There are multiple folktales about the tender senses of royalty, aristocrats, and other elite. The most well known example is “The Princess and the Pea”. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther system of folktale categorization, it gets listed as type 704 about the search for a sensitive wife. That isn’t to say that all the narrative variants of elite sensitivity involve potential wives. Anyway, the man who made this particular story famous is Hans Christian Andersen, having published his translation in 1835. He longed to be a part of the respectable class, but felt excluded. Some speculate that he projected his own class issues onto his slightly altered version of the folktale, something discussed in the Wikipedia article about the story:
“Wullschlager observes that in “The Princess and the Pea” Andersen blended his childhood memories of a primitive world of violence, death and inexorable fate, with his social climber’s private romance about the serene, secure and cultivated Danish bourgeoisie, which did not quite accept him as one of their own. Researcher Jack Zipes said that Andersen, during his lifetime, “was obliged to act as a dominated subject within the dominant social circles despite his fame and recognition as a writer”; Andersen therefore developed a feared and loved view of the aristocracy. Others have said that Andersen constantly felt as though he did not belong, and longed to be a part of the upper class. The nervousness and humiliations Andersen suffered in the presence of the bourgeoisie were mythologized by the storyteller in the tale of “The Princess and the Pea”, with Andersen himself the morbidly sensitive princess who can feel a pea through 20 mattresses.Maria Tatar notes that, unlike the folk heroine of his source material for the story, Andersen’s princess has no need to resort to deceit to establish her identity; her sensitivity is enough to validate her nobility. For Andersen, she indicates, “true” nobility derived not from an individual’s birth but from their sensitivity. Andersen’s insistence upon sensitivity as the exclusive privilege of nobility challenges modern notions about character and social worth. The princess’s sensitivity, however, may be a metaphor for her depth of feeling and compassion. […] Researcher Jack Zipes notes that the tale is told tongue-in-cheek, with Andersen poking fun at the “curious and ridiculous” measures taken by the nobility to establish the value of bloodlines. He also notes that the author makes a case for sensitivity being the decisive factor in determining royal authenticity and that Andersen “never tired of glorifying the sensitive nature of an elite class of people”.”
Even if that is true, there is more going on here than some guy working out his personal issues through fiction. This princess’ sensory sensitivity sounds like autism spectrum disorder and I have a theory about that. Autism has been associated with certain foods like wheat, specifically refined flour in highly processed foods (The Agricultural Mind). And a high-carb diet in general causes numerous neurocognitive problems (Ketogenic Diet and Neurocognitive Health), along with other health conditions such as metabolic syndrome (Dietary Dogma: Tested and Failed) and insulin resistance (Coping Mechanisms of Health), atherosclerosis (Ancient Atherosclerosis?) and scurvy (Sailors’ Rations, a High-Carb Diet) — by the way, the rates of these diseases have been increasing over the generations and often first appearing among the affluent. Sure, grains have long been part of the diet, but the one grain that had most been associated with the wealthy going back millennia was wheat, as it was harder to grow which caused it to be in short supply and so expensive. Indeed, it is wheat, not the other grains, that gets brought up in relation to autism. This is largely because of gluten, though other things have been pointed to.
It is relevant that the historical period in which these stories were written down was around when the first large grain surpluses were becoming common and so bread, white bread most of all, became a greater part of the diet. But as part of the diet, this was first seen among the upper classes. It’s too bad we don’t have cross-generational data on autism rates in terms of demographic and dietary breakdown, but it is interesting to note that the mental health condition neurasthenia, also involving sensitivity, from the 19th century was seen as a disease of the middle-to-upper class (The Crisis of Identity), and this notion of the elite as sensitive was a romanticized ideal going back to the 1700s with what Jane Austen referred to as ‘sensibility’ (see Bryan Kozlowski’s The Jane Austen Diet, as quoted in the link immediately above). In that same historical period, others noted that schizophrenia was spreading along with civilization (e.g., Samuel Gridley Howe and Henry Maudsley; see The Invisible Plague by Edwin Fuller Torrey & Judy Miller) and I’d add the point that there appear to be some overlapping factors between schizophrenia and autism — besides gluten, some of the implicated factors are glutamate, exorphins, inflammation, etc. “It is unlikely,” writes William Davis, “that wheat exposure was the initial cause of autism or ADHD but, as with schizophrenia, wheat appears to be associated with worsening characteristics of the conditions” (Wheat Belly, p. 48).
