Paul Strohm

The pilgrims’ ways

Liza Picard weaves a mass of small details into an arresting tapestry of life in 14th-century England

Liza Picard, an chronicler of London society across the centuries, now weaves an infinity of small details into an arresting tapestry of life in 14th-century England. Her technique — pursued with the verve and spirit for which she is already justly admired — is to celebrate Chaucer’s pilgrim portraits by resituating them within an enlarged field of medieval practices and assumptions.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s own trick, in enlivening the portraits with which he launches his Canterbury Tales, is the epitomising detail, the apparently random observation — in current poker language, the ‘tell’ — that gives the pilgrim’s game away. He zooms in on the Knight’s rust-stained tunic, the Prioress’s pampered lapdogs, the Summoner’s skin disease, the Pardoner’s long and stringy hair. Picard has her own sharp eye for lively detail but goes in the other direction: less to selection than to amplification, attending to the wider field of assumption, observation, tradition and fact within which Chaucer’s choices resonate.

Take the Cook, for example. Chaucer tells us several of his attainments, adds some of his devious kitchen practices and notices — provocatively and tellingly — that he has an open sore, or mormal, on his shin. Picard begins by glossing some of his dubious techniques — explaining, for example, the culinary risk in consuming meat pies ‘that hath been twice hot and twice cold’.

But she does not stop there, moving on to tell us about the Guild of Cooks,the apprenticeship of a medieval cook, the design and equipage of medieval kitchens, the uses of mortars and skimmers, the application of poetic recitation and church bell peals to judge cooking times, the availability of hired or public ovens, the toughness of medieval chickens, the infusion of wine by straining it through hanging spice bags, and much more.

Then, for good measure, she gives us 45 almost-kitchen-ready recipes from a 14th-century cookery book, including one of the Cook’s own specialities: a mixed meat stew.

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