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Hostetter, Aaron. 2017. Political Appetites: Food in Medieval English Romance. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press. 173 pages. ISBN: 9780814213513.
§1. The first book to address the subject, this monograph takes an interdisciplinary approach grounded in cultural studies, material studies, and critical theory to the uses of food in four medieval romances—the Old English Andreas, the Roman de Silence, Havelok the Dane, and Sir Gowther. As might be expected in a book dealing with the production and consumption of food as a political act, Hostetter's theoretical framework includes foundational thinking by Karl Marx, Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and Georges Bataille. Where historically, studies on medieval food and foodways have focused on questions of what and how people ate, Political Appetites investigates how medieval writers (in this case, of romance) use culinary matters to inform the political imaginary of their stories. By reading through the presentation and narrative functions of food—its cultivation, preparation, service, and consumption—Hostetter contends that we can view the medieval romance as "the most important document conveying the complexity of medieval social awareness, which by generating and promulgating cultural mythologies, simultaneously calls their fundamental rationales into question" (31). This is a provocative claim, seeking to elevate the medieval romance from its traditional position (as popular literature) on the fringes of serious critical inquiry into a more centralized place in ongoing discussions of the ways medieval writers thought and wrote about their political realities. Time and the critical reception of his study will show how successful Hostetter is at encouraging this field change in the reception of romance as a literary genre as serious as it is entertaining. His success in demonstrating the critical usefulness of his interdisciplinary approach to opening new lines of inquiry and interpretation into these stories, however, is immediately visible, and a welcome intervention in the intersection between history and romance recently engaged by scholars like Vance Smith (see Arts of Possession: The Middle English Household Imaginary)—to whom Hostetter self-admittedly owes no small debt in his own thinking.
§2. Hostetter begins with an Introduction that describes the human relationship to the edible world we inhabit and to the act of eating, before continuing to a discussion of the medieval romance genre and its thorny critical past. A presentation of medieval aesthetics as they relate to the appetite, focusing on the emphasis on the senses displayed in descriptions of feasts and in the cookbooks used to prepare them, is followed by examples from Richard, Coer de Lyon and the Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane of how an approach to textual interpretation focused on the foods described highlights the intersections of men's appetites, power, and political imagination in critically productive ways, setting the stage—or, shall we say, the table—for the chapters to follow.
§3. Of the book's four main chapters the first one, "Andreas: Cannibals at the Edge of History," will be most interesting to readers of The Heroic Age. The chapter begins with a discussion of the poem that situates it in its literary position, a position Hostetter analyzes as difficult to define, but which he ultimately resolves as a generic hybrid best described as "hagiographic romance" (34). Hostetter then continues with a brief literature review of the major critical studies on the poem, with specific mention of Heather Blurton's groundbreaking work on the poem's presentation of anthropophagy as being essential to his own reading, in which he "examine[s] the poem's resistance to its own dominant interpretation as Christian triumphalism" (37).1 He continues with a helpful summary of the presentation of cannibalism in Old English literature generally, before turning to his analysis of the striking similarities between the apostle Andreas's mission to convert them, and the Mermedonians' acts of anthropophagy, in terms of their "balancing act between union and disjunction" (40). For Hostetter, the poem's ending thwarts its purported function as a hagiographic tale and exposes the spiritual hollowness and political implications of conversion without dietary change. Andreas is, perhaps, intentionally a failure at his mission; "keeping the Mermedonians hungry—or keeping them cannibals—conveniently displaces the apostle's own violent appetites [...] his bloodthirsty tastes for conversion and conquest elided by their outrageous hunger" so that, Hostetter concludes, "the poem operates at the intersection of food and politics, proposing a potential for a world drawn together by food, yet aware that it is more often torn asunder" (65).
§4. In chapter two. "The Roman de Silence: Crossing Categories." Hostetter reads this romance as a series of cooks—Nature, Silence, herself, and Merlin— whose products perform a variety of socio-political functions, including healing, revealing, restoring, and expelling, functions which ultimately lead him to conclude that the only trustworthy aspect of this poem of category crises lies in its accounts of labor and performance. Chapter three, "Havelok the Dane: Food, Sovereignty, and Social Order" characterizes this romance as operating "on a continuum between deprivation and labor at one end, and superabundance and effortless acquisition at the other" (99), using this continuum to interpret the poem as a sustained reflection on political theory, centered on the role food plays in forming and distinguishing political bodies. After pointing out that typically, it is read as a penitential poem, in the fourth chapter, "Sir Gowther: Table Manners and Aristocratic Identity" Hostetter details how, in its depiction of the various learning experiences of Gowther as he grows from savage, monstrous infant to knight through a series of scenes involving his nurture and feeding, the poem in fact is another political reflection: this time, on the proper knight as good consumer as well as great fighter. Each of these chapters is painstrakingly organized, beginning with an overview of the argument, followed by a brief review of the relevant scholarship, before making an incisive intervention with Hostetter's own interpretation and analysis, amply supplemented by historical and critical context. The structure of the book is clearly an homage to the feast in itself: appetizer, four courses, and the concluding "cheese plate."
§5. In his concluding remarks, engagingly titled "Cheese and Cannibals," Hostetter claims that reading romances through their depictions of food, and reading that food as material object rather than spiritual allegory (the traditional reading of food in medieval literature, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast), reveals romances to be inherently political, meta-texts; he argues that "food does not just make these narratives more real, it renders them more effective in mobilizing their outward ambitions to critique and alter the circumstances of their creation" (171) and follows Jill Mann in the belief that we should not always rely too strongly on allegory to interpret medieval texts.2 This call for greater attention to materiality in medieval romance, and the very real critical lacuna in interdisciplinary research into the food and feasts of medieval literature, have been ignored by scholars for long enough. Therefore, let us join the feast Hostetter so temptingly lays before us. I look forward to the next course.
Published 17–Mar 2021