In 1454, Philip the Good, third Duke of Burgundy, held a court banquet in Lille of unparalleled opulence known as the Feast of the Pheasant. Tables were crowded not only with food but also with fountains, statues, moving boats and other fantastical objects. Guests and professional performers provided musical and theatrical events and, at the climax of the feast, an elephant bearing a Saracen heralded a masque on the theme of the Holy Church.
In her intriguing book on late-medieval banquets, the art historian Christina Normore uses this feast as a recurring point of reference in a catalogue of feasts, mostly historical events held in Burgundy in the 14th and 15th centuries. Reading the feasts and their visual representations semiotically as texts that encode social, political and cultural meanings, Normore gives us a rich diet of Burgundian court practice.
The main theme of the book is the interpretation of banquets as a kind of performance art. With their lavish entremets, masques and marvels fashioned by cooks, craftsmen and dramaturges and featuring all manner of ingenious stage props, illusions and automations, the banquets construct a complex relationship between spectacle and spectators. The roast hen wearing a miniature knight’s helmet of gold leaf and sitting astride a baked piglet may allude to fabled animals such as Chaucer’s Chanticleer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, but it can also be read as a playful satire on chivalric pretension. Unlike modern theatre, the dinner guests were expected to interact with players or objects in performed scenarios or even to take on costumed roles themselves, collapsing the boundary between audience and event.
Occasionally the spectacle overwhelmed the spectators. At a wedding feast attended by the French king Charles VI in 1393, the aristocratic audience was entertained by a group of noblemen, dressed in “wild man” costumes of flax and tar, who rampaged madly around the hall in a mocking imitation of unbridled sexuality. As Jean Froissart recorded in his Chroniques, the proximity of flaming torches to the performers turned the entertainment into a tragedy: four men burned to death before the horrified eyes of the audience.
Normore makes a persuasive case for the educational function of court banquets as part of the miroir tradition of leadership training for the nobility. Referring to ethical and religious norms that were communicated to the upper levels of society through the reception of Aristotelian texts and Christian preaching, she identifies the vices and virtues that are foregrounded in visual representations of feasts. Temperance, a key virtue of princely manuals such as the 13th-century Somme le roi, is often illustrated with images of dining where food and wine are measured out in careful portions. Gluttony, on the other hand, is depicted (in one of the Somme manuscripts) as a greedy diner with a stream of blue vomit erupting from his mouth while his hand reaches out greedily for more food, a striking precursor of Monty Python’s Mr Creosote.
Another significant aspect of feasting, both as phenomenon and as representation, is its political function, providing opportunities for aristocratic display and propaganda. Describing the entremets of the Holy Church presented during the Feast of the Pheasant, Normore explains the power of this allegorical performance to transform its spectators into participants by persuading them to sign up to the crusade initiated by the host, Philip the Good. The Christmas feasts held in Paris in 1420 by Charles VI of France and his son-in-law Henry V were interpreted by contemporary writers as signifiers of their relative political standing at that time: while Charles quietly entertained minor nobility in the small palace of Saint-Pol, Henry V, newly married to Catherine of Valois, held a glittering feast in the Louvre surrounded by a retinue of high-status guests and the best of everything.
Capturing the glamour and excess of medieval feasting, Normore draws on evidence from historical chronicles, literary texts and, above all, visual images, engaging us as spectators of historical events and participants in their textual deconstruction. A selection of black and white images illustrates the many connections between feasting, emotion and art. Sometimes overwritten but never dull, A Feast for the Eyes makes an original contribution to the growing number of cultural histories of food and its consumption.
Helen Fulton is professor of medieval literature, University of Bristol.
A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet
By Christina Normore
University of Chicago Press 272pp, £38.50
ISBN 9780226242200 and 2347 (e-book)
Published 8 June 2015