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Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18

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Journal of Medieval History

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Gifts of food in late medieval England

C.M. Woolgar
University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK

a b s t r a c t
Gifts Gifts of food were an integral part of late medieval culture. Small
Food items, such as fruit, might be given by anyone. As part of com-
Late medieval England mensality, sociability, hospitality and charity, food gifts under-
pinned customary patterns of life; they developed networks of
relationships, establishing good lordship, and played an important
Social customs role in negotiations. Patterns of giving demonstrate the distinc-
tiveness and appropriateness of some categories of foodstuff, and
illuminate the purposes of donors. Changes over time can be
identified: indiscriminate hospitality or large-scale food alms fell
out of common practice after the Black Death and gifts of money
were preferred in some circumstances. Giving choice foodstuffs,
however, remained a constant.
Ó 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

‘It is better to give an apple than to eat it.’ This proverb, circulating in fourteenth-century England in
both Anglo-Norman French and Middle English forms, encapsulates a view of gifts of food that has
endured far beyond the middle ages: that small gifts can have a significance that outweighs their value
through the opportunities which they create, and that almost anyone might have the ability to make
gifts, as even nugatory items, such as commonly available foodstuffs, might form the currency of
donation.1 The elderly Bishop Mitford of Salisbury d formerly Richard II’s secretary d moved to his
manor of Potterne in Wiltshire on 27 October 1406. Two days later, as if to demonstrate the proverb,
Alice Shepherd and her daughter brought him a gift of apples and pears, for which act they received
20d. from the bishop. On 10 November William Gardiner of Potterne and his wife also brought him
apples, receiving 2s. 8d. for their trouble, repeating the gift about a fortnight later and receiving the

E-mail address: C.M.Woolgar@soton.ac.uk.

E. Stengel, ‘Die beiden Sammlungen altfranzösischer Sprichwörter in der Oxforder Handschrift Rawlinson C 641’, Zeitschrift
für französische Sprache und Litteratur, 21 (1899), 1–21 (5, no. 52, 16: ‘Meuz valt pome dunee, que mangie’; ‘Betere is appel ygeve
than yete’).

0304-4181/$ – see front matter Ó 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18 7

same response.2 The strength of possessions and the value and obligations they might create is
reflected in a further contemporary proverb: ‘He who has nothing, loses nothing; nor do his friends
complain of him.’3 This contrary view of possessions is equally important to studies of gifts: it indicates
a culture that thought hard about things and the connections that might come from them.
Since Mauss published his famous essay on the gift in 1923–4, the literature has been dominated by
the paradigms offered by anthropology, on reciprocity and the role of gifts in exchange.4 The notion of
reciprocity in gift-giving, linked to individuals endlessly seeking connection and advantage from their
actions, has had its critics. After all, there might be altruism in the gift of the apple, or kindness,
friendship, reverence and honour d all might make it better to give, and any personal benefit would be
tangential.5 Context is everything: in this paper, one of the principal arguments is that gift-giving was
a customary part of late medieval culture, and that we need to understand the nuances of occasion
in order to interpret it. Anthropologists, sociologists and archaeologists are keenly interested in
commodities, their value to their owners, to those to whom they are given or exchanged, as well as in
the process of exchange or gift itself.6 The possibilities offered by these disciplines are useful to
historians, outlining areas and themes that might be considered in looking at gifts in late medieval
society, but it nonetheless behoves us to look closely at the evidence to demonstrate historical practice.
Historians who have done this have focused on extending and defining the repertoire of gift-
giving.7 Natalie Zemon Davis, in her work on early modern France, argued for a series of categories of
gift, operating in different registers of social behaviour d between lord and tenant, master and servant,
or marking the passage of the year or the events of the life-cycle; gifts between friends, of charity,
neighbourliness, or reverence, and so on.8 It has been argued that the great household used the gift
economy in two principal ways, in terms of reciprocity and magnificence, thereby creating political
capital and demonstrating good lordship.9 Others have argued that gift-giving was essential to public
authority, to a ruler’s power, in the early and central middle ages, and that its role in the later middle
ages was different and not as extensive, partly because of the development of the market economy.10
Further studies have examined the importance of a ruler’s largesse and the dangers of his prodigality;11
and the qualities that made a gift a beneficent transaction, as opposed to a corrupt one, its role in
municipal culture and the lack of expectation of reciprocity at the point of donation.12 Gifts as a way of
doing honour, typified by the wine given by the cities of the Low Countries, have been another focus of

Household accounts from medieval England, ed. C.M. Woolgar, 2 vols (British Academy Records of Social and Economic
History, new series 17–18, London, 1992–3) [hereafter HAME], vol. 1, 261–2, 279, 418.
Stengel, ‘Die beiden Sammlungen altfranzösischer Sprichwörter’, 13, no. 362, ‘Qui riens n’a, rien ne pert, ne ses amis nel
M. Mauss, ‘Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques’, L’Année Sociologique, 2nd series 1
(1923–4), 30–186; various translated editions, most recently by W.D. Halls, with introduction by Mary Douglas: M. Mauss, The
gift. The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies (London, 1990; cited here from the reprinted edition, Abingdon, 2002).
J. Parry, ‘The gift, the Indian gift and the “Indian gift”’, Man, new series 21 (1986), 453–73.
Mauss, The gift; for a range of perspectives, see the essays in The social life of things. Commodities in cultural perspective, ed.
A. Appadurai (Cambridge, 1986), especially his own ‘Introduction: commodities and the politics of value’, 3–63, and I. Kopytoff,
‘The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process’, 64–91.
Most recently, the essays in The languages of gift in the early middle ages, ed. W. Davies and P. Fouracre (Cambridge, 2010),
especially the introduction by J.L. Nelson (1–17) and the conclusion by C. Wickham (238–61).
N. Zemon Davis, The gift in sixteenth-century France (Oxford, 2000), 1–35.
F. Heal, ‘Reciprocity and exchange in the late medieval household’, in: Bodies and disciplines. Intersections of literature and
history in fifteenth-century England, ed. B.A. Hanawalt and D. Wallace (Minneapolis, 1996), 179–98; E. Kendall, Lordship and
literature. John Gower and the politics of the great household (Oxford, 2008), 18, 22–7.
A.J.A. Bijsterveld, ‘The medieval gift as agent of social bonding and political power: a comparative approach’, in: Medieval
transformations. Texts, power, and gifts in context, ed. E. Cohen and M.B. de Jong (Leiden, 2001), 123–56 (144–52).
S.D. White, ‘The politics of exchange: gifts, fiefs and feudalism’, in: Medieval transformations, ed. Cohen and de Jong, 169–88,
especially 169–73.
V. Groebner, ‘Accountancies and arcana: registering the gift in late medieval cities’, in: Medieval transformations, ed. Cohen
and de Jong, 219–43.
M. Damen, ‘Giving by pouring: the function of gifts of wine in the city of Leiden (14th–16th centuries)’, in: Symbolic
communication in late medieval towns, ed. J. Van Leeuwen (Mediaevalia Lovaniensia, 1st series, Studia 37, Leuven, 2006), 84–100;
also V. Groebner, Liquid assets, dangerous gifts. Presents and politics at the end of the middle ages (Philadelphia, 2002).
8 C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18

