Elizabethiana

I’m currently reading a biography of Bess of Hardwick. I’m not that far through it yet (don’t tell me how it ends!*), but one thing is striking, reading about Tudor England†: how capricious the politics is and how much it’s dependent on patronage and favour. Admittedly, the period I’ve read about so far covers the end of Henry VIII, a cameo by Lady Jane Grey, the reign of Bloody Mary and the dawning of the age of Elizabeth, so with the dynastic politics and the swings between Protestant and Catholic, it is perhaps unusually unstable. But the basic point remains that all power derives from the monarch, who can have people banished, impoverished or executed at will. At the Holbein exhibition, there were little bios of the subjects next to the portraits; it was noticeable how many of them seemed to have ended up under the axe.

It isn’t just that politics and law are unstable because of the whims of the monarch; it also creates an environment where access to the monarch is everything and where the people with access and influence don’t just get a bit of second-hand power: they also potentially get serious serious money. It breeds conspiracies, factions and coups. The stakes are so high and power is so unanswerable. Men, entire families, could be raised up or destroyed in a moment. And there were indeed plots, revolts and conspiracies; armies were raised and marched on London. And it trickles down; the great lord in favour with the monarch had local influence in their own part of the country, and used it to favour lesser lords who in turn favored their own cronies.

It’s rather like the situation in a poor country which has a lot of oil or diamonds but not much else; all possibility of wealth or success gets tied into one thing — how close people can get to the oil. The economy and politics get twisted out of shape, not because the oil company necessarily intends to be exploitative or ruthless but because the gravitational pull of the oil is so disproportionate to any other source of money.

I remember at university, possibly in my finals, there was a question which was something like: ‘Shakespeare’s tragedies are essentially political. Discuss.’ At the time I was annoyed by it because it seemed like a reflection of a certain critical tendency to find politics in everything, and to foreground politics, in its broad sense, at the expense of other kinds of analysis. Now, though, I’m more sympathetic. A play like Julius Caesar, about courtiers conspiring to kill a king, would have had immediate relevance to the original audience. Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear: all revolve around court politics. All operate in the shadow of civil war. Which isn’t to say that they are narrowly ‘political plays’, but the action does take place in a highly political environment.

It makes an interesting problem for anyone staging them. You want a setting which is contemporary enough to be immediate for the audience, but western politics these days just isn’t brutal, unstable or corrupt enough. Some kind of dictatorship seems the obvious choice, but of course that setting brings a load of baggage of its own. Hamlet set in the court of Kim Jong-Il doesn’t seem quite right somehow.

*Really, don’t: I don’t know that much about her and have no idea what’s going to happen next. I haven’t read that Wikipedia article I just linked to for precisely that reason.

and indeed medieval England, but one thing at a time.

More ethnic food slurs

I was watching Antiques Roadshow at the weekend and some chap brought in an C18th* English silver sauce boat. The expert got excited because it was a rare early example; apparently before that point English food rarely had sauces but it was about then that some people started employing French cooks.

So far, reasonable enough and entirely plausible. But his explanation for why it should be so was that English ingredients were so good that they could be served plain and unadorned, whereas the French had developed a cuisine based around rich sauces in order to disguise the poor quality of the food. I’ve also heard almost exactly the same explanation for the heavy use of spices in Indian food and (English!) Tudor food: to disguise the flavour of meat that might have gone bad without refrigeration.

The trouble is, it’s obviously patronising crap. Bending over backwards to be fair: yes, with really good quality ingredients you can afford to just present them simply, and it’s a mistake to mess about with them too much. And yes, Britain has some very good quality basic ingredients; the rain makes it a great place to produce lamb, beef and dairy products, there’s some excellent seafood and good game, and some great fruit and veg like apples and asparagus and so on. For some of these products, the best quality stuff may have been better than the French equivalent.

But in a country where most people were peasants who were having a good year if they didn’t go hungry, I just don’t believe that the tiny elite who could afford to eat rich sauces and elaborate food were eating bad quality ingredients. That applies to C18th France, Tudor England and Mughal India. And with the Tudor refrigeration argument, I have to point out that most meat needs to be hung for a while – for several weeks, in the case of beef – to improve the flavour. It doesn’t exactly turn putrescent overnight, even without a refrigerator. The Indian climate presumably accelerates decay, but I still don’t believe that obtaining fresh meat was a problem for those with money. Conversely, however good the best British beef is, there must have been plenty of people in England eating all the crappy stuff that the aristos rejected.

It’s such a bizarre bit of unthinking snobbery to suggest that, just because British food is traditionally plain, anyone who cooks something more elaborate must have something to hide. It’s like suggesting that the Italians cook pizza to disguise the poor quality of their bread. A few decades ago, when few British people had any experience of all that fancy foreign muck, I can imagine the argument seemed plausible. But now we all eat Indian and Thai and Chinese and French and Italian food by choice, you’d think it would have become obvious that people like the flavour of spices and that people like rich sauces. These things don’t need any special justification.

I know I’m probably spending too much time on a trivial point, but I’m always baffled when I hear people confidently repeat arguments that must surely ring false even somewhere in their own heads.

*ish

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