For most of human history, crop failures and famine were a regular occurrence. And this most harshly affected the poor masses when grain and bread prices went up, leading to food riots and sometimes revolutions (e.g., French Revolution). Before the 1800s, grains were so expensive that, in order to make them affordable, breads were often adulterated with fillers or entirely replaced with grain substitutes, the latter referred to as “famine breads” and sometimes made with tree bark. Even when available, the average person might be spending most of their money on bread, as it was one of the most costly foods around and other foods weren’t always easily obtained.
Even so, grain being highly sought after certainly doesn’t imply that the average person was eating a high-carb diet, quite the opposite (A Common Diet). Food in general was expensive and scarce and, among grains, wheat was the least common. At times, this would have forced feudal peasants and later landless peasants onto a diet limited in both carbohydrates and calories, which would have meant a typically ketogenic state (Fasting, Calorie Restriction, and Ketosis), albeit far from an optimal way of achieving it. The further back in time one looks the greater prevalence would have been ketosis (e.g., Spartan and Mongol diet), maybe with the exception of the ancient Egyptians (Ancient Atherosclerosis?). In places like Ireland, Russia, etc, the lower classes remained on this poverty diet that was often a starvation diet well into the mid-to-late 1800s, although in the case of the Irish it was an artificially constructed famine as the potato crop was essentially being stolen by the English and sold on the international market.
Yet, in America, the poor were fortunate in being able to rely on a meat-based diet because wild game was widely available and easily obtained, even in cities. That may have been true for many European populations as well during earlier feudalism, specifically prior to the peasants being restricted in hunting and trapping on the commons. This is demonstrated by how health improved after the fall of the Roman Empire (Malnourished Americans). During this earlier period, only the wealthy could afford high-quality bread and large amounts of grain-based foods in general. That meant highly refined and fluffy white bread that couldn’t easily be adulterated. Likewise, for the early centuries of colonialism, sugar was only available to the wealthy — in fact, it was a controlled substance typically only found in pharmacies. But for the elite who had access, sugary pastries and other starchy dessert foods became popular. White bread and pastries were status symbols. Sugar was so scarce that wealthy households kept it locked away so the servants couldn’t steal it. Even fruit was disproportionately eaten by the wealthy. A fruit pie would truly have been a luxury with all three above ingredients combined in a single delicacy.
Part of the context is that, although grain yields had been increasing during the early colonial era, there weren’t dependable surplus yields of grains before the 1800s. Until then, white bread, pastries, and such simply were not affordable to most people. Consumption of grains, along with other starchy carbs and sugar, rose with 19th century advancements in agriculture. Simultaneously, income was increasing and the middle class was growing. But even as yields increased, most of the created surplus grains went to feeding livestock, not to feeding the poor. Grains were perceived as cattle feed. Protein consumption increased more than did carbohydrate consumption, at least initially. The American population, in particular, didn’t see the development of a high-carb diet until much later, as related to US mass urbanization also happening later.
Coming to the end of the 19th century, there was the emergence of the mass diet of starchy and sugary foods, especially the spread of wheat farming and white bread. And, in the US, only by the 20th century did grain consumption finally surpass meat consumption. Following that, there has been growing rates of autism. Along with sensory sensitivity, autistics are well known for their pickiness about foods and well known for cravings for particular foods such as those made from highly refined wheat flour, from white bread to crackers. Yet the folktales in question were speaking to a still living memory of an earlier time when these changes had yet to happen. Hans Christian Andersen first published “The Princess and the Pea” in 1835, but such stories had been orally told long before that, probably going back at least centuries, although we now know that some of these folktales have their origins millennia earlier, even into the Bronze Age. According to the Wikipedia article on “The Princess and the Pea”,
“The theme of this fairy tale is a repeat of that of the medieval Perso-Arabic legend of al-Nadirah. […] Tales of extreme sensitivity are infrequent in world culture but a few have been recorded. As early as the 1st century, Seneca the Younger had mentioned a legend about a Sybaris native who slept on a bed of roses and suffered due to one petal folding over. The 11th-century Kathasaritsagara by Somadeva tells of a young man who claims to be especially fastidious about beds. After sleeping in a bed on top of seven mattresses and newly made with clean sheets, the young man rises in great pain. A crooked red mark is discovered on his body and upon investigation a hair is found on the bottom-most mattress of the bed. An Italian tale called “The Most Sensitive Woman” tells of a woman whose foot is bandaged after a jasmine petal falls upon it.”