Many of these discussions have been based on high-level politics or major gifts, such as the
endowment of religious houses. Joel Rosenthal’s The purchase of paradise looked at support for prayers,
chantries, new foundations and mausolea, and also to alms ‘as a regular part of an aristocrat’s life’.14 If
these were reflections of an aristocrat’s expectations, they were, even for the upper classes, only a part
of a culture of giving, which was central to the mentality of medieval society. Small gifts, less prominent
in our sources, were of exceptional importance and cumulatively of considerable effect, for these were
gifts that anyone might make. Among the smaller gifts, food was especially important. It was also
different from most other gifts, in that it had to be consumed, usually within a short compass of time. In
some contexts it is impossible to distinguish these gifts from the sharing of food: we know it in
historical terms in commensality, sociability, hospitality and charity.15 Food had a special place among
types of gift, from its link to subsistence. Historians of food have identified its significance in creating
political networks, although they have not thus far studied it in great depth d their discussion has been
based on transactions at the highest levels.16 There can be little doubt, however, that in the medieval
village it was the most common form of gift. In looking at gifts of food in early modern England, Felicity
Heal has provided comparative material for this paper, especially in her examination of the great
household, local political networks and the commodities involved.17 As well looking at contrasts and
similarities with the early modern period, the focus of this paper is on those areas where the late
medieval period offers additional perspectives on social and customary practices.

Giving food

Food is among the most ubiquitous of commodities to appear in medieval documents, but the nature of
transactions involving it is sometimes difficult to define. In some instances, foods are labelled as ‘gifts’
in the source, designated by words derived from exennium, presentum or donum.18 Food gifts may
appear as ‘rewards’, that is, given in response to service or behaviour that had already taken place and
was deserving of notice.19 Some gifts are present only by implication, with no separate designation
other than noting that something had been sent or received. Other gifts may have become so regular or
customary that they were expected, crossing a boundary to become perquisites, such as those taken by
hunt servants at the highly ritualised unmaking of the red deer carcass at the conclusion of the hunt,20
or those expected by household servants engaged in the preparation of food, almost as part of the
emoluments of their employment.21 While it is helpful to distinguish gifts from food farms d that is,
the main rents from property paid to the lord in kind d one struggles over distinctions based on
tenurial character with other renders of food. In late medieval England, the peasantry commonly
passed hens to their lords in great numbers at Easter and at other times of the year. Poultry-rearing was

J. Rosenthal, The purchase of paradise. Gift giving and the aristocracy, 1307–1485 (London, 1972), 102–22 (102).
M. Jones, Feast. Why humans share food (Oxford, 2007), 22–43, 73–151.
J.L. Nelson, ‘Introduction’, in: The languages of gift, ed. Davies and Fouracre, 7; Zemon Davis, Gift, 57; B. Laurioux, Gastronomie,
humanisme et société à Rome au milieu du XVe siècle. Autour du De honesta voluptate de Platina (Florence, 2006), 469–70.
F. Heal, ‘Food gifts, the household and the politics of exchange in early modern England’, Past and Present, 199 (May 2008),
In the Dona section of Bishop Mitford’s household account, that is, the gifts of cash that were made on his behalf, those
bringing gifts to him do so ‘de exhenio’, or ‘presentibus’: ‘Item datum Alicie Shepherd de Poterne et filie sue differentibus
domino de exhenio poma et pira ultimo die Octobris apud Poterne precepto domini xx d.’; ‘Item datum Willelmo Gardiner de
Poterne et uxori eius presentibus domino poma ibidem x die Novembris ii s. viii d.’; HAME, vol. 1, 418. In 1485–6, the bishop of
Carlisle gave (‘datur’) wheat to the Dominicans of Carlisle: HAME, vol. 2, 559. I have not found munus or munusculum used in
relation to gifts of food, and the words do not appear in this context in the Dictionary of medieval Latin from British sources, ed.
R.E. Latham, D.R. Howlett and others (London, 1975–). An attractive notion is that the word ‘community’ itself delineates those
who give gifts d munera d to each other, bound together through service, office, employment, and by duty, burden and tribute
(A Latin dictionary, ed. C.T. Lewis and C. Short (Oxford, 1879), and Dictionary of medieval Latin from British sources, sub munus);
A. Putter, ‘Gifts and commodities in Sir Amadace’, Review of English Studies, new series 51 (2000), 371–94 (378). For an overall
consideration of the language of gift-giving, C. Wickham, ‘Conclusion’, in: The languages of gift, ed. Davies and Fouracre, 238-61.
See below, for example, for the discussion of loaves and the ‘reward’ at meals.
N.J. Sykes, ‘The impact of the Normans on hunting’, in: Food in medieval England: diet and nutrition, ed. C.M. Woolgar,
D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron (Oxford, 2006), 162–75.
A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household made in divers reigns, ed. Anon (London,
1790), *32, 95–6.
C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18 9

a speciality of the peasantry and these birds were destined for consumption, not for stocking
seigneurial demesnes. At Christmas some of these fowl d wode hens d were given in return for access
to dead or fallen wood, that is, as a customary tenurial obligation. Others d lok hens d although given
freely, were in some instances a sine qua non if the peasant were to partake of the Christmas meal
offered by the lord.22
Gifts the lok hens may have been, but they were predictable. In an institutional context, it was
possible to plan for gifts like this. From at least the mid-thirteenth century, the monks of Christ
Church Cathedral Priory, Canterbury, maintained a custumal which listed inter alia all the gifts
(exennia) of food owed from their manors at Christmas and Easter to the archbishop of Canterbury,
including 785 hens at Christmas. More than half this number were then given away, 200 to the
hospitals of Harbledown and the Northgate in Canterbury, and 204 to monastic and archiepiscopal
servants.23 Food alms from other sources and endowments were equally a part of the customary
Canterbury gift economy. In 1315, there is a record of the annual baking and distribution of ‘Lanfranc’
loaves, from a varying mixture of wheat, rye, barley and peas, a bread reserved for the poor and
distributed to 36 hospitals. The Cathedral Priory and its servants also celebrated this largesse, but
with loaves made from good wheat alone, according to the ‘Lanfranc’ measure.24 The customary gifts
did not stop there: a list from 1477 records new year’s gifts to the prior, principally from his monks,
but also from some servants d mainly capons, with some peafowl, rabbits and non-foodstuffs. All the
payments were valued, and it is possible that the gifts had in fact been commuted for these cash
The commemoration of Lanfranc’s name reminds one of another aspect to gifts, the notion that the
gift contains something of the giver. If Mauss wrote about this in terms of the Maori and the hau, the
concept is unexceptionable in medieval terms. It was well understood that as part of the operation of
perception, both physical and immaterial qualities might pass from the individual to things that they
created, touched, or were close to them, and vice versa.26 This might be especially important for
foodstuffs which had required personal attention in their cultivation or preparation; it also brought
a special personal characteristic to activities and transactions, such as hospitality and charity. A passage
from the life and miracles of St Godric (d. c.1172) is useful in showing the pervasiveness of gifts of food,
especially at lower social levels from which we rarely have records, and also the personal connection of
gifts of food. Godric had recently established himself at Finchale (County Durham), a hermit, almost
a wild man, with an ascetic diet, of roots, foliage and flowers. Visitors flocked to see this new arrival:
they commonly brought gifts and some of them came with food, but the saint always refused it. A
woman from Lumley, a nearby village, wished to see him, and she did not want to go empty handed,
rather to honour his piety with gifts. She therefore went with bread, cheese and butter, joyfully
showing her gifts d and it was too much for Godric to disappoint her by not accepting them. It is not
clear what persuaded him to act differently on this occasion: food here is the common currency of
small gifts, and perhaps the typical gifts of those at village level and of women, intimately associated
with food preparation. Implicit also is Godric’s need to avoid discourtesy at refusing food so enthu-
siastically given.27

