May 26, 2010

Top Chef Medieval: Cannibalism for Kings

Fava beans...

Here’s another striking episode from late in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae:

Cadwallo was so filled with grief and anger at the loss of his comrades that he refused to take any food, lying ill instead in his bunk. At first light on the fourth day a great yearning seized him for some game to eat.

His nephew Brian was summoned and Cadwallo told him what he longed for. Brian took his bow and quiver and started off across the island. If only fate would bring some wild beast in his way, then he would take some of it to the King for food. He wandered all over the island [of Guernsey] without discovering what he was looking for. He was greatly concerned at not being able to gratify his master’s wish. He was afraid that Cadwallo’s illness might end in death, if he was not able to satisfy the King’s yearning. He therefore tried a new device. He opened up his own thigh and cut off a slice of the flesh. He made a spit, cooked the meat, and took it to the King, pretending that it was venison. The King accepted that it was game. He ate some of it and so restored his strength, wondering that he had never tasted such sweet-flavoured meat before. When his appetite was satisfied, he became more cheerful and brisk, and within three days he was quite well again. (271-72)

[from Lewis Thorpe’s 1966 Penguin translation, The History of the Kings of Britain.]

...and a nice chianti

It’s interesting to note that this taboo violation doesn’t appear to have any negative consequences: indeed, Cadwallo’s remarkable return to health seems to recommend the treatment. We might wonder if there is a link between this moment and Cadwallo’s later genocidal savagery in attempting to wipe the Angles from the face of Britain: “He was so determined to wipe out the entire race of Angles who were in the lands of Britain that he refused to spare the womenfolk or even their little ones of tender age. He inflicted hideous tortures on all whom he found” (277). However, Geoffrey certainly doesn’t draw out a connection here, and we seen plenty of other genocidal kings in the Historia (even Arthur), and this behavior is not presented as being nearly as monstrous as we would think of it today. So it’s very hard to argue that this episode of cannibalism has any tinges of the wendigo-like taint that is found in many cultures.

I don’t have much more to say about this episode, but those interested in the topic might enjoy this essay by Karl Steele on the motif of human flesh being the sweetest meat.

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