Speaker: Chloe Fairbanks (University of Oxford)

In early modern England a person’s characteristics were believed to be directly related to their diet. Galenic thinking drew clear connections between character and environment, making identity directly dependent upon what one consumed – and where it came from.  To be English was to consume food and drink produced within England. Yet although food was considered an authentic marker of national identity, many foods commonly associated with the English were of not of national provenance but were in fact flagrant imports. Consider those consumed by Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who criticism has traditionally regarded as having ‘special access to something deeply and immemorially English’.Falstaff may be English, but his stomach is anything but. Throughout and 2 Henry IV he pursues a distinctly Continental diet of sack, capons, anchovies, and butter, while the former underpins his attempted cuckoldry in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff is thus rendered a stranger not just by how much he consumes, but by what he consumes. This paper therefore challenges the critical perception of Falstaff as quintessentially English, arguing that his diet renders him more foreign than native and highlighting food’s role in tensions around the definition of national identity in the period. In doing so, it reconsiders what it means to have ‘the stomach of an Englishman’ and to what extent that stomach defined – and continues to define – its possessor.

IHR Seminar Series: Food History