G.C. Homans English villagers of the thirteenth century (Cambridge, MA, 1941; repr. New York, 1970), 225–6, 258–60, 268–9,
The text first appears in the late thirteenth century, after 1273, and survives in later copies as well: Canterbury Cathedral
Archives, Archives of the Dean and Chapter, Treasurer/38 and DE/165; later copy, DE/120: mem. 3r, ‘Hec sunt exennia que
debentur domino archiepiscopo ad natalem et ad pasca de maneriis monachorum ecclesie Cristi.’
Canterbury Cathedral Archives, Archives of the Dean and Chapter, DE/26.
Canterbury Cathedral Archives, Archives of the Dean and Chapter, DE/20.
Mauss, The gift, 15; C.M. Woolgar The senses in late medieval England (New Haven, 2006), 29–62.
Libellus de vita et miraculis S. Godrici, heremitae de Finchale auctore Reginaldo monacho Dunelmensi. Adjicitur appendix
miraculorum, ed. J. Stevenson (Surtees Society 20, Durham, 1845), 71, 73. It is also probable that in this case the ordinary foods
are to be seen as humanising the saint: he was no longer eating the food of beasts, just as his acceptance of the authority of the
Benedictines of Durham brought him into an acceptable fold for his spirituality d a point I owe to Dominic Alexander’s paper at
the Leeds International Medieval Congress in 2009.
10 C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18

Patterns of giving

Gifts of food and drink were to be found across society, and their presence and function had strong
customary bases, forming part of a seasonal round of donations and exchanges.28 Household accounts
provide a good deal of information about food gifts in a chronological framework, which can be used to
illuminate overall patterns of giving. The accounts relate principally to the upper tiers of society; there
are far fewer documents than for the post-medieval period, and many are fragmentary.29 An account for
the household of the treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, starting on 30 September 1256, is exceptional
among household materials of this date in providing us with a daily record for an entire year. On 15
October 1256, the treasurer sent 7d. worth of wine to the Dominicans in Winchester.30 He received at
Salisbury a series of food gifts on 16 November, for the feast of St Edmund (c.1174–1240), the former
archbishop of Canterbury who had been treasurer of Salisbury prior to his elevation to the archiepis-
copate and who had been canonised in 1246. The gifts came from places clustered to the south of the
city, down the Test Valley and into the New Forest: two swans from the prior of Mottisfont; one and
a half carcasses of venison from the vicar of Eling; a further half carcass from the vicar of Boldre, along
with 20 legs of lamb, two geese and one pig; from the prior of Christchurch (Twyneham) 48 legs of lamb;
from the prior of Breamore eight legs of lamb and a cheese; from the bailiff of Downton eight hens and
two cheeses; and from the vicar of Somborne one pig and one sester of wine.31 In early February 1257, on
visiting his manor of Calne in Wiltshire, he was given five hens.32 In Winchester, on 31 March the
treasurer gave a sester of wine, worth 12d., to the bishop of Bath and Wells; and the gift was repeated the
following day, Palm Sunday, when he dined with the bishop.33 On 24 May, the eve of the translation of
St Francis, 3s. worth of bread was sent to the Franciscans at Winchester, along with 2s. worth of ale.34 The
Dominican friars at Winchester received 18d. worth of wine and 7d. worth of ale on 4 August d the feast
of the translation of St Dominic d and the following day, a Sunday, they were sent salmon worth 2s. On
14 August, the vigil of the Assumption, the treasurer sent 1s. worth of wine to the bishop of Salisbury.35
These gifts fall into readily defined categories. The treasurer gave support to the mendicant orders,
with bread, wine, ale and fish, carefully noting their principal feasts; and wine for the bishops of Bath
and Wells, and Salisbury, a modest gift to ecclesiastical superiors. The gifts he received concentrated on
one feast, with a further group probably from tenants on the occasion of a visit to a manor. These
patterns were widespread in medieval England.
If gifts of food on major occasions might match provision to demand, at the same time they
provided an opportunity for that gift to be seen. The foodstuffs were often items prominent in elite
dining d the intention of donors was that their gifts should be both noticed and noticeable. Dame
Katherine de Norwich invested a sixth of her annual household expenditure on a feast on 20 January
1337, the anniversary the death of her second husband, a prominent Exchequer official. This day she
was given a heron, three plovers, two and a half carcasses of venison, four cygnets, three geese, a boar’s
head and eight partridges. She also made use of manorial gifts, consuming 27 lok hens from her manor
of Sculthorpe and 20 from Howe.36 The strategies of donors can been seen in the gifts to the elderly
Bishop Mitford of Salisbury in 1406–7. At Woodford, some five miles north of Salisbury, in mid-October
1406 the bishop received a magnificent gift from the mayor of his cathedral city, of two gallons of
malmsey wine, and fish d bass, whiting, sole, plaice and two lobsters d and the bearer, one of the

The patterns observed by Zemon Davis, Gift, 36–55, can be paralleled in many respects in medieval England, although with
some distinctive variations.
HAME, vol. 1, 3–9; Heal, ‘Food gifts, the household and the politics of exchange’, 47–55, 64–5.
Salisbury Cathedral Library and Archives [hereafter SCLA], treasurer’s account, mem. 1r. I am grateful to the Dean and
Chapter for the opportunity to consult this document. The record is, however, only one of two accounts for the household: there
was once a parallel document covering ‘wardrobe’ type expenditure, that is, cash expenses on bulk purchases, cloth, spices,
messengers, and so on.
SCLA, treasurer’s account, mem. 2d. (guijon’: leg of lamb).
SCLA, treasurer’s account, mem. 5r.
SCLA, treasurer’s account, mem. 6r.
SCLA, treasurer’s account, mem. 8r.
SCLA, treasurer’s account, mem. 10r.
HAME, vol. 1, 177–9, 204.
C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18 11

