and mercantile elites. With their inventive blend of media and collaborative production, feasts blurred the boundaries between spectator and spectacle, creator and audience, and in so doing helped form a culture deeply invested in discernment, whether directed toward objects, other humans, or one’s own motivations. Preserved only in complexly mediated fragments, banquets nevertheless still have much to say about their own workings and those of their larger milieu. Indeed, it is precisely in their conventions that both verbal and visual depictions of feasts reveal the shared hopes and expectations that late medieval artists and patrons brought to the banquet hall. Identifying these priorities enables examination of late medieval feasting in something closer to its own terms and thus can provide a guide to feasting’s peculiar intertwining of artistry, performance, ethics, and ambiguity, the complex weave of which will be the subject of this book.

Figure 1. Master of the Legend of St. Catherine, Flemish, active 1470–1500, Triptych with the Miracles of Christ, ca. 1479–91, left wing obverse—The Marriage at Cana, oil on wood panel, 113.0 × 37.2 cm; 122.4 × 184.0 cm (overall). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1922.

The Challenge of the Feast

Both banquets’ collaborative production and their aesthetic of magnificent wonder led many generations of scholars to dismiss if not outright condemn these innovative artistic productions as vacuous and vulgar displays.⁴ In concluding his case for the study of fourteenth-century miniature painting, Millard Meiss tellingly proclaimed that art historians should devote more attention to the religious, intellectual and literary environment of the French courts than to their cutlery, dazzling though that undoubtedly was.⁵ For Meiss, as for most of his generation, the flashy splendor of cutlery was by definition opposed to both painting and intellectual and spiritual concerns. Yet as the mingling of these discourses within the Wedding at Cana suggests, the separation of feasting from religion, serious intentions, and painting says far more about the concerns of modern scholars than it does about those of late medieval courtiers, who conceived of the role of art and the distinctions between sacred and profane rather differently.

In recent years, a growing number of scholars have demonstrated the importance of broadening art-historical studies of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries beyond the traditional focus on painting, sculpture, and architecture to include the so-called decorative arts.⁶ Their work and the array of appealing, innovative, and sometimes frankly odd objects they have brought into the spotlight suggest that it is time not only to acknowledge the value of these less-studied art forms but also to grapple with their greater implications. This book is therefore not simply an argument for the inclusion of banqueting and its intriguing multimedia practices within art-historical study but also, more importantly, an investigation of what the practices and aesthetic values integral to banqueting can reveal about the larger cultural matrix of which they were such a prominent part. Uncovering this earlier history offers a challenge to many modern scholarly assumptions and models concerning art making in and beyond the late Middle Ages.

To reintegrate feasts into the history of art is to think anew about the nature of art making itself. Most obviously, the mixed media of feasts breaks down the increasingly porous modern boundaries between high and decorative art, theater, and music. While these art forms could be produced separately and required particular technical skills, within the banquet hall they frequently mingled. Even today, to read the accounts of late medieval courtiers like Olivier de la Marche is to enter into a fantastic world in which sculpted stags sing, roast boars breath fire, and a duke can converse with the Holy Church personified. The results were not only cross-fertilization across media but also the formation of banquets themselves as an independent multimedia form that solicited collaboration and interaction.

The immersion of medieval audiences in the interactive world of banqueting led both theorists and planners to grapple with the problem of how precisely such experiences might shape audiences’ characters, a concern that arises explicitly in the discourses of ethics and courtesy and implicitly in the actual staging of feasts. Taking late medieval thought on the issues of mimesis, agency, and intermediality seriously underscores the cultural contingency of current analytic tools and opens up new ways for thinking more generally about problems such as performance, creativity, and spectacle that are integral to the humanities today.

