George Walford: Food for Nightmares

Sacred and Profane Cannibalism; They Rotted in their Own Dung, The Fickle and Verminous Colony; Putrid Worms and Vile Snails Those are some of the chapter-headings from Camporesi’s Bread of Dreams, [1] not a work for the faint-hearted or weak- stomached. Neither is it a work for the evidence-collector, being impressionistic and uncritical; for Camporesi a source is a source is a source. The Preface (by Roy Porter) speaks of the difficulty of assessing his startling claim that much of the population of early modern Europe was more or less permanently stupefied by drugs (or, as one reviewer had it, “zonked out for centuries”), and this problem, of knowing how far what is said is to be taken literally, pervades the reading. Claiming that in one respect at least Campanella’s City of the Sun is by no means Utopian, Camporesi quotes a statement that the people of this city “know a secret, marvellous art by which they can renew their bodies painlessly every seven years” [p. 25]. Are we meant to believe this?

One report tells that during the Thirty Years War inhabitants of Picardy were seen to eat their own hands and arms and “the roads were packed with people” prostrate and dying from hunger [p. 401]. These statements come from quotations given in J. Delumeau’s La Peur en Occident, Paris 1978. No more is said about their origins, although for events so far from normal experience some evaluation of the original source could reasonably have been expected; how many bodies does it take to pack, say, 50 miles of road? And eating their own bodies? Autogestion one has heard of, but auto-ingestion – now there’s a novelty.

Horror is piled upon horror until the effect becomes grotesque, and the absence from the index of Hieronymus Bosch comes as a surprise, for the book is the verbal equivalent of his tangled outrages against humanity. If the early modern poor did live and die like this, then all the fury aimed at the cities of the early manufacturing age has been misdirected. By comparison with the conditions reported here, those described in Engels’ Condition of the Working Class amount to comfort. No mention there of people choosing to die on dung-heaps for the warmth, of roads packed with the prostrate and dying, of people feeding on their own arms, or even of plain, ordinary cannibalism. Camporesi allows us no relief even when he turns to speak of the rich, for they killed themselves with overeating, their diets being “just as deadly as those of the poor” [p. 104].

Practically the whole of the material presented comes from the later Fifteenth Century onwards, most of it from the Seventeenth. The reason seems to be that printing then began to preserve the material, for methods of relieving the sufferings of the poor at minimal expense were “ultramillenial” practices [p. 110]. The violence and revolt reported of the very poor, for example in the sonnets of Baldassare Bonifacio (early 17th Century) were linguistic stereotypes, literary effects and ritual dramatizations that had been handed down from author to author since the Fourteenth Century [p. 35]. Does the same hold for the shock-horror reports of their sufferings? We are not told, but if the author is trying to convince us of the factual truth of these reports he needed to tell us. If half of what he reports is factually true, then the improvement wrought by industrialisation in the condition of the European poor is greater than anybody had thought. But one is left with the suspicion that this book says less about the condition of the poor than about the willingness of journalists, in whatever century, to cater to their readers’ taste for drama.

[1] Camporesi P. 1989 Bread of Dreams; food and fantasy in early
modern
Europe. Oxford: Polity Press

from Ideological Commentary 42, November 1989.