The English Peasant’s Example

Matti Thal 1 June 2020
Vincent van Gogh - 'The Potato Eaters'

conflicting advice is readily available from myriad ethical gurus in their cyberspace temples.

 Eating sustainably has been pushed to the forefront of all our minds. Even The Times, never an avant garde newspaper, published a handy guide to help those among its readership who planned on tackling ‘veganuary’, another cruel form of self-flagellation from the same genre of neo-puritans who already gave us ‘dry January’. Increasingly, it is expected that we carefully consider every meal, researching the origins of each morsel, to ensure that we have done our best to limit our impact, reduce our footprint, minimise the damage. The trend can pose many conundrums, and conflicting advice is readily available from myriad ethical gurus in their cyberspace temples. So, to where can the well-meaning individual turn in search of a real prescription? As with almost all modern problems, there is an ancient solution.

To wax lyrical on the charms of wool vests.

The English peasant of the long 14th century surely represents a lifestyle which is wondrously, gloriously – indeed almost exclusively – sustainable. While it is possible to list endlessly the advantages of oak beams, plaster and thatch, to wax lyrical on the charms of wool vests, leather caps and clogs, and to fill volumes with the graces of hamlet, church and communal green, these would be diversions from our task. To reveal what the English peasant can teach us about eating well now, all that is needed is to describe a typical day.

As the cockerel in the yard bleats awkwardly to warn of the rising sun, the noble and honest peasant will likely have already risen and begun the first culinary adventure of the day. In a cast iron pot over the hearth-fire, he can be found stirring his watery porridge, whose sodden oats are driven by the heat and rotation to gradually clump together, much like the planets of the primordial solar system. Soon the steaming gruel is ready. If the bees have toiled hard in their combs, then he may enjoy some honey to sweeten; none being to hand, a handful of salt might make it savoury. Having consumed to his fill, he will lay the left-over out in trays to dry, forming thin oat cakes as the dehydrating hours pass. These oat cakes, called your ‘piece’, as anyone who has come into contact with artisanal Scottish muesli will already know, were eaten with cheese and possibly pickle at lunch – hence the modern variation still labelled nostalgically as a ‘ploughman’s’.

After a difficult day ploughing, sowing and harvesting, supper would be a hot vegetable soup eaten with bread and butter. The contents of the soup can be a source of difficulty to the contemporary climate-aware shopper. The proliferation of New World vegetables has been extreme. Even ‘well thought of’ supermarkets, such as Marks & Spencer, are known to slip potatoes into their so-called ‘English garden vegetable soup’, as if potato were as English as the humble parsnip, leek or swede. In fact, it is an interloper, imported from America, like grey squirrels, tracksuit bottoms and long working hours. The best recommendation can only be to cook the soup yourself, and so avoid any possibility of newcomers amongst the vegetables.

it is an interloper, imported from America, like grey squirrels, tracksuit bottoms and long working hours.

The wide-set, slender built, strong-chinned medieval peasant did not own a small allotment plot in Highgate. But he would have likely enjoyed a soil strip of his own divvied out by the village council, assuming no greedy landlords had enclosed the common land and filled it with hyper-profitable sheep, just like the hateful creatures who now build bland suburbs on green-belt arcadia. From his strip, he could feed his family and pay the rent in kind, producing only the pollution from his stove fire, an idyll worthy of Theocritus or Vergil.

In this example surely is our present salvation. Humility of diet may seem a distant prospect when avocado and poached eggs cafés fill high streets even faster than the bubonic plague once emptied parishes. Yet, if we are going to face a revival of monastic self-discipline in our culture, we must equally embrace the world which readily produced those chaste, thin-faced, numinous men.