Just as the determinedly mixed materials that make up the banquet upset current scholarly categories, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries at the heart of this book trouble the traditional distinction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This is particularly true for the Valois Burgundian rulers and their subjects, who were among the most celebrated patrons of the art of banqueting. The polity referred to by modern scholars as Valois Burgundy was formed in the fourteenth century by the marriage of Philip the Bold (1342–1404), the fourth son of King John II of France, and the heiress Margaret of Flanders (1350–1405). This couple was succeeded by four generations of Valois rulers: John the Fearless (1371–1419), Philip the Good (1396–1467), Charles the Bold (1433–77), and Mary of Burgundy (1457–82). Over the following century they ruled a vast, rich, and varied territory based in both southern France and the present-day Lowlands, losing their control over their French possessions only upon the death of Charles the Bold in 1477. While their French territories were largely agricultural, the wealth of the highly urbanized centers of Flanders rested in cloth manufacturing and international trade. Valois Burgundy was thus an integral part of the growing international luxury market that extended from England to the Mediterranean. It was also continually embroiled in internal power struggles and major regional conflicts such as the Hundred Years’ War, with the dukes as often siding against as with their royal French relatives.⁷ Yet the fame of the region both in its own time and among historians today rests not only in its political and economic power but also in its phenomenal cultural capital: the short hundred years of Valois rule oversaw and at times directly supported radically innovative artistic practices in multiple media still evident in the surviving sculpture and painting of artists such Claus Sluter, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden and the musical compositions of Gilles de Binche and Guillaume Dufay.

Modern studies of this period were deeply shaped by debates at the turn of the twentieth century that pitted a nationalist celebration of the so-called Flemish Primitives against Johan Huizinga’s pessimistic vision of late medieval decadence.⁸ While these qualitative distinctions are rarely employed today, the Burgundian court continues to be studied equally by medievalists and early modernists, a testament to the myriad ways in which its politics, religion, and art defy attempts to cleanly separate the medieval from the early modern.

The particular connection of the Valois Burgundian court to banqueting and other forms of lavish spectacle is familiar to most scholars from Huizinga’s vibrantly decadent prose, yet he was far from the first to connect the Valois dukes to splendid display.⁹ The notion of Valois Burgundy at its height as a land whose plenty was epitomized in its feasts was already mythologized at the end of the fifteenth century. In the poisoned-honey words of Philippe de Commynes:

At that time, the subjects of the house of Burgundy lived in great wealth, thanks to the long peace they had known and the goodness of their ruler, who taxed them very little; it seems to me that at that time these lands, more than any other principality on earth, could be called the promised lands. They were abundant in riches and in great repose as they have never been since. . . . The expenditure and clothing of both men and women was grand and superfluous; parties and banquets were larger and more prodigious than in any other place I know.¹⁰

For contemporary viewers, the achievements of this very earthly Promised Land thus manifested in the interactive arts of personal adornment and festival as much as if not more than in the paintings and sculptures that rivet the attention of scholars today.

Different late medieval types of festival share some characteristics and often accompanied each other: tournaments, civic entry parades, and feasts in particular were often held on the same day, planned by the same committees, and thematically linked. For this reason, the findings presented here have important implications for the study of festival more generally. Nevertheless, the court banquets that are my focus constitute a distinct type. Banquets differ from other court festivities primarily through their combination of visual, performing, and culinary arts. This tripartite combination is epitomized in a category of art production called entremet in Middle French, which combines all these elements. Court banquets also have a more limited audience than other types of festival, and their details are often better documented than are those of other social groupings. While civic banquets and processions could be held in public and potentially involved a large proportion of the citizenry, court banquets tend to be held in separate dining halls with limited access. Thus, for example, when Philip the Good, third Duke of Burgundy, held the famous Feast of the Pheasant in 1454, pairs of squires and knights stationed at each doorway controlled entry into the feast hall. While the Feast of the Pheasant used a preexisting space, the largest banquets might require the construction of temporary buildings to properly separate guests from the rest of the community, as at the marriage of Duke Charles the Bold to the English princess Margaret of York. Because individual court feasts’ audiences were comparatively limited and often partially listed within records, it is possible to be more precise about who this audience was, what sets of ideas its members might share, and how the repetitive actions and mores of feasting related to other spheres of activity in their lives. For this reason, banquets provide a more controlled group for examining the interactions of festival with larger patterns of patronage and reception than do other forms such as tournament or royal entries.

