Gifting food in Early Modern England vs Present day
Missed an anniversary? No idea what to get someone for Christmas? Need to make up with a friend? What to do? Simple answer- food! Giving food as a gift has long been a tradition for any occasion. It is either a gift from the heart or can be quick easy option to make someone happy in a rush to find a gift. The meaning behind gifting food has come to hold a far different meaning than it did in the early modern period. This leaves us with the question of has the meaning of gifting changed diachronically? By looking at the importance of gifting food in the Early Modern period, we can compare whether our meanings behind gifting food is still as significant to our society.
Try to cast your minds back to the 16th and 17th century. Life is far different from our own and food is, in some households, meticulously recorded in Account books. In these account books, gift giving appears to be centered around seasons, particularly during New Year, where a rise of gifts are recorded.
This is not unlike our own society at Christmas, but intentions behind the food are not the same. Today we gift and receive to families and friends, in the Early Modern period the biggest group of gift givers are marked as unidentified and must be, according to Felicity Heal, assumed to be tenants. A large number of gifts from the ‘unidentified’ are recorded as capons and peahens items that would be gifted as part of the custom of providing ‘boon’ hens, used to show they expected entertainment in return. Today, we do not give gifts with the expectation of receiving something in return, rather to show our gratitude, which we are grateful for if reciprocated.
|Figure 1- Fruit Basket|
Throughout the year there are entries of other food types ranging from meats of high-status members of society to fruits from poorer tenants. The differing in food groups is due to societal labelling and seasonality, two things we do not see in a modern society. Two main labels that gifts were separated in to were ‘dietary’ and ‘hierarchy’.
|Figure 2- Deer Meat Cuts|
Taking venison and capons as the example, we can look at how they are broken down due to an emphasis on what was acceptable to eat in accordance to one’s status and humour. Capons were a common gift from tenants to higher status land-owners and were an example of one of the more nutritional birds, whilst venison, also one of the healthier examples of meat, was gifted from one higher status member to another.  Both foods meet the dietary requirements; it is the accessibility of the meats separates them by class.
In comparison, chocolate is a highly gifted item in a modern society that is seen to go against health recommendations and can be gifted across all classes. Whilst certainly less defined than in the early modern period, for the purposes of comparison we will assume that there is still somewhat a visible class system determined by wealth. Gifting chocolate does not reinforce a hierarchy as it is accessible to all, whilst venison does as only members of higher status in the hierarchy can obtain and gift it to those of equal status. In gifting chocolate within a modern society we see a focus on convenience rather than the symbolic intention of gifting in the early modern period.
Origins of gifting come from the hunter gatherer society, where the animal would have distributed; the highest quality section of meat would go to the hunter then as more is given out on a first come first serve basis the portions decrease in quality. By the early modern period and definitely by today there is no longer a hunter gatherer society there is instead a consumer society. It is the growth of the consumer society today that has led to the removal of seasonality in the modern period. Better methods of preservation at the end of the 17th century allowed for easier commercialisation of food items but it did not affect the seasonality of when it was possible to gift them.
Fruits, like berries, would only have been available in the summer months, whereas now they are available year-round. Removing seasonality also removes the foods significance as there is no anticipation to receive it. You can still gift a readily available food item but it holds less meaning. Why? Because without seasonality fruits lose their excitement that was built up waiting for them to be in season. The same can be said for sugars and spices which were originally was only available to high classes is now available to all. There is no longer seasonality of food thanks to both consumerism and shops holding items all year round, in contrast you would have to wait for certain foods in the early modern period. Consumerism today has taken away some significance of gifting certain foods.
|Figure 3- Chocolate|
giving has changed a lot since the 1500’s evolving alongside society with
tastes in gifts changing with trends and availability of new technology. The
one staple gift is food even though this has also changed to fit society its
basis is still the same. Food is universal and essential to life, it can be
used as a last-minute gift or one carefully thought about and lovingly homemade
for someone. Some of the meaning behind gifting food has changed, as does
everything in society, but I do not think you can say the significance has.
Whether it’s a thought through gift or mass-produced item the sentiment behind
it and in receiving it stays the same. Today you may prefer to receive
chocolate over venison and chocolate is easier to come by then going hunting
but both items held the same significance in their own time period. It is safe
to say that although the meaning behind gifting food has altered there is no
alteration in the importance of receiving it or motives of giving.
Berking, Helmuth, Sociology of giving, (Nottingham Trent, 1999), trans. by Patrick Camiller
Heal, Felicity, ‘Food Gifts, the Household and the politics of Exchange in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, No. 199, (May, 2008)
Heal, Felicity, The Power of Gifts, Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England, (New York, 2004)
Thirsk, Joan, Food in Early Modern England, Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760, (Kings Lynn, 2007)
Figure 1- https://www.fromyouflowers.com/products/deluxe_fruit_basket.htm
Figure 2- https://www.chartfarm.com/venison/
Figure 3- https://www.friars.co.uk/chocolate-c1/chocolate-bars-c5/lindt-gold-milk-chocolate-bar-p504
 Felicity Heal, ‘Food Gifts, the Household and the politics of Exchange in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, No. 199, (May, 2008), p. 49
 Ibid p. 49
 Ibid p. 50
 Felicity Heal, The Power of Gifts, Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England, (New York, 2004), p. 36
 Felicity Heal, ‘Food Gifts, the Household and the politics of Exchange in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, No. 199, (May, 2008), p. 57
 Ibid p. 57
 Helmuth Berking, Sociology of giving, (Nottingham Trent, 1999), trans. by Patrick Camiller, p. 65
 Joan Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England, Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760, (Kings Lynn, 2007), p. 133