Eating Together in the 16th and 17th Centuries: Early Modern Commensality

by Anna Fielding, Postgraduate Researcher, Manchester Metropolitan University and the National Trust

When I describe to people what my PhD is about, I often start by saying it is on ‘olden day dinner parties’. This is not far from the truth. In reality, my work looks at gentry commensality in Lancashire and Cheshire between the start of the Reformation in England to just after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne. Knowing the context and changes in the decades between the 1530s and 1660s, the picture becomes a lot more complex. My research therefore is not solely concerned with what people ate during this period, though this is fascinating in and of itself, but the spaces and society such meals took place within. Sources such as household accounts, diaries, surviving menus, inventories, correspondence and surviving archaeological finds allow me to build up the layers of commensal gatherings in the north west region during the early modern period. These are further supported by published works on dietary regimens, the body, domestic piety, recipe collections, and also the wealth of surviving early modern material culture and properties in Lancashire and Cheshire. Three such properties are Little Moreton Hall near Congleton in Cheshire, Speke Hall near Liverpool, and Rufford Old Hall between Southport and Chorley in Lancashire. All three of these properties are owned and interpreted by the National Trust. I am very lucky to have been the recipient of a collaborative doctoral award from MMU and the National Trust and so work in partnership with the Trust to provide in depth research into the Moreton, Norris, and Hesketh families who lived in the three halls around 500-350 years ago. My PhD includes not just research into early modern commensality but also insights into how such research can be used in public history and heritage presentations.

The great hall at Little Moreton with surviving dinner table (courtesy of NT Images)

Food and the sharing of it with others is a prism through which I explore what was happening to gentry families centuries ago and allows a way into a society where religion, politics, manners, gender, and medical understandings of the body and the emotions were very present around communal tables. These sat alongside the complex dishes of the 16th and 17th centuries. When a family member or invited guest sat down to eat in early modern homes there were a myriad of elements to consider, process, and manage. Different food represented different things to Catholics and Protestants, on a theoretical or theological level at least; tableware contained various depictions of Biblical scenes, text from the Bible, or warnings about the dangerous seductions of earthly pleasures; decorative schemes were designed to convey certain messages or even evoke particular emotions, whether these were about piety and dietary moderation or relaxed feelings promoted by the calming greens of great hall fabrics and soft furnishings. In all these elements were the perceived dangers of conversion attempts, the relaxing of morals and religions or political convictions, and the bodily and mental threats of corruption or manipulating influences through the senses, food and drink consumed, or the surrounding intoxicating atmospheres of commensality. Yet, all these aspects of early modern commensality were also designed to smooth over difference around the table and foster a close connection between members of the north west gentry through reciprocal cycles of hospitality, gifts and entertainments.

The table in the great parlour at Little Moreton, used for more intimate meals and sweet banquets (Anna Fielding)
The oak ornamental in the great parlour at Speke, the setting for meals with close family and friends (courtesy of NT images)
Close up of the oak overmantel at Speke, showing William Norris (1501-68) and his two wives. Ellen Bulkeley, shown with rosary, and later Anne Myddleton (courtesy of NT Images);

Dinner occasions were used by all members of the north west gentry to help them adapt to the changes in society throughout the Reformation and the changing fashions of sociability. Catholic families like the Norrises of Speke and the Heskeths of Rufford used commensality to forge new identities as ideal gentry hosts, providing a scholarly and intellectual ‘salon’-style atmosphere in which to dine and discuss the changing world around them amid musicians, the latest fashions in dining and décor, games, and even plays staged in their dining halls. The hospitality and entertainments they offered guests allowed them to stay relevant and connected despite their Catholic faith. Other families, like the Protestant Moretons of Little Moreton Hall, also used commensality to shift their spheres of influence and improve their social standing by moving beyond the boundaries of Cheshire, taking on board new trends in socialising and hospitality through the travels and experiences of young sons in London and Italy, as well as further afield in the colonial travels of sons and nephews in the East Indies and New World. For the Moretons, this meant being able to build a new profile as a well-connected and well-informed gentry family which other members of the county elite wanted to be acquainted with socially. Their international connections saw them adopting new trends in dining, commodities, and modes of hospitality, influenced by colonial and metropolitan developments. Commensality allowed gentry families such as the Moretons, Norrises, and Heskeths to retain importance as key members of the county elite amid the shifting sands of the religious, political and social arena.

The screens passage at Rufford Old Hall, showing the entrances for the kitchens, buttery and pantry from the great hall (Anna Fielding)

The ways in which these families used and thought about commensality illustrate how there is no single way we can categorise early modern dining, no one way we can encapsulate early modern commensality. Instead, commensality was a nexus where religious, political, social, material and sensory contexts met and intersected. This complexity, I believe, makes this area of food and dining relatable for heritage visitors today, allowing for commensality to be viewed from these various perspectives and to shed light of various aspects of people’s lives. We can all recognise the complexity of food today, from the considerations we make and the anxieties we may feel when eating in company, to the new awareness of the precarity of food or of the importance of sharing a meal with friends for our mental health following the disruptions and isolation of the past few years.

The screen in the great hall at Rufford, part of the impressive woodwork in the great hall (Anna Fielding).

As well as a historical thesis on early modern commensality, my work also involves the creation and analysis of content at heritage sites, in the realm of public history. An exhibition and installation at Speke Hall conveys the fears and concerns of Catholics dining at home with Protestant guests while priests are hidden in priest holes or waiting at the table, disguised as servants. These pieces of work also highlight how religion, politics, social networks and landscape all intersected with food production and the workings of the early modern gentry kitchen. Training and future projects at Little Moreton and Rufford will allow both of these properties to engage more deeply with early modern food and its connections with various aspects of early modern lives; with the religious, political and social pressures felt by the north west gentry families who once populated the buildings. So, the study of ‘olden day dinner parties’ is a lot more complex than it initially sounds but it is a rich seam of historical research which can help historians and heritage visitors alike better understand early modern people’s experiences and relate to them across the table and the temporal divide.

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