Despite the substantial archival traces banquets have left, as a time- and place-specific art form they pose certain difficulties as a subject of study. Playing out over a set period and utilizing many elements subject to decomposition (foodstuffs and human bodies alike), feasts are a time-based medium par excellence and can never be truly reconstituted in the present. As Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks among others have underscored, the survivals from even the most recent events are fragmentary at best: a mix of visual and verbal descriptions, perhaps supplemented by artifacts used in the performance and scripts or scores written before or after the fact.¹¹ The vast temporal gulf separating a modern audience from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries throws into sharp relief these general challenges facing the study of time-based art forms. Although a relatively large and varied body of evidence concerning late medieval feast culture survives, it is highly fragmented and rarely allows for direct correlation of descriptive, archival, and physical evidence for an individual event. While reconstruction has a long history as a tool for academic study, ultimately any attempt to assemble these fragments into a single unified picture in and of itself constitutes a creative act; each assemblage thus created is in many important ways an original work.¹²

Feasts pose two additional problems that are not shared by studies of more recent performance and installation art. The first of these is a radical disjunction between modern cultural norms and those of the original producers and audiences of these events. Assumptions about the transparency of accounts provided by modern observers may be ill founded, but the difficulties for positivism are multiplied exponentially when semantic shift, changes in governmental and social structure, and the loss of records to generations of war, fire, and disinterest must also be factored into the equation.¹³ The second problem is that, unlike many photographs or films taken of modern performances, the evidence one might employ to re-create late medieval court feasts was not primarily intended to enable such a reconstruction. Physical traces like tapestries and goldwork were kept because they could be reused rather than as pious souvenirs of any single evening, and many of them were modified repeatedly to meet new needs. The seemingly transparent descriptions and images of particular events are controlled by genre expectations and the didactic intent of their authors, which again are part of a distinctly late medieval worldview.¹⁴

Faced with these issues, previous studies of feasts usually either ignored the problems they raise entirely or attempted to look through the darkened glass and bring us face to face with past events cleansed of the source material’s interests. As well intentioned as these efforts are, and as convincing a simulacrum as a master of the genre can produce, in the end this approach not only attempts the impossible but also overlooks a golden opportunity to examine the system of thought within which feasts originally existed. If today scholars are more excited by the types of utensils depicted in a scene of the wedding at Cana than in the familiar text it accompanies, the potential religious significance of a meal was not lost on the men and women who both read the Bible and attended feasts. If twenty-first-century students are taught to compare a chronicle’s description with other accounts of the same event, a fifteenth-century reader was equally interested in the chronicler’s assertion that this event demonstrated the sin of pride or the virtue of faith. If we are to truly understand feasts, this complex web of interests and expectations by which they were shaped must also be understood.

When the conventions commonly deployed by late medieval writers and artists to depict feasting are examined carefully, it becomes apparent that they form a horizon of desires widely shared within the culture. This is true not only in the sense that they trace a set of preexisting needs but also in the more active sense that these fragments were integral to shaping late medieval elites’ understanding of what a feast should entail. While any particular event may or may not have really succeeded in meeting these expectations, their repeated deployment helped to build and perpetuate a shared basic understanding of what a feast was and could be. Visual and textual descriptions of feasts are in many respects mutually reinforcing, indicating interest in similar aspects of these events through different conventions. Yet the two are neither synonymous with each other nor straightforward attempts to record reality. In both their differences and the ideological work they perform, visual and textual accounts reveal themselves to be fractured and fractious constellations of hopes and expectations rather than simple data easily integrated into a perfect reconstruction of the past.

