Reviewed by Claire Sponsler
University of Iowa
In February of 1454 in the city of Lille, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, sponsored a banquet whose purpose was to promote a crusade against the Turks who in the previous year had captured Constantinople. Although the propaganda effort failed (the crusade was never undertaken), the banquet itself made quite an impression, as well it might, given that it featured among other entertainments an actor dressed in white satin to represent the Church of Constantinople, entering the hall on an elephant led by a giant Saracen; twenty-four musicians who played their instruments inside a gargantuan pie; and marvelous automata that included a tiger battling a serpent in a desert landscape and a boy riding a golden-horned stag, the two singing a duet as they circled the tables set up for the banqueters. The Feast of the Pheasant, as this astonishing event came to be called, made it into the historical record in unusually detailed form, most notably in the Memoirs of Olivier de la Marche and the Chroniques of Mathieu d'Escouchy, and while it is not the only banquet discussed by Christina Normore, it serves as a running example of the complexities of feasting in late medieval culture--her topic in this multilayered and ambitious book.
It might initially seem odd that an art historian would choose banquets as an object of study, but that, as Normore stresses, is exactly the point, both for art history and for the cultural history of medieval Europe. By focusing her eye on feasts, Normore demonstrates what the history of art stands to gain by broadening its scope beyond the traditional high arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture in order to take in a form that is usually relegated to the so-called, and lesser, decorative arts. What the cultural history of medieval Europe reaps, even more importantly, is a less anachronistic (because less constrained by modern categories of aesthetic activity and notions of individual talent) and hence more accurate view of the insistently mixed-media and collaborative arts of late medieval and early modern Europe, such as feasting, that drew together politics, ethics, religion, and other spheres of social life under the guise of entertainment.
Because Normore is an art historian, it is no surprise that she approaches her subject matter chiefly through the visual and provides detailed close readings of the objects and representations found in lavish feasts, while also turning to other pictorial sources such as manuscript illuminations to underscore her claims. The generous use of illustrations in the book lets the reader track Normore's analysis and offers a tantalizing glimpse of late medieval banqueting in action.
But this book moves well beyond the analysis of discrete visual objects. Normore signals her ambitions by setting feasting within the larger context of festivity more generally, a move that allows her to examine the wide array of activities that took place at banquets, activities that combined the culinary, visual, and performing arts into one complex whole. More specifically, her aim is to demonstrate that feasting "helped form a culture deeply invested in discernment" (3), and thus aided in the creation of a court culture grounded in the exercise of aesthetic judgments.
After an introductory chapter aptly titled "Setting the Table," which does the work of laying out the general argument and considering the interpretive issues surrounding a study of feasting, Normore begins in the first chapter, "Between the Dishes," by asking what, exactly, an entremet was, charting the term's ambiguity when used by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Francophone authors, for whom the word's semantic range included performances, material objects, and foodstuffs. Normore argues that entremets "complicate the separation between media" and, because their production required the collaboration of many different craftspeople, they complicate the separation between "makers" as well (42). Here as elsewhere, Normore is keenly alert to the difficulties of terminology and definition, to the limits of an approach based on a modern taxonomy of artistic forms, and to the need to read with rather than through the material evidence that survives to tell us about these important cultural occasions.
Echoing her claim that the feast was more than just visual display, she pays attention to the sounds and smells of banqueting, as well as to the impact on those who participated. The next four chapters take up various aspects of the way feasts shaped late medieval elite society, by looking at the relationship between banquets and those who participated in or observed them (chapter two, "Spectator-Spectacle"), the success with which feasts intervened in the political sphere (chapter three, "Efficacy and Hypocrisy"), and the meaning of lavish banquets within the ethically-charged notion of magnificence (chapter four, "Dining Well"). The last of those chapters rejects the tendency of modern scholars to equate magnificence with overabundance and instead considers how feasts could function as places "where virtue could be practiced and learned" or as locations where dining could make visible "key concepts of systematic ethics" within a courtly milieu (104). Chapter five, "Stranger at the Table," turns from politics and ethics to an inquiry into feasting's aesthetic ends, particularly in its use of strange and wondrous displays that provided courtly society with "marvels to think with," as Normore cleverly puts it (138).
Readers hoping for an up-close look at one feast will be grateful for the final chapter, "Wedding Reception." Focusing on a specific example, the first night of banqueting that celebrated the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in 1468, this chapter aims to strike a balance between anthropologically-oriented studies of feasting as a general social practice and historically-grounded analyses of individual banquets. Normore argues that while it is only within the broad context of late medieval marriage and gift exchange that the complex symbolic and sensory nature of the 1468 banquet can be understood, nonetheless "the specific iconographic and sensual program" (165) of this particular event had distinctive meaning for the marriage at hand: the feasting may have gestured toward all marriages, but it spoke directly to Charles and Margaret's. The conclusion to this chapter serves as a kind of last word for the book as a whole: "the creators of the feast, from the planners to the final participants, worked not only with a particular iconographic program but also within a shared understanding of the proper behavior, values, and aesthetic modes of wedding banquets in particular and feasting in general" (191). In a sentence that drives the book's point home, Normore insists that only when the individual and the general are brought together "can we truly begin to appreciate how and why banqueting captured the imaginations and influenced the actions of late medieval men and women" (193).
By pointing to the complex cultural and artistic interactions of the banquets devised for the Burgundian court, A Feast for the Eyes makes a welcome and sophisticated addition to an emerging body of work on the persistent mixing of media that characterized the public culture of late medieval Europe. Returning representational forms and recreational activities that have now been slotted into separate disciplinary niches--art, music, literature, theater, politics, religion, food--to their thoroughly entwined states in late medieval culture, Normore joins a new wave of cutting-edge work in medieval studies. As resolutely as its subject, A Feast for the Eyes escapes scholarly categories and invites the appreciation of a wide range of readers.