In the 16th century, some major changes occurred in Europe that had very interesting effects on food culture. The biggest and most important series of events was the globalization of the economy and the exchange of foods across continents, but in this lecture, you will learn about the other important changes that occurred in the early modern period—starting with the fact that favorable economic times in the wake of the plague triggered Europe’s population to bounce back within a century and a half.
Changes in the Early Modern Period
By 1500, there was once again a serious baby boom in Europe. The effect this had on the economy was that lots of people were scrambling for jobs, and the price of labor (wages) went down. A scarcity of food meant that the cost of living went up because of inflation—some of the most dramatic price surges in history—and, once again, land was at a premium.
Feudalism had pretty much fallen apart, and serfs had become peasants renting land (tenants). If they were lucky enough to have good leases, or if they were freeholders and owned the land themselves, they were in an excellent position because they could supply the growing market with food and reap a good profi t because prices were so high. This led to an industrious class of farmers who were middle-class yeomen and upper-middle gentry
One way to look at the plight of the poor, starving masses might be to consider that for all the wealth that’s accumulating at the upper end of the social scale, someone else is going hungry. Lots of people, low wages, and high prices mean that the diet of the average European becomes dramatically worse, and it becomes glaringly obvious that eating customs come to be increasingly associated with class.
There’s another very important series of events that has a profound effect on eating habits across Europe: the Protestant, Catholic, and Radical Reformations. All of these were very important for understanding attitudes toward food in the modern era.
It did not help that a number of questionable individuals occupied the papal throne, including the fun-loving bon vivant Leo X and the warrior pope Julius II. They may have been great patrons of the arts, but as spiritual leaders, they were considered failures.
Humanist scholars were also concerned that the church had lost sight of the original intentions of Jesus and his followers, which was moral reform, and had instead begun to focus on the hollow rituals and the letter of the law. This rift in the church is essential for understanding the history of food because along with criticism of the dogma and rituals of the church, its food strictures also came under attack.
Starting with Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation was first and foremost an attempt to return to the original doctrines of Paul, which stated that an individual can in no way earn his own salvation. Justification is by “faith alone,” and despite our own failings, grace is given to the worst of sinners if there is true faith.
The greatest effect of the Catholic Reformation on the eating habits of ordinary people was that the periods of fasting were rigorously maintained. Monastic orders flourished in southern Europe, and a slew of new miracle-working saints, some still performing incredible feats of self-denial, suddenly appeared. On the other hand, the church retained its fabulous wealth and high-ranking churchmen, and wealthy monasteries remained significant patrons of the arts and refined cuisine.