- Political Appetites: Food in Medieval English Romance by Aaron Hostetter
Political Appetites opens with a thought-provoking appraisal of the entanglement of human food production with politics, culture, and the environment over the long historical durée. Aaron Hofstetter artfully descends from this discerning overview and closes in on the politics of eating as the point of entry for this study, declaring that 'food choice is always a political act' (p. 7), the political being 'any action made by humans that influences other humans' (p. 7). Literature affords opportunities for critiquing social order, and the extraordinary diversity of the romances produced in medieval England provides a genre par excellence for such ideological exploration. Bringing the political potential of food choice and literary production together, Hofstetter examines 'the ways in which scenes of cooking and consumption dramatize political and economic tensions in aristocratic culture, anxieties that expose the ideological roots of these elaborate literary productions' (p. 14).
Power is framed as a form of appetite, so that literary eating becomes redolent with critical potential, as in the case of Richard Cœur de Lion's anthropophagy, where 'the imperialist Western European ambitions of the Crusades are evinced by the king's anthropophagic desires, his craving for political power glutted directly by human carnage' (p. 25). By contrast, the cannibalism of the Mermedonians in the Old English Andreas ('a hagiographic romance', p. 34) leaves them marooned within temporal and spiritual contradictions; 'gluttony for power stands in the way of cultural togetherness' (p. 65). In the Roman de Silence, cooking's mediation between nature and nurture is queered. Nature bakes humans rather than forging them, shifting the power of creation from generation to gestation, producing 'bodies of humans [that] are merely stamped in the bakeshop with so-called "natural" gender distinctions' (p. 82). Such binaries are 'surface distinctions, vulnerable to Noureture's manipulation' (p. 82). The cooking of the cross-dressing Silence returns diners to their natural states, revealing human essences through combining substances, and Merlin's results in the emetic disclosure of formerly concealed truths. The meals that nurture the hero of Havelok the Dane during his ascendance to sovereignty attest to his fundamental role in producing a cohesive society. The harmonious relationship between ruler and subjects is signalled by the vanquishing of his hunger as they satisfy each other's needs, literal and symbolic, but this equation does not completely resolve the troubling issues opened up through Havelok's forays into the world of the poor. In Sir Gowther, which 'operates as an inverted sort of conduct poem' (p. 141), Gowther's penitential and animalistic mode of consumption exposes the maintenance of privilege and power implicit in the disciplined bodies of the noble diners, drawing attention to 'a viciousness that perpetuates the realm of refined behavior' (p. 165) with particular starkness. Applying the spirit of Brillat-Savarin, Hofstetter argues that eating [End Page 218] well in all of the texts is an indicator of a fully realized humanity that authorizes political agency.
Political Appetites amply demonstrates the rich significance of 'the powerful and provocative imagery of the edible' (p. 17) in medieval romance. Its predominantly Marxist line of inquiry results in rewarding readings of these specific romances as well as scope for deeper reflection on this genre more generally in medieval England. For readers explicitly interested in the treatment of food, Hofstetter's exuberant embrace of food metaphors, which deliberately conflate language with appetite and eating, warrants further comment. The joyous references to literary stews and savours tend to disembody the processes they refer to and privilege language in this equation. Romance is thus a 'hungry genre' (p. 13), while literal hunger 'is fundamentally the product of political economy' (p. 145); there seems an impatience in these formulations with the banality of the physical experience of hunger. For Hofstetter, food endures as a powerful theme in romance because it 'reminds us of the circumstances of our basic condition in the material world: our dependence on...