mayor’s servants, received 3s. 4d. in return. The same day, the abbess of nearby Wilton sent two
pheasants and 12 partridges, and her servant received 1s.37 A fortnight later, after the household’s
move to Potterne, just south of Devizes on the north-western edge of Salisbury Plain (where the bishop
remained until his death in late April or early May), the flow of gifts continued. In November, he
received six capons from Richard Osberne; there was a boar from Master John Maidenhithe, a preb-
endary of Salisbury, in late November or early December; an innkeeper from Hungerford sent a trout
(rewarded with 20d.) and Master Simon Unwyn a further six capons. In early January, probably during
the Christmas season, the abbot of Malmesbury sent 24 capons, 24 rabbits, two swans and two
carcasses of venison, and the falconer of Sir William Sturmy (a king’s knight who served both Richard II
and Henry IV, and a Member of Parliament), brought six herons and four malard. On 12 February, the
bishop was given two goats; and in April he received a pot of ale from Richard Osberne.38
The range of foodstuffs eaten in late medieval England was very wide,39 and almost all might feature as
gifts. There were, however, distinctive clusters. Venison, game and high-status birds feature in the accounts
of both Katherine de Norwich and Bishop Mitford. The boar’s head would have been a striking feature of
Katherine de Norwich’s table. Bishop Mitford received no chickens or pullets, but capons; he received no
corn, no meat from cattle, but special foods, a boar, some goats (intended as a delicacy), high-quality fish,
especially freshwater fish, and the products of hunting and hawking, especially prestigious birds. His gifts
came mainly from the local elite, with the exception of the fruit and the gift from the innkeeper of Hun-
gerford. Those bringing the gifts, or the local tenants giving their own produce, were well rewarded.
Although late medieval England had little in the way of a legally formalised system of sumptuary
practice, certain foodstuffs were customarily appropriate to particular categories of individual. Gifts of wine,
for example, rather than ale or cider, were reserved for the upper echelons. These gifts were as substantial as
the rank of the donor required. In May-June 1299, Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, gave a dole of wine to the
archdeacon of Canterbury: the wine cost 46s. 8d., and a further 9d. was spent on carriage.40 Venison was
redolent of status and its gift was a special favour, whether from the king or from those fortunate enough to
have it in parks of their own, and its consumption was frequently also reserved for special occasions.41
Associations of rank extended to most other creatures which were hunted or trapped, including a vast
array of birds. Robert Waterton, in 1416–17 responsible for the custody of Charles, duke of Orleans, in
Pontefract Castle, where the duke enjoyed a liberal regime of confinement, received just under 1000 birds
as gifts, the product of wild-fowling and hunting.42 Other, larger birds had a special place at feasts and, even
if farmed or kept in captivity, rather than caught in the wild, were indicative of both the high status of the
recipient and the means and regard of the donor. The earl of Oxford was given three bitterns in 1431–32;43
and the duchess of Norfolk received three bustards as a gift from Thetford Priory in 1526–7.44
Fish constituted a further special category. Fresh fish of any kind was a food of higher status than the
preserved marine fish, which made up the staple fish consumption of most who were sufficiently well-

HAME, vol. 1, 272–3, 417.
HAME, vol. 1, 382, 386, 418–21. The exact date of the bishop’s death is uncertain: his will was made on 29 April and proved
on 11 May (Lambeth Palace Library, Register of Archbishop Arundel, volume 1, f. 237v–239r). For Sturmy, C. Given-Wilson, The
royal household and the king’s affinity. Service, politics and finance in England 1360–1413 (New Haven, 1986), 221, 233, 247. For the
bishop’s economy generally, C. Dyer, ‘The consumer and the market in the later middle ages’, Economic History Review, 2nd
series 42 (1989), 305–26; repr. in C. Dyer, Everyday life in medieval England (London, 1994), 257–82. Goats, especially kids (along
with young meatstock of most kinds), had a welcome place at the aristocratic table. For goats, C. Dyer, ‘Alternative agriculture:
goats in medieval England’, in: People, landscape and alternative agriculture. Essays for Joan Thirsk, ed. R.W. Hoyle (Agricultural
History Review, Supplement Series 3, 2004), 20–38.
See the sections on commodities in Food in medieval England, ed. Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron, 11–188.
HAME, vol. 1, 167.
J. Birrell, ‘Procuring, preparing, and serving venison in late medieval England’, in: Food in medieval England, ed. Woolgar,
Serjeantson and Waldron, 176–88; J. Birrell, ‘Deer and deer farming in medieval England’, Agricultural History Review, 40 (1992),
112–26 (126, for Bishop Mitford).
HAME, vol. 2, 516–17.
HAME, vol. 2, 543.
The register of Thetford Priory, ed. D. Dymond, 2 vols (British Academy Records of Social and Economic History, new series
24–5, London, 1995–6), vol. 2, 513.
12 C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18

off to eat it. Beyond that, freshwater fish were especially valued.45 In April 1393, the abbot of Chertsey
sent a valet and eight other servants to Esher to William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, with two
pike and two tench, along with capons, pheasants and partridges. Each fish was brought by a single
porter, a mark of the standing of the food.46 In January 1438, Brother John Hale’s complaints against the
subcellarer of Bardney Abbey featured the depredation of the monastery’s fishponds, which he claimed
had contained 300 to 400 pike. The subcellarer had dissipated this resource, giving away one or two
fish on many occasions, with the words ‘Take this to your wife.’47
Some foodstuffs of comparatively small value, such as cheese, were prized for their exceptional
intrinsic qualities and might be transported significant distances. In January 1290, Eleanor of
Castile sent two packhorse loads of cheese from London to her mother-in-law at Amesbury, in
Wiltshire.48 Queen Isabella, the wife of Edward II, sent from Westminster to Yorkshire in June 1312
a gift of cheese that had come from Brie, destined for her friend and household companion Isa-
bella de Vesci.49 Special characteristics could make a comparatively ordinary gift significant. One
suspects that the pot of ale given by Richard Osberne to Bishop Mitford had some noteworthy
quality. The popularity of fruit is striking, notwithstanding its wholesale omission from the
accounting system. These examples begin to tell us about the importance of gifts in the culture of

Donors and purposes

It is worth paying further attention to who is giving, as this will tell us something about the intention of
the gift. Gifts within the family, or between the households of relations, are a category that is
commonly met with. As well as substantial gifts from the king to the queen, there were many small
gifts of food, of delicacies or choice goods. Thus on 20 June 1351, Queen Phillipa’s cofferer rewarded
with 6s. 8d. a man bringing fresh sturgeon from the king;50 in July 1357, the same reward was given to
one of the king’s sumptermen bringing a gift of cherries.51 A father might ask his son for a gift. A tale of
the friar Nicolas Bozon recounted how a man asked his son to send him good ale. The son replied first
that the ale was too fresh, and would harm his nose; asked again, he replied that it was too strong and
would hurt his head; and on a third occasion, that it was past its best, going off. Although this is a moral
tale, about how some do not ever find it easy to turn to Christ, it hinges on the expectation of gifts of
food as a customary practice between family members.52
Gifts which established ‘good lordship’ were frequent. The relationship between communities and
local aristocrats or visiting royalty was often marked by gifts of food and especially drink, or by
occasions for commensality. A gift on arrival in the vicinity marked both due obeisance and something
of the locality, its benefits and produce. The earl of March, journeying to Scotland from London in 1378,
was given levem panem, a special white bread, by the men of Newcastle on Tyne.53 Arriving at Coventry
from Kenilworth on the eve of Corpus Christi in 1457, in order to see the plays the following day, Queen
Margaret of Anjou was presented by the mayor and his colleagues with 300 paindemains, a pipe of red

