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

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

by Christina Normore

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226242347
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 13 MB
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About the Author

Christina Normore is assistant professor of art history at Northwestern University. 

Read an Excerpt

A Feast for the Eyes

Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet

By Christina Normore

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24234-7


Between the Dishes

Feasting is a subject that inspired numerous accounts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Only a small portion of these, usually addressed to potential planners or cooks, express any sustained interest in the edible aspects of these elaborate events. Chronicles, memoirs, and letters pay little attention to taste, instead focusing on the visible and audible decoration of space and the people and objects that moved within it. A large part of such accounts is taken up with describing and evaluating table decorations, statuary, automata, and live acts. These diverse objects and performances were grouped together according to their position under a single term, also found in surviving cookbooks: interspersed between the main dishes, they were called entremets.

The presence of entremets is an important element in transforming a meal into a feast, a daily event into something special. If the entremet is an extra, it is the same sort of constitutive supplement as the trifles discussed by Patricia Fumerton or Jacques Derrida's reimagination of the Kantian parergon. Like the painting frames that intrigue Derrida, the entremet has meaning only when placed alongside the mets: as the parergon is in fact inextricable from the painting, the entremet is in effect the extra that turns a meal into a feast. Like Fumerton's trifles, the entremet appears at first glance to be remarkably inessential and ephemeral. But just as Fumerton's frivolities lay open the heart of Stuart aristocratic selfhood, the entremet reveals key aspects of late medieval elite culture.

The late medieval entremet is a complicated category, combining the performing, visual, and culinary arts. The combination of media occurred not only in the use of the term but also in individual entremet that fused moving and still, object and performance, people and things. Such combinations required the collaboration of a shifting variety of technical specialists: musicians, writers, engineers, painters, cooks, heralds, and actors, to name only a few of the more common. Both as a category and in their particular instances, entremets make evident the anachronism and limitations of media specificity and artistic individualism as interpretive presuppositions when investigating the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

What Is an Entremet?

In modern French cuisine, entremets largely consist of sweets and constitute a course between the cheese and dessert within a formal meal. However, this specificity of both ingredients and position is a late development. In the centuries-long evolution of the conventions for formal dining, the entremet was one of the last elements to find a fixed form and place, if it can be said to have done so even today (current usage suggests it is increasingly conflated with dessert). The slipperiness of the modern French entremet is not surprising given its medieval origins. Literally, the term entremet means between (entre) the dishes or courses (mets). This etymological dependence on the presence of dishes locates the entremet firmly within the sphere of dining. But it also suggests a degree of ambiguity, since entremets derive their identity not from inherent qualities but from their liminal placement. This ambiguity is borne out in practice: fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Francophone authors are consistent in using entremet only when describing a feast, yet a single account may designate a great variety of referents as entremets. This variety and the challenges it poses to modern analytical categories are apparent even within individual entremets, which frequently cross the boundaries between secular and sacred, two and three dimensions, the visual, culinary, and performing arts.

The entremet's fluidity is evident in the detailed accounts of the Feast of the Pheasant. Held in Lille on February 17, 1454, at the direction of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy to generate enthusiasm for his projected crusade, the Feast of the Pheasant is recounted in considerable detail in two French chronicles. One of the authors, Olivier de la Marche, was a planner and performer in the Feast of the Pheasant; the other, Mathieu d'Escouchy, was at most a guest. The two authors express preferences for different entremets but agree on the general semantic range of the term.

According to these two accounts, the three main tables at the Feast of the Pheasant were decorated with at least fifteen objects in the form of fountains, automata, salt-cellars, and statues, all of which are called entremets. In addition, the Feast of the Pheasant featured a number of musical and theatrical performances by both the noble guests and paid professionals, which are also called entremets. While some of these performances play with the notion of facture and many employ made objects in their costuming or props, they would today be characterized as performing rather than visual arts. Finally, while the surviving accounts are generally reticent about the nature of the dishes served, at least one manuscript of d'Escouchy's text mentions a combination of entremets with roasts, both of which are decorated with the coat of arms of the hosts. It would not be impossible for entremets here to refer to foodstuffs separate from the roast meat, although its precise composition is difficult to guess. Numerous other contemporary chronicles use the term to designate edible items.

The evidence of cookbooks, like the evidence of chronicles, suggests a remarkable ability to switch easily between materials and media. Among the earliest and most influential of these late medieval cookbooks was the Viandier attributed to Guillaume Tirel, called Taillevent. Taillevent served the French royal court from the 1320s until his death in 1395. Beginning as a chef under Jeanne d'Evreux, he was the head of the royal kitchens for both Charles V and Charles VI. The Viandier is among the earliest and most influential recipe collections of the late Middle Ages. While there is now some doubt as to Taillevent's involvement in its production, the fact that the Viandier is attributed to him suggests the esteem in which both he and the French royal kitchens were held, and the type of elaborate cuisine connected with them.

