October 24, 2019 in History
Food in World History


Regardless of the period of existence, food forms a basic component of the society in which it is consumed due to its importance. From the middle ages to the current periods people have been travelling across the globe and moving with diets from their communities to others. When a particular food or food substance is introduced to a society, it can either be welcomed or received with hostility. Thus the reception of a new cuisine or otherwise can be attributed to several factors. This paper is therefore devoted to bringing out the factors that affected the adoption of particular kinds during the medieval times, early modern period and the early nineteenth century in different societies.

Middle Ages Period

During the Middle Ages period food spices became so popular in Europe despite the fact that they did not naturally grow there. They had to be imported from as far as India and Sri Lanka in Western Asia in journeys that took more than one year but this could not deter inhabitants of Europe from demanding more and more. This great desire for spices could probably be attributed to more factors than with the flavor of sophisticated cuisine that it brought to the kitchens in Europe.

The most potent argument for the acceptance and consequent great demand for spices in Europe at first was its use as a preservative. People thought that spices could be used to preserve meat from spoiling or rather cover up the taste of meat that had already gone bad. This is however a wrong perception because generally spices catalyze the process of spoiling meat and in addition there is in existence better preservation methods such as salting and drying. Freedman however gives a truer account for the allure for spices in the medieval period which includes: prestige and versatility, their social and religious overtones and their mysterious yet attractive overtones.

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Versatility of the spices was a significant factor because not only were they used for cooking, they could also be used as medicines that both cured and prevented diseases in a society that was constantly faced with terrible epidemics. The health value of spices cannot be underscored as they aided in promoting the body’s equilibrium by the balancing of internal body fluids that impacted both the wellness and mood. Aesthetically, spices also showed a lot of importance as they were used to create an environment of taste and comfort and they could be consumed or breathed as perfume.

Another reason for the acceptance of spices was their religious value. During the celebration of Christian Liturgy, churches were often infused with the smell of frankincense. This particular spice was taken to be sacred as exemplified with the biblical story of the three Magi who visited Jesus as a newborn and brought with them spices including frankincense and myrrh together with gold as a sign of sacredness. Another religious vindication of the acceptance of spices was the source of the spices. The spices as were believed to originate from East Asia and India which was deemed to be the biblical Garden of Eden which was apparently filled with spices and was the source of all the aromatic products. The impression of connotation of the East as a sacred place was reinforced by the story of a bishop who never accepted any gifts including a silver goblet but made an exception when he accepted nutmegs because they were apparently the fruit of the Orient. 

Once spices had attained a foothold in Europe, it became a good of ostentation.  Due to their expensive nature they were used by the high and mighty as a symbol of nobility and status. In 1467 for instance during the wedding between Duke George of Bavaria with Princess Jadwiga of Poland more than 1000 pounds of spices were used to grace the occasion in a feast that lasted for several days. This is a case of how spices have been used to display, splendor, wealth and style.

Early Modern Period

During the early modern period the elements that influenced the decision on whether to accept or decline the introduction of new foods comprised a combination of factors including scientific, religious and political aspects.

Chemists and natural theorists for instance deserted the universal cookery, the four essentials and the concept of consultations and suggested an original phenomenon of nutrition and digestion. Religious groups such as protestants and personalities on the other hand abandoned the principle of an ascetic food as an approach towards achieving spiritual development and instead argued that all Christians had an equivalent right of accessing the divined despite the type of food they ate. Among Christians for instance, for example, there was a wide spread notion that tea and coffee could be used as remedies for spirits in the 17th and 18th centuries. Similarly, a Christian poet William Cowper likened tea to a substance that cheers but fails to inebriate, a fact which many people in Victorian Britain conquered with.

Political factors and social class, however, appears to be the major factors that influenced the adoption or rejection of new foods that were being introduced during this period. Political philosophers for example criticized monarchism as well as its high cuisines and instead supported republican, liberal and countrywide options. More specifically, in France, the monarchy and the aristocracy altered food preparation methods and cuisines due to the introduction of the new concept of nutrition and digestion which informed the creation of the French high cuisine replacing the catholic foods from the year 11650 and was referred to as the pan-European high cuisine. 

