'Man is a dining animal': the archaeology of the English at table, c.1750-1900


‘Man is a dining animal': the archaeology of the English at table, c.1750-1900

Gray, Marianne

Doctor in Philosophy, University of Liverpool, September (2009)

Abstract

This study investigates the role of gender and, within that, class in changing English dining styles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The period c.1750-1900 has been chosen to cover a major period for dining change, as it is during this time that service à la Russe superseded service à la Française as the dominant formal dining style. This change has been much discussed by food historians and sociologists, but the materiality of change has not hitherto been placed within an archaeologically-informed framework. Equally, while the artefacts of dining are among the most frequently recorded finds in domestic contexts in the historical period, archaeologists have rarely considered them in the context of long-term dining development. Drawing on data from country houses, collections, and published material on middle class and elite settings, this thesis investigates the hypothesis that dining change was driven by women, specifically middle class wives; and that dining-related ephemera must therefore be understood in its relationship with women. It also proposes a narrative of stylistic change using historical archaeological paradigms, introducing the concept of a third, clearly identifiable stage between à la Française and à la Russe. After introducing the data sets and giving a background to dining in the historical period, the first part of the study uses table plans and etiquette, together with depictions of dishes, food moulds and experimental archaeology in the form of historic cookery, to demonstrate the way in which the process of change was driven by middle class women.




It argues that à la Russe suited gender and class-specific needs and that, far from being emulative, as has hitherto been assumed, the adaption of à la Russe broke with aristocratic habits. It proposes that a transitional stage in dining style should be recognised, and interprets food design and serving style in the light of this intermediate phase. The setting of dining is explored next, with data on dining décor, plates and physical location interpreted to support the conclusions of the previous section. Following this, the impact of change on food preparation will be used to demonstrate that à la Russe was the result of changes in underlying mentalities which also affected household structure and organisation. The ways women used the materiality of food, including cookbooks, to negotiate status will be demonstrated. A final section will broaden the discussion of gender, class and food. Tea has been chosen as a case study for the further testing of the conclusions drawn from the study of dinner for two reasons: firstly it was, from its introduction, immediately associated with women; and, secondly, tea-related artefacts are among the commonest of archaeological finds, but are rarely understood as engendered and active objects in a domestic context.

Click here to read this article from the University of Liverpool

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