Entremets are included as a distinct category within Viandier manuscripts from at least the fourteenth century, with additional examples appended to later copies. The core recipes grouped under the heading entremets are edible, although they often appeal to the eye and imagination as well as the palate. A simple recipe for millet directs that it to be cooked in milk, colored with saffron, and placed in a bowl. An entremet recipe for lamprey directs that the meat be roasted, then covered in a thick sauce made from combining its blood with spices and vinegar. This sauce is referred to as "mud," suggesting both its probable appearance and the possibility that the dish visually simulates the living lamprey's tendency to burrow into river bottoms. Similarly, the entremet known as cigne revestu, in which a cooked swan is redressed in its skin and feathers, breaches the boundary between living and dead animal.

Additional recipes for entremets were included in a copy of the Viandier from the first half of the fifteenth century. Doreures is an "entremets for a feast day or for a princely banquet on the three meat-days of the week, namely, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday." Its consumable elements are similar to those in other recipes: poultry is stuffed with a mixture of pork, bacon, eggs, spices, pine-nut paste, and currants, then roasted; the leftover stuffing is made into balls and also roasted. The name doreures may refer to this stage (dorer refers today to browning meat). Or it may indicate the visual effect created in the final stage, when the cooked meat is covered in gold and silver leaf (dorer also refers to gilding, while doré can mean golden or gilded). As in contemporary painting manuals, the recommended adhesive is egg-based, the gold of the celebratory doreures thus being linked on several levels to the illumination given to the names of feast days in the calendars of the most luxurious books of hours. If the earlier entremets delighted the diner by eliding the difference between the living and the cooked, doreures instead are named for the techniques that transforms ingredients into a luxurious dish that is if anything hyperprocessed, the sheen given to cooked meat through glazing pushed into the realm of nearly supernatural reflectivity in the coating of metallic gold or silver.

Many of the fifteenth-century additions to the Viandier are even more visually startling. In the recipe for coqz heaumez, a stuffed roasted hen or cock is seated atop a piglet and given a "helmet of glued paper and a lance couched at the breast of the bird, and these should be covered with gold-or silver-leaf for lords, or with white, red, or green tinleaf." Coqz heaumez is edible, but it also communicates through sight. The strange vignette of the knighted chicken with its porcine steed draws on traditional themes such as the animal jousts common to manuscript marginalia and the animate foodstuffs of Cockaigne, although it does not precisely imitate any single model. As in those topsy-turvy worlds, this entremet exploits its liminal position in order to humorously interrogate societal norms. While late medieval medical advice considered poultry more appropriate for aristocrats than for workmen due to its connection to air, chicken was consumed by people at all social levels and lacked the elite status of the swan in cigne revestu. Similarly, coqz heaumeuz's postroast manipulation, although imitating knights, does not impart the glittering elegance of doreures. Rather, it recalls other appearances of "noble" poultry such as the chivalric cock Chanticleer who appears in both Le Roman de Renart and Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale." Chanticleer's noble pretensions endanger him when a fox flatters him like a courtier, and he eventually escapes not by bravely facing his foe but by running away. Similarly, coqz heaumez gently mocks aristocratic male pride when the roasted chicken assumes the trappings of tournament. In addition to casting doubt on the martial prowess of noblemen, it significantly registers and so paradoxically mocks the use of dress to create social differentiation by aligning the various colored helms and lances to the status of their audience. In eating the chicken knight, the diner was placed in a curious position of both obliterating the potentially troubling satire through division and mastication and incorporating its ambiguous humor into his or her body.

Other recipes in the Viandier elevate sight and performance even further above taste. Four entremets grouped under the heading Entremetz de paintrerie, or painted entremets, may not to be meant to be eaten at all; their definition of painting, moreover, is much broader than the limited modern "two-dimensional coloring of a support." Two of the four entremets de paintrerie depict chivalric subjects. To portray the popular story of the Swan Knight, the cook is directed to construct a wooden box with wheels in which is placed a water-filled lead coffer holding a minever-covered parchment boat and a swan tied together with a golden chain (it is not specified whether this is a cigne revestu or a sculpture). A cloth painted to represent water is then attached to hide men underneath, presumably to move the box around the room. This multimedia construction combining metalwork, carpentry, sculpture, possibly cooking, and stagehands employs painting in the modern sense only to depict the false water. The term painting in relation to entremets appears to cover the entire semantic range of constructing nonedible spectacle rather than simply the medium of painting as it is understood today.