For the background, D. Serjeantson and C.M. Woolgar, ‘Fish consumption in medieval England’, in: Food in medieval England,
ed. Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron, 102–30; C. Dyer, ‘The consumption of freshwater fish in medieval England’, in: Dyer,
Everyday life in medieval England, 101–11.
Winchester, Winchester College Muniments, 1, dorse.
Visitations of religious houses in the diocese of Lincoln, ed. A.H. Thompson, 3 vols (Lincolnshire Record Society 7, 14, 21,
Horncastle, 1914–29) vol. 2, 18–19.
The court and household of Eleanor of Castile in 1290. An edition of British Library Additional Manuscript 35294, ed. J.C. Parsons
(Toronto, 1977), 82.
The household book of Queen Isabella of England for the fifth regnal year of Edward II 8th July 1311 to 7th July 1312, ed.
F.D. Blackley and G. Hermansen (Edmonton, Alberta, 1971), 132.
London, Society of Antiquaries, MS 208, f. 4v.
Manchester, John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Latin MS 236, f. 3v.
The moral was that like the son, many men do not wish to give their youth, their strength or their old age to God. Versions
of the tale also appear in the Gesta Romanorum and the sermons of Jacques de Vitry: Les Contes moralisés de Nicole Bozon frère
mineur publiés pour la première fois d’après les manuscrits de Londres et de Cheltenham, ed. L. Toulmin Smith and P. Meyer (Société
des anciens textes français, Paris, 1889), 171, 290–1.
HAME, vol. 1, 253.
C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18 13

wine, a dozen fat capons, a dozen good pikes, a great pannier of peascods (a much valued seasonal
food), another of pippins and oranges, two containers of sweetmeats and a pot of green ginger.54
Gifts of food formed a part of hospitality, a duty and, at various times, a formal obligation; at others the
response of Christian charity, enshrined for example, in the Benedictine rule. It might be expected by a lord
from his tenants and others. In the pre-Conquest period, the king received ‘the farm of one night’, that is,
hospitality for him and his household from a tenant or under-lord. The obligation changed in nature over
time, and it was commuted for cash payments.55 Lesser men might be required to provide hospitality for
their own lords, and religious houses similarly made provision for visiting ecclesiastical dignitaries in the
twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There were customary limits to what might be given gratis and
what might be paid for d probably reflected in the statute of 1275 defining the extent of monastic obli-
gation in this regard, limiting it to the patron of the monastery.56 Hospitality was regularly given by lords to
visitors: domestic records provide ample evidence for individual visitors, listed day by day. It was the more
easily given when the visitor did not bring with him a full-size magnate household: should a visitor come
with a large household, negotiation seems to have taken place about the extent of provision to be offered.57
A lord’s gifts of food might cultivate relationships in another special context. Beyond hospitality
generally, the lord made gifts of food during meals. The mid-thirteenth-century household rules prepared
by Robert Grosseteste for the countess of Lincoln advised her to make sure that when she dined her dish
was both replenished and heaped, especially from the entremes, the extra courses which contained special
delicacies served between the main elements of the meal. This would allow her courteously to share food
from her plate to both right and left across the high table and wherever else she pleased.58 By the fifteenth
century, ‘reward’ was the name given to a place at the high table, a position of special favour; but daily
accounts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries also show it as the term for additional rations. The use of
these, especially of bread, was a constant feature. In the household of Bishop Mitford of Salisbury, addi-
tional loaves for ‘rewards’ were given each day in varying quantities. On Thursday 31 March 1407 at
Potterne, there was one extra loaf per person, but this was unusual. On Easter Sunday, there were 84
diners, but only 22 loaves given as rewards.59 In the great household, meals took a good deal of time: the
placing of individuals and gifts to them of additional portions or select morsels were very significant
benefits. Food gifts, reward and entertainment were both duty and courtesy. They are typical of the
attentive relationships built gently by food gifts across the country and, monastic patronage aside, familiar
from those Felicity Heal has described for the early modern period.60
Gifts of food were also one of the most common and popular ways of supporting the religious, be they
individuals living independently, institutions or individuals within institutions.61 Support for the

Records of Early English Drama: Coventry, ed. R.W. Ingram (Toronto, 1981), 37. For the gift of York to Henry VII, 1486, Records
of Early English Drama: York, ed. A.F. Johnston and M. Rogerson (Toronto, 1979), 137–8. Compare M. Damen, ‘Princely entries and
gift exchange in the Burgundian Low Countries: a crucial link in late medieval political culture’, Journal of Medieval History, 33
(2007), 233–49 (237–45), with its gifts of wine, as well as hospitality, plate and assorted other goods.
P. Stafford, ‘The “farm of one night” and the organization of King Edward’s estates in Domesday’, Economic History Review,
2nd series 33 (1980), 491–502; R. Lavelle, ‘The “farm of one night” and the organization of royal estates in late Anglo-Saxon
Wessex’, Haskins Society Journal, 14 (2005), 53–82; A. Gautier, ‘Palais, itinéraires et fêtes alimentaires des rois anglo-saxons aux
xe et xie siècles’, Food and History, 4 (2006), 29–44 (38–42).
B.F. Harvey, ‘The aristocratic consumer in England in the long thirteenth century’, in: Thirteenth Century England VI, ed.
M. Prestwich, R.H. Britnell and R. Frame (Woodbridge, 1997), 17–37 (21–5); for monastic hospitality, F. Heal, Hospitality in early
modern England (Oxford, 1990), 223–56, especially 228–46.
For hospitality generally, C.M. Woolgar, The great household in late medieval England (New Haven, 1999), 21–6; Heal,
Hospitality in early modern England, 22–90.
Walter of Henley and other treatises on estate management and accounting, ed. D. Oschinsky (Oxford, 1971), 402–5; for the
date, 1245 x 1253, L.J. Wilkinson, ‘The Rules of Robert Grosseteste reconsidered: the lady as estate and household manager in
thirteenth-century England’, in: The medieval household in Christian Europe, c.850–c.1550, ed. C. Beattie, A. Maslakovic and
S. Rees Jones (Turnhout, 2003), 293–306 (299–300). See also L. Kjær, ‘Food, drink and ritualised communication in the
household of Eleanor de Montfort, February–August 1265’, Journal of Medieval History, 37(2011), 75–80.
HAME, vol. 1, 358–63.
Heal, ‘Food gifts, the household and the politics of exchange’, 41–70.
For links especially between religious women and food, and applicable to men in some instances as well, see C. Walker
Bynum, Holy feast and holy fast. The religious significance of food to medieval women (Berkeley, 1987); M.G. Muzzarelli and
F. Tarozzi, Donne e cibo: una relazione nella storia ([Milan], 2003), especially the chapter on ‘Monache digiunatrici e monache
pasticcere’, 41–9; C. Mazzoni, The women in God’s kitchen. Cooking, eating, and spiritual writing (New York, 2005).
14 C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18

