food in the arts



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by Nichola Fletcher   nourriture dans les arts
A feast in the bath: how not to behave

The picture top right is of a feast in the bath. This remarkable scene was painted by Antoine de Bourgogne about 1470, around the same time as the more famous Tres riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Communal bathing, like communal sleeping, was the norm; nakedness was not necessarily shameful, although some public bathhouses or 'stews' were frowned upon as steamy and vice-ridden. Other examples in art are more unusual, like an illustration of a couple bathing in a draped wooden tub hanging in front of a banqueting table. This could have illustrated a romance being enacted as an entremets or soteltie but it could equally have been a representation of the pensiles balneae mentioned by Pliny. These were small bathtubs suspended in such a way that the bathers could divert themselves by literally rocking the boat.

So what is going on in this beautifully detailed scene? It displays all the characteristics of a late medieval banquet: there is a handsome canopied top table (matched by the draped four-poster bed in the next room); vivid blue and gold tapestries brighten the walls; a minstrel plays sweet music on his lute and a little dog scampers about. A crisp white embroidered surnap lies neatly over a central board carrying dainty pointed knives, fine rolls of manchet bread, and polished pewter plates with sweetmeats on them. Some of the men drink from mazers (maplewood drinking bowls), and a pitcher of hippocras (sweet spiced wine) stands ready at either end of the table. There are ripe greengages and suggestively luscious cherries to eat, and the lady at the front holds up a jellied tart. In short, this would be a typical banquet of its time were it not for the lack of clothing, the unconventional setting, the explicit goings-on in the adjoining chamber and the expressions of the king and bishop peeping through the door.

extracted from 'Charlemagne's Tablecloth', A Piquant History of Feasting, by Nichola Fletcher, copyright 2004

 Charlemagne's Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting -

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I know that more things were lost in the depths of those waters than mere earrings - PETRA CARTER