Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Manuscripts and Books

Slaving Over a Hot Medieval Stove

If cooking for a crowd seems like hard work today, imagine what it must have been like in the Middle Ages, before the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, or take-out. Two illuminations from a psalter (book of Psalms) offer a humorous glimpse into the medieval domestic kitchen some 800 years ago.

Baking Bread / Unknown illuminator, Belgium

Baking Bread (detail) in a psalter by an unknown illuminator, Belgium, mid-1200s. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, each leaf 9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 8v

Here we see bread-making as a never-ending struggle between cook and dough. At left, an apprentice is up to his forearms in a vast trough of goo; at right, a baker plunges her peel into the forge, worriedly eyeing the flames licking at her forehead.

A Man Warming by the Fire (detail) in a psalter by an unknown illuminator, Belgium, mid-1200s. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, each leaf 9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 3

This illumination offers a glimpse of the fruits of such labor. Nestled below hanging sausages and a partially eaten ham, a warmly dressed man presides over a veritable feast, with various foodstuffs and eating implements littering the table. With his right hand, he reaches for a large joint of meat, while his left is occupied holding his foot up to a fire—the best of both worlds! In the foreground, a harried-looking serving boy rushes up to refill a pitcher from a barrel. I picture rowdy guests yelling after him for more booze, much like calling for another beer while watching Thanksgiving-day football.

Other pages of this same manuscript feature more wonderful pictures of food-related labor: scything grass for hay, gathering acorns to feed hogs, pruning fruit trees, lugging bags of grapes.

Food is work, and we give thanks to all those who grow, bake, cook, and serve it. Happy Thanksgiving!

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      From you have I been absent in the spring,
      When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
      Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
      That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
      Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
      Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
      Could make me any summer’s story tell,
      Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
      Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
      Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
      They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
      Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
      Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
      As with your shadow I with these did play.

      —William Shakespeare, born April 23, 1564

      Vase of Flowers (detail), 1722, Jan van Huysum. The J. Paul Getty Museum

      04/23/14

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