Textual Conventions

Verbal descriptions of late medieval banqueting are remarkably consistent in their overall structure, suggesting that they were understood to form a genre governed by a set of widely recognized conventions. Yet authors mobilized these conventions to record particular events that they lauded as unique. Given that the principal accounts of feasts were written by and for participants and official planners of such events, it seems reasonable to infer that the conventions of feast descriptions themselves helped form the basic outlines of banqueting within which each event was nevertheless expected to differ in its particulars, much as a each writer of a sonnet expresses creativity within a predetermined form.¹⁵

At their shortest, late medieval texts describing banquets can consist of little more than general references to people dining or celebrating. More commonly, a slightly longer description is used that specifies the date, location, major guests, and purpose of the feast, ending with a general reference to its planning and aesthetic success. A typical example of this short form can be seen in a description of a feast held by Duchess Isabella of Portugal during a war between her husband Philip the Good and the city of Ghent, written by Georges Chastellain, the official court chronicler of the Valois Burgundian court:

The Lord of Ternant spoke to the Duchess of Burgundy and demonstrated to her the great dangers and mortal war of the Gantois . . . because of which some of them advised that, by her good advice, the Count of Charolais [Philip’s heir Charles the Bold] should be put far from these dangers. . . . The Duchess of Burgundy thanked the Lord of Ternant and the others concerned by this issue and responded that she was well advised and intended to hold a very beautiful banquet the next day in order to fête her son the Count of Charolais. And as she had said, the following day there was a very beautiful banquet, to which she invited a great number of knights, squires, ladies, and maidens. At this banquet the duchess made great cheer and so did those who attended. Afterward she pleaded with her son the Count of Charolais in the presence of the good company that was there, saying, Oh my son, for love of you, I have assembled this good company . . . because your father is at war. . . . I beg you to return to him tomorrow morning . . . When the Lord of Ternant and the others there heard the duchess speak in this way they were very amazed. . . . The greater part of them praised the noble Lady of Burgundy, and said that it was noble courage and great virtue in a woman to send her only son thus into the danger of war.¹⁶

This short account provides a skeleton of the feast elements considered worth recording in historical narratives: their purpose, attractiveness, guest list, and success, but also important performances or speeches made at them, as in the case of the duchess’s plea. The vignette begins by locating the banquet in terms of political events: the bloody war against Ghent is under way, and leading courtiers have asked the duchess to help protect the duke’s heir. Against this general setting, the duchess’s banquet takes place the next day. The feast is beautiful and attended by a number of nobles, who, if not named directly, are at least indicated by types. All of the participants enjoy themselves. The duchess then comes to her point: using the happy guests as an audience and proof of her love for her son, she goes against received advice and tells him not to stay safely home but rather to fight alongside his father. The duchess’s feast is at once motivated by political events and integral to shaping them, elevating her own standing at court and, as later events prove, moving her son to war. In this case, the banquet appears as an acceptable means for convincing members of the elite to take part in or avoid such a serious endeavor such as battle. It also marks out a space in which pleasure is sought and achieved and where observers can quickly turn into participants either as actors (such as the duchess) or as spectacle (the happy guests).

More substantial accounts build, often at great length, on this basic outline. Elaborations usually concentrate on the description of the guests and those elements that make the event enjoyable or memorable, particularly in terms of physical setting and entertainments or speeches performed. The date, place, and purpose are usually stated first, occasionally with reference to the planning of the event and almost universally with the identification of the host and at least some of the guests. In cases where the servers are noble, they too may be listed. After this basic setup, writers expand on the decoration of the hall and provide greater detail about the attending guests, sometimes with discussion of their costume. Descriptions of the feast hall and its decorations are often extended and pay particular attention to tapestries, heraldic signs, large statues or fountains, and the ceremonial display of extra plate on the dresser. If there is special costuming of the servers, as when the servers at the Feast of the Pheasant were dressed in Philip the Good’s colors of black and gray, this may be mentioned as part of the larger visual effect of the space. Lists of guests specify ranked male and female attendees by name and end with a reference to the numerous other noblemen, ladies, and foreign visitors as groups. The details of the seating arrangements are usually vague, although special attention is given to the placement of the most important participants. Sight is the most important sense in these descriptions, and a connection is repeatedly drawn between the visibility of the guests and the ornamentation of the space within which they move.