mendicant orders in the thirteenth century commonly featured gifts of food and drink, as we have seen. The
friars also received gifts of corn. In 1273, the earl of Oxford gave wine, herring and a bushel of wheat to the
Franciscans of Colchester.62 Eleanor of Castile gave the Oxford Dominicans salmon baked in pastry in 1290,
but she also made contributions to them in cash specifically for the purchase of food, for example, giving
£10 towards the order’s sustenance (putura) at two of its chapters general.63 In 1331, Queen Philippa
travelled with her sister-in-law through Kent, eastern England and the east Midlands. Rather than food
itself, her gifts were of cash to purchase a day’s sustenance, or a pittance d that is, a dish and drink extra to
the ordinary meal d to religious houses on her route. In May, the Dominicans in Cambridge were given
funds for a pittance, as were the Carmelites there and the nuns of St Radegund.64
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries we find a further type of gift for religious purposes, of wine
and pure wheat for the wafers used at mass, or for the holy loaf shared by parishioners afterwards.65
Just as it became common, from the fourteenth century, to give cash rather than gifts of corn to reli-
gious institutions, so in the same timeframe the endowments for these elements of the eucharist also
came to be made in cash rather than kind.

Provisioning and the volume of gifts

How far did gifts help with provisioning? In the examples already considered, the total amounts look too
small to have an impact, but that may be misleading d it was the direct purpose in only a proportion of the
gifts. Firstly, it is probable that accounts record only things of high value, not small gifts, much as they omit
in their coverage categories that were provided directly to the household from its own sources, for
example, kitchen gardens. Secondly, most examples are recorded because a reciprocal payment was
made. Lesser gifts attracting lesser levels of reciprocity, perhaps goods in kind, general benevolence or
sustained friendship, were simply left out of account. Other parts of accounts imply that there were
further gifts of food, even if no cash was paid to the person who brought them. Great households,
especially those of the Crown or greater ecclesiastics, did receive gifts from time to time that must have
been intended to help in this way. A member of the Lincolnshire gentry, John de Multon of Frampton,
south of Boston, gave a wagon-load of food as a present to Lady De Roos in January 1344: a carcass of beef
had been specially purchased for the gift at 12s., along with two calves for 6s.; there were also two pigs and
two swans from his own stock.66 That these items were bought to be given away carries an interesting
implication: the provision of foodstuffs, rather than cash, gave a present distinction as well as utility.
Gifts of corn to the royal household, as opposed to bread, or direct requisitions, purveyance and
hospitality, are more difficult to trace: we know that corn was given in the post-medieval period, for
example, to support royal households on progress.67 In nine months in 1331, Queen Philippa received
2775 loaves, 108 doles of wine, and 1833 gallons of ale.68 Gifts of corn, as opposed to bread d and here
what has been given looks like about 10 days’ rations of bread and ale d do not feature.

Food alms and charity

The gift of food as alms and charity was an important way of providing direct relief for the poor. Food
alms were made available in different ways. The provision of doles, commonly of bread and ale,

HAME, vol. 1, 158. There are later gifts of corn, although they are unusual: note 17, above, for an example.
Court and household of Eleanor of Castile, ed. Parsons, 96–7, 130.
Manchester, John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Latin MS 235, f. 7v–8v; B.F. Harvey, ‘Monastic pittances in the
middle ages’, in: Food in medieval England, ed. Woolgar, Serjeantson and Waldron, 215–27.
D. Postles, ‘Small gifts, but big rewards: the symbolism of some gifts to the religious’, Journal of Medieval History, 27 (2001),
23–42, especially 27–31.
HAME, vol. 1, 240. The gift probably reciprocated one from Lady De Roos: P. Coss, The foundations of gentry life. The Multons of
Frampton and their world, 1270–1370 (Oxford, 2010), 68–9.
Heal, ‘Food gifts, the household and the politics of exchange’, 65.
Manchester, John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Latin MS 235, f. 5r, 15r–v. Philippa also received: 63½ beef
carcasses, 128 sheep, 94 pigs, 58 calves, 2 lasts of herring, 360 cod, 10 pieces of sturgeon, 15 pieces of whale, 5 deer, a kid, 5
lampreys, 98 pike and pikerells, 24 large eels, 20 bream, 8 perch and 22 tench, 12 rabbits, 2 cranes, 71 swans, 2 peacocks, 53
heron, 105 bitterns, 2 pheasants, 44 geese, 13 spoonbills and 255 capons.
C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18 15

featured in the arrangements of many hospitals.69 The secular great household and equivalent eccle-
siastical establishments reserved the broken meats from the table as alms. These were placed in great
alms buckets or tubs, for distribution to the poor or other deserving groups, or carried out in bags.
Among the goods inventoried on the death of John de Sandale, bishop of Winchester, in November
1319, there were tubs in which food alms were collected at his manors of Fareham (Hampshire) and
Witney (Oxfordshire).70 A tiled pavement in the cloisters just outside the refectory of the Premon-
stratensian house of Titchfield (Hampshire) enjoined those about to dine first to remember the poor.71
In the period before the Black Death, some households, especially the royal households, those of
ecclesiastics and some noblewomen regularly invited a small number of poor to eat at table.72 Hugh le
Barber giving evidence to the inquiry into the sanctity of Thomas Cantilupe, formerly bishop of Hereford,
held in 1307, reported that it was the bishop’s habit to have eating with him each day either five or seven
poor persons. Once, when they were staying at Hampton Lucy (Warwickshire), the Bishop instructed
Robert Whytacre, a member of his household, to go to the gate and to see how many brothers (fratres)
were there and bring in two. Robert came back with the message that there were no brothers there of
any order; to which Cantilupe replied that he did not mean brothers of a religious order d we have
already seen how the mendicants attracted special support in this way d but brothers like the poor who
were already eating with him. Robert said that there were 20 of those at the gate and Cantilupe then
asked him to bring in five.73 This household provision occasionally appeared into the fifteenth century.
Thomas Montagu, earl of Salisbury, in his will of May 1427 required his widow to find three different
poor people each day and to serve them each with her own hands with a dish of food, a loaf and a quart of
drink. If she did not wish to do this herself, the executors were to find someone else to do so during her
lifetime.74 On the whole, however, provision of food for the poor at table within the great household was
highly unusual after the mid-fourteenth century, and its disappearance as a charitable act should be
counted as one of the social adjustments resulting from the great plague.
In monasteries, besides the broken meats, the pattern of food alms included, in theory, the portion
of three monks each day, the Maundy. Additions came from the practice of providing food for a monk or
abbot after his death, for a monk for 30 days and upwards, and for an abbot, for a year, with additions
on anniversaries and special celebrations.75 At Laund Priory, the almoner noted at the visitation on
21 November 1440 that the alms portion of deceased canons was sometimes given to the servants of
the house to supplement their food. The episcopal injunctions conceded that in making the distri-
bution to the poor, especially the bed-ridden, regard should be had in the first instance to those who
had served the priory.76 Elsewhere, the broken meat from the table was to be used to sustain boys, in
the hope that they would grow up to become monks.77

