In 1616, Church of England clergyman Richard Bernard, then a preacher in Somerset, published a devotional handbook which aimed to help readers lead a pious life. Food emerged as a central concern in this task. Bernard advised how to eat in a godly manner and adopted an extended analogy between bodily and spiritual food which encouraged that eating be experienced as an expression of Protestant piety. Bernard’s A Weekes Worke, and a Worke for Every Weeke, as it was entitled, has received little scholarly attention, but the tract is useful in drawing our attention to the connections between food and religion in the early modern period and beyond.
Bernard opens the treatise, in his dedication to Elizabeth Barkley and Lady Anne Horner, by condemning the decisions made by several Biblical characters, many of which involved food. First and most notably, Eve fell from Paradise by eating the forbidden fruit. Esau sold his birthright for some pottage, and the Israelites preferred “garlicke, and onyons, and to sit by the flesh-pots of Egypt” over God’s heavenly manna (A3v–A4r). Bernard uses these examples of illicit food practices to make a broader point about the need to avoid overindulgence in worldly and bodily experiences, especially over superior spiritual exercises. The laity, he argues, likewise often “esteeme more of pleasure, then of peace with God,” and prefer “worldly goods” to “heauenly graces” (A4v). Godly behavior, by contrast, involves fasting and praying to God based on the Biblical example of Anna, an elderly widow described in the Bible as a prophet who was so devout that she never left the temple (see Luke 2:36–38).
Rather than condemning the act of eating entirely, however, Bernard’s tract offers advice regarding how to frame daily routines as pious acts. Before eating, he argues, we must first remember “that as thy body stands in need of food, so doth thy soule” with the implication that spiritual food is the Word of God (69). Each material aspect of the feast should inspire internal piety: “Let the house in which thou art, put thee in remembrance of Gods Church,” he argues, or “the furnishing of the Table” inspire contemplation of “the variety with plentie of all things” given by Christ (74). Likewise, food itself inspires meditation on religious concerns, for instance “the drinke and wine” reminds us “of the water of life, and blood of Christ” (75). Finally, as was common in early modern England, a table grace said over the meal “giveth thankes” to God for his provisions (78).
Bernard’s treatise alludes to the significance of food in sixteenth-century Protestant theology. It was at once a gift from God that sustains life and a dangerous material distraction from spiritual concerns. As ethnographers have long recognized, eating is also a social activity that expresses and solidifies group identities through codes of behavior. Bernard’s A Weekes Work is just one example of the devotional domestic treatises that were printed in increasing numbers in the years following the reinstatement of Protestantism in England under Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1558–1603). These treatises sought to create a “genuine church” within the household by defining pious behaviors, which were distinct from Catholicism. Scholars of food can therefore turn to both food and real-world eating practices to better understand religious identities, like the Protestantism of Reformation England.
Historians of the early modern period increasingly recognize that food is a significant feature of “lived religion,” or the everyday ways by which religious faith was expressed and experienced. Two recent studies on this theme are of particular note. In “The Foote Sisters’ Compleat Housewife: Cookery Texts as a Source of Lived Religion,” Lauren F. Winner focuses on a copy of Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (first published in 1727), which was owned by an elite Anglican family in Virginia. Winner shows how the Foote Sisters used the recipes in the book to enact their religion, for example through serving Lenten food. More recently, through the three case studies of Castille, Zurich, and Shetland, Christopher Kissane has argued that we must think with food to understand the religious upheavals of the early modern period. Finally, Daniel Sack’s Whitebread Protestants (2001) shows the potential of the topic more broadly by addressing food and Protestantism in the contemporary white middle-class United States. More specifically, he comments upon the theological meanings and material culture of the Communion, the importance of charitable food-giving, and the social aspects of church commensality, such as potlucks and coffee hours.
Much more can be said about how food has played into myriad religious identities and experiences, not just in Europe and Christianity, but across time and space. As a fundamental feature of life, food is a necessary consideration in religious worldviews. Cultural food studies must not ignore the centrality of religious belief to the ways that ordinary people place and have placed meaning in food and eating practices. As this research inquiry gains more momentum, instructional religious works like Bernard’s will prove fruitful starting points from which to explore food and faith.
Eleanor Barnett is an AHRC-funded PhD student at Christ’s College, Cambridge. She completed undergraduate studies at the University of Warwick in 2015 and an MPhil in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge in 2016. Her thesis, supervised by Professor Craig Muldrew and Professor Ulinka Rublack, looks at the relationship between food and religion in the European Reformations, through the case studies of Protestant England and Catholic Italy, c. 1560–c. 1640. Eleanor is co-founder of the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group.