Scholar’s Book Explores Politics of Food in Medieval English Romance Literature

By Tom McLaughlin

Throughout civilized history, posits Aaron Hostetter, humans have rendered the material world edible in order to define our lives.

“We are a collective of consuming agents, and our primary role as citizens of our culture is to use what we obtain, primarily through production and global trade,” says Hostetter, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden. “In doing so, all of our food choices make political arguments.”

Finding evidence of this age-old truth, Hostetter explores the politics of food practices of medieval English culture as illustrated in romance literature of the time in his new book, Political Appetites.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher affirms that the romance literature in England during the medieval period, conceived broadly from the ninth to the 15th centuries, shows how food and food practice reveal human aspirations, as well as an enduring struggle with the limits of human existence.

“These works of romance literature are the imaginative spectacles of the life and dreams of the privileged classes,” explains Hostetter, a Collingswood resident. “Through its sometimes-extravagant food imagery, we find an illumination of the genre’s serious engagement with questions of political theory – from history and identity, to sovereignty and deportment.”

Aaron Hostetter

Food is politicized, he notes, in such diverse ways as the control of trade routes and the use of famines as political tools and weapons.

“Famines, for instance, aren’t usually natural,” says Hostetter. “Food is kept from people so they starve to death.”

In studying the food practices of the past as a fundamental economic activity, the book also questions contemporary attitudes towards consumption as their proliferation and abuses create social inequities, menace ecosystems, and threaten to bring about the end of modern civilization.

Hostetter, who led a senior capstone course on consumption last spring, explains that, if one’s act of eating is perpetuating systems that are unjust, then the consumer, too, is just as culpable in perpetuating that injustice.

“You are a part of it,” he says. “This is one reason why boycotts appeal to people and can be so effective – you are refusing to give your money to someone that offends you. That’s yet another instance of how we are always using consumption to negotiate our political reality.”

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