C. Rawcliffe, Medicine for the soul: the life, death and resurrection of an English medieval hospital. St Giles’s, Norwich, c.1249–
1550, (Thrupp, 1999), 162–9; Heal, Hospitality in early modern England, 228–46.
London, British Library Add. MS 57334, mem. 5r, 6r.
R. Graham and S.E. Rigold, Titchfield Abbey, Hampshire (London, 1969), 19–20.
H. Johnstone, ‘Poor relief in the royal households of thirteenth-century England’, Speculum, 4 (1929), 149–67.
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Lat. Vat. 4015, f. 23r–v: ‘Cum autem dictus dominus Thomas quadem die comederet et
haberet coram se quinque vel septem pauperes comedentes, precipit Roberto de Whytacre familiari suo quod iret ad portam ad
videndum si erant ibi aliqui fratres et quod faceret ascendere duos. Dictus autem famulus ivit ad portam et non invenit ibi
religiosos quos credebat vocari fratres et retulit dicto domino Thome quod non erant in dicta porta fratres alicuius ordinis ed
dictus dominus Thomas dixit ei eum arguendo nonne sunt ibi tales fratres quales sunt isti qui comedunt hic ostendens illi
pauperes coram ipso comedentes. Et ille Robertus respondit quod bene erant tales xx fratres ad portam. Et precepit tunc quod
feceret ascendere quinque ex eis et factum est ita. Et predicta dixit fuisse apud Hampton’ Wygorniensis diocesis acta presente
ipso teste et pluribus aliis familiaribus dicti domini Thome bene per xvi annos antequam esset promotus ad episcopatum.’
The register of Henry Chichele archbishop of Canterbury 1414–1443. Vol. II: Wills proved before the archbishop or his
commissaries ed. E.F. Jacob and H.C. Johnson (Canterbury and York Society, 42, Oxford, 1937), 390, 392, 665.
B.F. Harvey, Living and dying in England 1100–1540. The monastic experience (Oxford, 1993), 12–16, for a discussion of this and
the detail of variations. I have not traced a secular equivalent in England, although great households were sometimes kept together
for up to a year after the decease of the lord or mistress. For French royal practice, M. Chatenet, ‘Quelques aspects des funérailles
nobiliaires au xvie siècle’, in: Les Funérailles à la Renaissance: XIIe colloque international de la Société Française d’Étude du Seizième
Siècle, Bar-le-Duc, 2–5 décembre 1999, ed. J. Balsamo (Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance 366, Geneva, 2002), 38–54 (50–4).
Visitations of religious houses in the diocese of Lincoln, vol. 2, 179–81.
Visitations of religious houses in the diocese of Lincoln, vol. 1, 22–3.
16 C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18

Post mortem commemoration through food alms appears also in individual wills. Besides feasting, at
wakes, the month’s mind and anniversaries, provision was made for gifts of food to the poor as part of
funeral arrangements and bequests. Cardinal Hugh of Evesham, in his will of 15 November 1286, left £20
for buying corn to bake bread for the poor on the day of his death, along with 10 marks to do the same
a year later. £40 was to go on purchasing corn for bread to distribute to the poor in the Vale of Evesham
and £1 for this purpose at Lidlington (Bedfordshire).78 Philip Repingdon, who had resigned the see of
Lincoln in 1419, left a munificent bequest of food for the poor in his will of around 1424. He asked for 100
selected from the poorest in the country to be very well fed (copiose ministretur) with bread and food
from the kitchen. Beyond this group, 400 of the poorer people of the diocese were to be fed in the hall of
the episcopal palace at Lincoln.79 Typically bequests were smaller: Roger Coventre of Newent (Glou-
cestershire), who was probably a baker, in his will of 18 July 1416 left to each poor person on the day of
his burial a penny loaf;80 in June 1419, William Fuystour, a citizen of Salisbury, left 40s. for food for his
neighbours, and a further 40s. to be distributed in bread among the poor;81 and Robert James, esquire,
lord of Boarstall, in November 1430 left food and drink for the 10 poor who held wax candles at his
funeral.82 These wills follow an increasing tendency to avoid indiscriminate poor relief: there are far
fewer by the fifteenth century that offer broad largesse, and bequests like Repingdon’s may have
seemed old fashioned. But there is an emphasis on community, on commensality, with neighbours and
parishioners, and even where there was nothing stated in a will, executors often considered it their duty
to fund food for the funeral, and beyond that, both the month’s mind and anniversary.

Food and negotiation

As well as contributing to major celebrations, gifts of food could have a part in the negotiations that
might form a prelude to them. In May 1482, the wool-merchant Richard Cely the younger gave his
brother George an account of a prospect for marriage to which he had given some attention at
Northleach (Gloucestershire). The preliminaries had sounded hopeful, and it was said that if Richard
stayed in the area until May Day, he might have sight of the girl d which he duly did, at matins, along
with her mother-in-law. The two women then went to a kinswoman nearby. Richard sent them a pottle
(half a gallon) of white rumney, which was well received as the women had walked a mile that
morning. When mass was over, Richard went and greeted them; they thanked him for the wine, and
asked him to dinner with them. Richard excused himself and they made him promise to drink with
them after dinner. He sent them a gallon of wine to go with dinner and they sent him a roast heronsew.
After dinner, Richard came with a friend and drank with them, ‘and we had very good conversation and
the person pleased me well [. . .]: she is young, petite and very well favoured and witty, and the country
speaks much good of her.’83
Gifts of food and drink played crucial parts in this process: on one level, they marked out the quality
of the participants in the exchange; secondly, there was time to assess the gifts before moving to the
next stage, as the preliminary arrangements for courtship came closer. Rumney was a sweet white
wine from the Mediterranean, popular with women of the upper classes. The gift tested the possi-
bilities: it was well received and there was time for the ladies to appreciate it before Richard arrived
after mass. He declined to proceed to dinner with them straightaway: we do not know the reason, so

