Chapter VI: Of The Food And Diet Of The English

The situation of our region, lying near unto the north, doth cause the heat of our stomachs to be of somewhat greater force: therefore our bodies do crave a little more ample nourishment than the inhabitants of the hotter regions are accustomed withal, whose digestive force is not altogether so vehement, because their internal heat is not so strong as ours, which is kept in by the coldness of the air that from time to time (especially in winter) doth environ our bodies.

It is no marvel therefore that our tables are oftentimes more plentifully garnished than those of other nations, and this trade hath continued with us even since the very beginning. For, before the Romans found out and knew the way unto our country, our predecessors fed largely upon flesh and milk, whereof there was great abundance in this isle, because they applied their chief studies unto pasturage and feeding. After this manner also did our Welsh Britons order themselves in their diet so long as they lived of themselves, but after they became to be united and made equal with the English they framed their appetites to live after our manner, so that at this day there is very little difference between us in our diets.

In Scotland likewise they have given themselves (of late years to speak of) unto very ample and large diet, wherein as for some respect nature doth make them equal with us, so otherwise they far exceed us in over much and distemperate gormandise, and so ingross their bodies that divers of them do oft become unapt to any other purpose than to spend their times in large tabling and belly cheer. Against this pampering of their carcasses doth Hector Boethius in his description of the country very sharply inveigh in the first chapter of that treatise. Henry Wardlaw also, bishop of St. Andrews, noting their vehement alteration from competent frugality into excessive gluttony to be brought out of England with James the First (who had been long time prisoner there under the fourth and fifth Henries, and at his return carried divers English gentlemen into his country with him, whom he very honourably preferred there), doth vehemently exclaim against the same in open Parliament holden at Perth, 1433, before the three estates, and so bringeth his purpose to pass in the end, by force of his learned persuasions, that a law was presently made there for the restraint of superfluous diet; amongst other things, baked meats (dishes never before this man's days seen in Scotland) were generally so provided for by virtue of this Act that it was not lawful for any to eat of the same under the degree of a gentleman, and those only but on high and festival days. But, alas, it was soon forgotten!

In old time these north Britons did give themselves universally to great abstinence, and in time of wars their soldiers would often feed but once or twice at the most in two or three days (especially if they held themselves in secret, or could have no issue out of their bogs and marshes, through the presence of the enemy), and in this distress they used to eat a certain kind of confection, whereof so much as a bean would qualify their hunger above common expectation. In woods moreover they lived with herbs and roots, or, if these shifts served not through want of such provision at hand, then used they to creep into the water or said moorish plots up unto the chins, and there remain a long time, only to qualify the heats of their stomachs by violence, which otherwise would have wrought and been ready to oppress them for hunger and want of sustenance. In those days likewise it was taken for a great offence over all to eat either goose, hare, or hen, because of a certain superstitious opinion which they had conceived of those three creatures; howbeit after that the Romans, I say, had once found an entrance into this island it was not long ere open shipwreck was made of this religious observation, so that in process of time so well the north and south Britons as the Romans gave over to make such difference in meats as they had done before.

From thenceforth also unto our days, and even in this season wherein we live, there is no restraint of any meat either for religious sake or public order in England, but it is lawful for every man to feed upon whatsoever he is able to purchase, except it be upon those days whereon eating of flesh is especially forbidden by the laws of the realm, which order is taken only to the end our numbers of cattle may be the better increased and that abundance of fish which the sea yieldeth more generally received. Besides this, there is great consideration had in making this law for the preservation of the navy and maintenance of convenient numbers of seafaring men, both which would otherwise greatly decay if some means were not found whereby they might be increased. But, howsoever this case standeth, white meats, milk, butter, and cheese (which were never so dear as in my time, and wont to be accounted of as one of the chief stays throughout the island) are now reputed as food appertinent only to the inferior sort, whilst such as are more wealthy do feed upon the flesh of all kinds of cattle accustomed to be eaten, all sorts of fish taken upon our coasts and in our fresh rivers, and such diversity of wild and tame fowls as are either bred in our island or brought over unto us from other countries of the main.