chapter  7
13 Pages

Edible performance: feasting and festivity in early Tudor entertainment

ByDenise E. Cole

The connection between food and theatrical performance is not unfamiliar to individuals of the twenty-first century. Today, audiences often attend dinner theatres, plays, operas, and other popular entertainments, which serve food during the course of the performance or at least before the show and during intermission. However, during the lavish feasts of the Middle Ages, food did not just accompany a performance; food was a performance exhibited on special occasions when wealthy nobles shared their bounty with strangers, tenants, and guests. Feasting and festivity were inextricably fused in medieval hospitality; the one did not exist without the other. Hospitality was not only an important tradition rooted in Christian tenets of charity and practiced theoretically by every stratum of society; it also gave aristocrats an opportunity for an elaborate and costly display of their power in an age that communicated not only through ocular but also through tactile and gustatory media. The early Tudors, like any European nobility of the late Middle Ages, publicized their magnificence on state occasions and holidays by inviting all classes of their citizenry – as well as foreign ambassadors – to taste, smell, touch, hear, and see wildly excessive amounts of food, drink, and revelry. All five senses were engaged: visitors were immersed in mouthwatering aromas, crammed with succulent meats, and surfeited with free-flowing drink as they were simultaneously delighted by costly disguisings, comic interludes, and soothing music. No boundaries were erected between the kitchen and the tiring house until later in the sixteenth century, when professional actors built separate structures to house their plays. In fact, as will be demonstrated, edible and human performance shared the same theatrical conventions precisely because they were both threads in the complex design of regal hospitality. Although such aristocratic hospitality steadily declined throughout the later decades of the Renaissance, at the time of the early Tudors, it was still an obligation.1 Part of the nobility’s duty was “to entertain” or provide for the needs of guests by supplying them with food, lodging, and sometimes apparel (OED 1989, V).2 The other aspect of “entertainment” was to make sure that such provisions were carried out in an agreeable manner by means of music, singing, interludes, comedies, and masks (the French spelling, “masques,” was not accepted in England until the early

seventeenth century). Unlike the medieval usage of this word, in the twentiethfirst century the most common meaning of “entertain” is “to engage agreeably the attention of (a person); to amuse;” but this definition does not actually enter the English lexicon until 1626, when hospitality was becoming more private and random.3 In fact, W.R. Streitberger has observed that during the early Tudor period, “‘Pastime’ and ‘pleasure’ were the two most general terms used by contemporary writers to describe court entertainments” (Streitberger 1994). These two terms were used rather than the term “entertainment” because the idea that entertainment could mean only a theatrical exhibition entirely separate from feasting had not yet evolved. What is regarded as two distinct events today was one all-encompassing activity during the Renaissance and Middle Ages – all part of aristocratic magnificence, or hospitality, and all sharing the same performance conventions. These shared conventions give convincing evidence that edible and human performance were considered equally theatrical. Scholars such as Allardyce Nicoll have frequently commented on the “intimate connexion between the performance of plays or of masques and the elaborate banquets which have given this age pre-eminence in the art of feasting” (Nicoll 1937), but they fail to appreciate that plays and masks/masques coexisted with feasting in one grand performance event.4 In other words, the feast was really the catalyst for theatrical productions at court. Usually given at the end of a meal, human performance was as much a dessert as edible performances were. Most plays of the twenty-first century engage only our eyes and ears, while the senses of touch, taste, and smell remain neglected. By disregarding three of the five senses, later audiences effectively distanced themselves from theatrical performance. This omission started to overtake the theatrical environment when guests transmogrified into patrons and paid for the revelry that had once been aristocratic largesse. In the Middle Ages, to be “entertained” meant not only hearing and seeing performance but also tasting, touching, and smelling it. Consumption was not only visual but also tactile and gastronomic. An audience member’s involvement was complete and active, not fragmented and passive, because every one of his or her five senses participated in hospitality’s revelry. This sensual entertainment coexisted in the same arena – the great hall, a massive room that was the centerpiece of any noble European household of the medieval and Renaissance periods. Nothing was compartmentalized as it is today; both edible and human performance transpired simultaneously in this space. In fact, some kind of amusing pastime always accompanied even daily meals eaten here. Bridget Henisch and other scholars mention games, songs, dances, stories, and puzzles as a constant element of dinnertime enjoyment. The itinerant minstrel was certainly one of the earliest performers, singing his heroic romances around the tables of the nobility (Wright [1871] 1968). Another later and more elaborate “pleasure” was the medieval “interlude,” which means “played between” (Henisch 1976). Although not completely conclusive, enough clues exist to suggest that many of these short, flexible dramatic debates were indeed “played between” courses of the meal. The title page of Henry Medwell’s Fulgens and Lucres, written about 1497, states that the piece has been “devyded in two partyes to be played at ii. tymes,” presumably between each stage of a banquet (Southern 1973). The dialogue in this script indicates that the audience had just eaten or was in the process of finishing their food (Henisch 1976). Other interludes, like John Skelton’s Magnificence, may have been performed during the meal while guests were busy eating (Nuess 1980).5