In contrast to the generalities assigned to most guests, the decorative elements called entremets that occupy the tables are usually described in detail and occasionally interpreted in allegorical terms. These descriptions usually appear after the discussions of the guests and the room, although larger fountains may be enfolded into the description of the general setting. Once the hall, participants, and semipermanent entremets have been described, a brief statement is made regarding the quantity, quality, and splendor of the foods and wines provided, although dishes are rarely named or discussed at any length. Food, which might seem central to feasting, is largely incidental in its memorialization. The authors then turn to the actions that take place during the feast. Performances, also called entremets, are described in great detail. The scripts of particularly important acts are reproduced, as are speeches made by the host and guests when appropriate. The accounts then draw to a close, often by stating that the tables are cleared and dancing takes place and sometimes extolling the incomparable wonderfulness of the feast as a whole.

One lacuna in the narrative written accounts calls for special attention. Both the basic and the elaborated versions of banquet descriptions are almost entirely silent as to the actual foods consumed. For example, in his account of a banquet held by Philip the Good in Paris, Chastellain notes that from the abundance of leftover meat, forty plates were given to God’s poor in the city the next morning,¹⁷ yet he remains silent as to the type of meat, how it was prepared, or indeed any gustatory characteristics it may have possessed. On the rare occasions when individual dishes are mentioned, attention is focused on their figural aspect rather than odor, taste, or ingredients. At a banquet held in Paris after Louis XI’s coronation and entry, Chastellain states:

I will not speak of the dishes, nor the meats. . . . But in the middle of the meal various entremets were made and presented to the king and the princes at his table, which were very beautiful and sumptuous and made with beautiful imagination. The king was presented a flying deer, the Duke of Orléans a white swan, the Duke of Burgundy a lion, the Count of Charolais a pelican, the Duke of Bourbon a peacock, the Count of Eu a phoenix, the Count of Étampes a unicorn . . . and each entremet was emblazoned with the arms of the one who was served.¹⁸

While some of the animals listed seem at first to resemble at least plausible roast meats (swan, peacock, pelican), others, like the unicorn and phoenix, are highly improbable even on a king’s table. Like the coats of arms with which they are decorated, these heraldic animals most likely honored their recipients primarily by their external appearance rather than their interior contents; the aroma and tenderness of flying deer remain a mystery.

The focus on ceremony and appearance over taste and nutrition places these accounts within an established literary tradition of French meal descriptions that crosses numerous genres. In fabliaux, romances, and poems alike, a detailed description of food is consistently used to designate nonnoble dining. In the satirical romance Le Petit Jehan le Saintre, the aristocratic hero is associated with dress and ceremony, the lascivious monk with specific foods. In fabliaux, food is primarily described in scenes of seduction, particularly adultery, or to designate the vilain, who consumes a diet of eggs and dairy without elaborate sauces.¹⁹ In romances, descriptions of court banquets concentrate on their visual and musical splendor.²⁰ Indeed, in those unusual cases where court food is described, it can be used as a sign that a noble has fallen down on his or her luck: to remember noble foods is to have become prey to a nonnoble hunger.²¹ Against this backdrop, it is not surprising to find that the only firm designation of foods consumed by a noble in Chastellain’s multivolume official chronicle of the Burgundian court is a description of the simple torte, water, and fromage d’abbaye given to Philip the Good at a peasant’s home.²² Just as the detailing of gold plate and high company attempts to convey a banquet’s luster, so too the silence

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