The interchangeability of materials and construction methods within entremets de paintrerie is even more evident in the description of one of the two examples depicting religious subjects. The recipe for the entremet labeled Saincte Marthe is both to the point and bewilderingly vague:

To make the ymage of Saint Martha. One ought to make the ymage of Saint Martha with the dragon at full length next to her and, around the neck of the dragon, a gold chain by which the saint will hold it as though she had conquered it. This personnage can be done by two people or by painted work of whatever height and size as one wishes.

The basic iconography of this entremet is clear: in keeping with an apocryphal story included in the widely circulated Golden Legend, St. Martha is shown having tamed a dragon. In almost every other respect, however, the facture of this entremet is left to the cook's own devices. The visual spectacle produced by the entremet is twice called an ymage, a term that can be translated equally well as "image" or "sculpture." In the third sentence, however, it is called a personnage, which might be a character, an actor, or a depicted figure.

The shifting descriptor signals the most startling substitution of the passage for a modern reader, as the recipe offhandedly suggests that St. Martha and the dragon could be played by two actors or by "painted work" (ouvrage de paintrerie) as the cook desires. As the Swan Knight entremet has already shown, the term paintrerie had a very wide semantic range. The possibility of using "painted work" therefore allows for substantial variation not only in scale but also in medium. The entremet of St. Martha thus steps blithely over numerous modern boundaries. In a manner typical of feasting, it incorporates sacred iconography without comment into what might now be considered a secular event. And at the level of production, it proposes a complete interchangeability between theater, painting, and sculpture.

The seemingly transgressive nature of entremets' mixture of performances, objects, and cuisine into a single category has long troubled scholars of medieval dining. Faced with such a capacious term, historians divide entremets into subcategories more closely aligned with modern preconceptions. Agathe Lafortune-Martel, for example, argues in a study of fifteenth-century menus that aristocratic politics drove a steady movement "away from the table" of edible entremets and toward the "figuration" of statuary and performances. Yet as the evidence from both the Viandier and the accounts of the Feast of the Pheasant suggest, food and figuration are not necessarily separate from each other, nor is either solely available at or away from the table. Furthermore, the variety of possibilities within figuration requires a serious reconsideration of modern preconceptions concerning the division of the arts. Whenever scholars have attempted to mold the idea of the entremet to current expectations, it has repeatedly refused to realign neatly to fit their arguments. This recalcitrance suggests just how robust the category of the entremet truly was and how understanding its workings can reveal crucially different aspects of the late medieval approach to producing pleasure.

Faced with entremets' complexity, the food historian Bruno Laurioux in the end looks to social function to explain the category. Declaring that the entremet's "sole function is quite simply to be a 'plus,' a gift, a supplementary dish destined to honor whomever it is served to," he suggests that food and spectacle could both show respect for the recipient and thus are properly considered entremets. This open definition more accurately captures the rich complexity of late medieval practice. The idea of the entremet as a supplement points to its parergonal character as an addition that in fact constitutes the meaning of its supposed base. While the entremet may seem incidental if banqueting is seen as only a series of foods, it is in fact fundamental to the purpose of feasting. As Master Chiquart, chef to Duke Amadeus of Savoy, noted, for any feast all of a cook's labor and all of his ingredients are mobilized to "do the banquet honourably and to honour the lord who gives it." Particularly well suited to casting such glory, the entremet is indeed the most effective element of the feast as a vehicle for conferring honor.

Regardless of how the wide combination of elements in and expectations for the entremet originally came together or the trouble they cause modern sensibilities, by the end of the fourteenth century this rich category was firmly established. While entremets surface frequently in both cookbooks and descriptions of feasting, there is no medieval debate over their nature comparable to that found in contemporary scholarship. Nor do late medieval sources allow the various forms called entremet to be dismissed as a case of distinct conceptual categories that simply happen to be verbal synonyms. The mingling of food, performance, and object within the term entremet is reflected in many entremets themselves: a food might be presented in an elaborate vessel with the ruler's coat of arms; musicians could play while standing in a giant pie; automata were statues in motion; a performer could be frozen in a tableau vivant.


Excerpted from A Feast for the Eyes by Christina Normore. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Setting the Table
Chapter 1: Between the Dishes
Chapter 2: Spectator-Spectacle
Chapter 3: Efficacy and Hypocrisy
Chapter 4: Dining Well
Chapter 5: Stranger at the Table
Chapter 6: Wedding Reception

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