On the contrary, within the Republic on Dutch, the bourgeoisie who comprised the rich and the powerful portion of the population, retained most of the Catholic foods but integrated into an ordinary republican dish which comprised plenty, homemade food for a large proportion of the population.  The aristocracy in England accepted the new French cuisine but the gentry denounced it in favor of a middling beef and bread dish which they described as the state’s cuisine. 

In Victorian Britain, through the existence of a public culture of consumption, temperance promoters and their followers, ta and its accompaniments which were mainly sugar and cotton were associated with a great deal of power. This meant that drinking tea instead of alcohol guaranteed the consumer class, gender harmony, political citizenship and a wonderful home. 

These initial versions of modern Western foods did not merely introduce new sauces and a distinction between sweet and sour but also stressed on of bread and beef. It also introduced the idea of experimenting with fat, flour and liquid mixtures in sauces and sweet foods. 

The main innovation of the modern era was middling cuisines which were termed the nutrition transition characterized by a change from diets comprising grains to foods containing elevated sugar levels, fats and beef. This bridged the gap between the distinction of high and less important foods. Similarly, alterations in the sectors of politics and nutrition also endorsed the elimination of the gap between renowned and humble cuisines. In the West, the introduction of the middling cuisines and the extension of the votes ran simultaneously. In addition, the nutritional theory, shunned the idea that foods determined and reflected social ranks in the society, in favor of a particular cookery suitable for every person belonging to different classes. Gradually, with the setting in of the 19th Century, which marked the beginning of industrialization, new foods and spices were introduced as will be discussed below.

19th Century

The 19th century was a period during which major changes occurred as a result of modernization, a concept which many researchers and scholars have struggled to define. Chris Bayly defines modernization as a process whereby the people who desire to be modern, imitate from their counterparts whom they view as being civilize. He further states that the process involves increased globalization and industrialization.

The rapid industrialization during the 19th century facilitated the introduction of new foods and cookery due to the food processing techniques that were invented. The spread of meddling cuisines was even made much easier with the availability of affordable transportation, efficient agricultural practices, and increased international links. Development made it effortless to spread the aspects of modern food, so that urban cuisines became better faster than rural ones. 

With the various changes that occurred in the political and social sectors, people’s opinions and views about new foods were influenced by the society’s attitudes at that time. For example, tea was viewed in a very different from what peopled believed in the early periods of modernization. It has become a popular commodity which drew the attention of the public. In the opinion of many scholars, tea was a wasteful product that consumed time as well as funds without giving genuine energy and in fact, one anti tea personality called William Cobbett argued that tea was a waste of labor and time. Others believed that there was a need to exercise caution due to the increase in the number of adulterants. Generally therefore, many associated economic decline to tea. For this reason, tea was one of the commodities that were heavily taxed to deter people from its consumption.

Similarities and Differences between the Three Periods

The acceptance or otherwise of particular foods in the above three periods were influenced by certain factors which seem to cut across all the three periods while certain aspects are specific to a particular era. 

For instance social and political factors are some of the major parameters that influenced the decision to adopt or reject new foods that were introduced during the middle ages period, early modern periods and the 19th century. The use of spices in the medieval period was greatly affected by the desire to appear wealthy due to its expensiveness and the exclusivity associated with it. In the early modern period, tea was associated with persons of a higher social class. In the 19th century however, tea was rejected because it became associated with laziness. Religion is also another factor which cuts across the three periods. In the Middle Ages period spices were accepted in Europe because they were believed to come from the Orient which was considered to be sacred. It also influenced the Middle Ages where tea was considered to have the capability of chasing away evil spirits. In modern times Indians have rejected meat particularly cows because of religious beliefs.

Some factors however were specific to each of the each of the aforementioned periods. For instance the acceptance of spices in the medieval times in Europe for aesthetic purposes is only specific to that era. In the middle ages factors such as health as due to characterization of foodstuffs by doctors and chefs  by their effects on the four humors was a factor specific to that period that led to the acceptance of certain foodstuffs. A factor such as taxation which has been used by governments to restrict consumption of certain foods is only applicable to the 19th century.


The above discussion shows that there are different ways in which different factors affect the decision to adopt or reject new foods to particular communities. These factors have been broadly categorized into social, cultural, political, religious and economic factors. As earlier mentioned, these factors may either cut across all the three eras while other are specific to particular ones. Similarly, different personalities in different epochs have exhibited diverging views of different societies about a variety of foods such tea in different eras. 


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