I testamenti dei cardinali del duecento, ed. A. Paravicini Bagliani (Miscellanea della Società Romana di Storia Patria 25, Rome,
1980), 207–15 (207–9).
The register of Henry Chichele, 285–6. Of the 400, the first hundred, the poorer and those from the more remote parts of the
diocese, were to have a loaf and a dish with an exceptional helping (copiosum ferculum) from the kitchen, besides 20s. and a pair
of shoes; the second hundred were to have a loaf and a large dish (largum ferculum), 12s. and a pair of shoes; the third hundred,
a loaf and good-sized dish (unum bonum ferculum), 8s. and a pair of shoes; and the final hundred also a good-sized dish of food,
4s. and a pair of shoes.
The register of Henry Chichele, 91, 649.
The register of Henry Chichele, 189.
The register of Henry Chichele, 452.
‘And whe had ryght gode comynecacyon, and the person plesetheyde me whell .: sche ys ʒewnge, lytyll, and whery
whellfavyrd and whytty, and the contre spekys myche good bye hyr’: The Cely letters 1472–1488, ed. A. Hanham (Early English
Text Society, Original Series 273, Oxford, 1975), 151–2.
C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18 17

one can only speculate if the delay made him look less forward in his approach. Instead he had an
occasion for another gift to go with dinner: this time the present was a gallon of wine, presumably
much less strong than the rumney, but again a gift that marked Richard’s standing. His refusal of
dinner, however, was met with a further opportunity for meeting, for drinking after dinner. The ladies
gave him a roast heronsew, a bird of quality, prepared in an extravagant way, an indication of their
expectations. Richard then went, with company, to meet the women to drink, and a pleasant evening
advanced his prospects and allowed him to assess the young lady. The exchange of gifts of food and
drink allowed an indirect exploration of social connotations and possibilities, supplementing and
facilitating the direct meetings.
Negotiations of all kinds might be facilitated by gifts of food, but the character of the present might
not always be so beneficent as it was in Richard Cely’s case. In some instances, the gift might be tainted
and imply corruption. The word bribe in Anglo-Norman French had the primary meaning of a crust or
piece of bread, and a bribour was one who begged, or lived from alms, the meaning transferring by
association to an act of plunder or theft. By the late 1360s bribe was in use in our contemporary sense.84
Especially from the thirteenth century, the notion developed that gifts might be given with corrupt
intent and should therefore be avoided by those in official positions;85 but there seems to have been
a general acceptance that offering and accepting a gift of food was not by itself an indication of mal-
feasance.86 It was probably both too difficult to distinguish from customary practices and usually of too
low an economic value to merit consideration. That does not mean that the practice did not take place,
and entries ‘for entertaining the justices’ suggest that it was commonplace, blurring into general
notions of hospitality. Thus, on 28 January 1257 the treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral entertained the
justices of the forest at Hursley in Hampshire, the day’s expenses reaching 49s. 8¾d., approaching ten
times their usual level.87 Whether or not the treasurer had cases pending, the forest was close to his
lands and tenants. While entertainment of royal officials was an expectation, done well it would create
a beneficial environment.


Gifts of food in late medieval England were used in nuanced and subtle ways to manage and effect
social relationships. There were many transactions that might be called gifts, identified by a range of
terms and customary practices, and they must be regarded socially as all-pervasive. At the most basic
level, between friends and neighbours in the countryside, they were only occasionally documented,
but they were the common currency of daily life. Even at the highest levels of society, it is likely that
they were substantially under-recorded. In the daily business of the great household, courtesy and
standing were marked by gifts and rewards of food, and by distribution of foods from the lord’s own
plate. Substantial gifts of food might occasionally make an impact on the provisioning of the household,
in the tradition of large-scale hospitality, but most gifts were of small, distinctive items. If lords
received gifts of food, it was part of an overall picture in which custom expected them to balance that
acquisition through hospitality and almsgiving.
Food as charity and alms was a substantial element in the gift economy, and the picture is one of
some evolution. The royal household moved to giving cash for food rather than goods in kind d much
as it did for allowances within the household. This transition happened in the same timescale as the
changes in the form of some other charitable gifts. Giving corn to friaries was largely a practice of the

Anglo-Norman Dictionary, ed. W. Rothwell and others, 2nd edn (London, 2005–), vol. 1, 353; also at <http://www.anglo-
norman.net/>, accessed 29 June 2009; Oxford English Dictionary, bribe sb.
W.C. Jordan, ‘Anti-corruption campaigns in thirteenth-century Europe’, Journal of Medieval History, 35 (2009), 204–19.
Zemon Davis, Gift, 142–66, especially 145–6, on the exception of food and perishables from proscribed categories of gift,
traced back to antiquity. The contemporary British notion that a gift that can be consumed in 24 hours is not significant thus has
a long pedigree. Groebner, ‘Accountancies and arcana: registering the gift in late medieval cities’, in: Medieval transformations,
219–43, highlights the intention of the gift, noting that corruption was held to be implicit in secret gifts of whatever substance,
the difference between schenck and miet in the German and Swiss cities he has studied. ‘Meed’ as a corrupt gift was also well
recognised in England, for example, in the case of Lady Mede, in Langland’s Piers Plowman: Groebner, ‘Accountancies and
arcana’, 234, n. 33.
SCLA, Treasurer’s account, mem. 4r. For lawyers and food gifts, Heal, ‘Food gifts’, 63–4.
18 C.M. Woolgar / Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011) 6–18

thirteenth century. As the mendicant orders became better established, support came more in cash
than in kind. In the economy of post mortem benefactions, food was likewise more significant in the
thirteenth and first part of the fourteenth centuries. Monastic regulation had worked from the twelfth
century to constrain some of the more expansive practices of giving, and by the later middle ages food
alms were well organised and carefully directed. Large-scale bequests and gifts of food for alms still
occurred, but they were exceptional. The transition came with a change in funerary practices, away
from pomp, to much more austerely pious and targeted occasions. Executors continued to find ways of
rewarding with food those closest to the deceased: neighbours, tenants and special friends, but most
bequests were of goods rather than consumables. Municipalities and guilds took over some of the
process of commemorating their foremost and most meritorious members, and modest amounts of
food might form part of that.88
The value or distinctiveness of some commodities as the most prized of gifts of food allowed some
in the countryside to use their skills to advantage: catching birds, freshwater fish, or contributing to the
hunt, enabled more to benefit from these high-value gifts than just the donor or recipient. One might
even sense a niche market: poultry-rearing and caponisation brought benefits to the peasantry, as did
the successes of the gardeners who grew the fruit. These foods were employed in ways that were well-
recognised, to create and maintain good lordship, the magnificence and standing of households, the
bonds between men; but they must equally have had currency in peasant society and as a customary
part in interpersonal relationships.
For all sorts of reasons, present-day society has confined the use of gifts to a much more restricted
range of occasions than late medieval England d but transactions involving food are still an effective
currency for broadening out negotiations. It reminds us that giving and consuming food are social
activities, and that a society’s food culture does much to characterise its nuances and workings.


I am grateful to Professor Cynthia Neville for reading a draft of this article. It is based on a paper
originally read to the conference on ‘Medieval Feasting, Gift Giving and Hospitality’ at Sidney Sussex
College, Cambridge, in 2009, and I much appreciate the comments I received from participants.

Chris Woolgar is editor of the Journal of Medieval History. He is Professor of History and Archival Studies at the University of
Southampton, where he is also Head of Special Collections in the University Library. His research interests include the history of
the everyday, and the ways in which society uses food. He has recently completed an edition of the wills and inventories
of English and Welsh bishops, 1200–1413, for the Canterbury and York Society.

For example, the corporation of Southampton’s payments for ale, wine, spices, buns (both white and spiced), and cheese at
obit feasts: The Southampton steward’s book of 1492–93 and the terrier of 1495, ed. A. Thick (Southampton Records Series 38,
Southampton, 1995), 53–7.