I would take it as telling that, in the case of this particular folktale, it doesn’t appear to be as ancient as other examples. That would support my argument that the sensory sensitivity of autism might be caused by greater consumption of refined wheat, something that only began to appear late in the Axial Age and only became common much later. Even for the few wealthy that did have access in ancient times, they were eating rather limited amounts of white bread. It might have required hitting a certain level of intake, not seen until modernity or closer to it, before the extreme autistic symptoms became noticeable among a larger number of the aristocracy and monarchy.
* * *
- Princess and the Pea/The Most Beautiful Woman stories:The Princess on the Pea
folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 704
about the search for a sensitive wife
translated and edited by D. L. Ashliman
- Sybaris Story told by Seneca:
A bed of roses
- Twenty Two Goblins:
translated by Arthur W. Ryder
- Info on the Sybarites:
Delphi Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus
by Diodorus Siculus
Others have connected such folktales of sensitivity with autism:
- The Princess and the Pea was Autistic
- Lessons on Autism Acceptance from “The Princess and the Pea” (for Old and Young Alike!)
by Heather Galloway
- The Princess and the Pea, that’s me
by Helen White
- Autism and Touch – The Princess and the Pea
by Stella Waterhouse
The high cost and elite status of grains, especially white bread, prior to 19th century high yields:
The Life of a Whole Grain Junkie
by Seema Chandra
Did you know where the term refined comes from? Around 1826, whole grain bread used by the military was called superior for health versus the white refined bread used by the aristocracy. Before the industrial revolution, it was more labor consuming and more expensive to refine bread, so white bread was the main staple loaf for aristocracy. That’s why it was called “refined”.
The War on White Bread
by Livia Gershon
Bread has always been political. For Romans, it helped define class; white bread was for aristocrats, while the darkest brown loaves were for the poor. Later, Jacobin radicals claimed white bread for the masses, while bread riots have been a perennial theme of populist uprisings. But the political meaning of the staff of life changed dramatically in the early twentieth-century United States, as Aaron Bobrow-Strain, who went on to write the book White Bread, explained in a 2007 paper. […]
Even before this industrialization of baking, white flour had had its critics, like cracker inventor William Sylvester Graham. Now, dietary experts warned that white bread was, in the words of one doctor, “so clean a meal worm can’t live on it for want of nourishment.” Or, as doctor and radio host P.L. Clark told his audience, “the whiter your bread, the sooner you’re dead.”
Furthermore, one should not disregard the cultural context of food consumption. Habits may develop that prevent the attainment of a level of nutritional status commensurate with actual real income. For instance, the consumption of white bread or of polished rice, instead of whole-wheat bread or unpolished rice, might increase with income, but might detract from the body’s well-being. Insofar as cultural habits change gradually over time, significant lags could develop between income and nutritional status.
As consequence, per capita food consumption could have increased between 1660 and 1740 by as much as 50 percent. The fact that real wages were higher in the 1730s than at any time since 1537 indicates a high standard of living was reached. The increase in grain exports, from 2.8 million quintals in the first decade of the eighteenth century to 6 million by the 1740s, is also indicative of the availability of nutrients.
The remarkably good harvests were brought about by the favorable weather conditions of the 1730s. In England the first four decades of the eighteenth century were much warmer than the last decades of the previous century (Table 5.1). Even small differences in temperature may have important consequences for production. […] As a consequence of high yields the price of consumables declined by 14 percent in the 1730s relative to the 1720s. Wheat cost 30 percent less in the 1730s than it did in the 1660s. […] The increase in wheat consumption was particularly important because wheat was less susceptible to mold than rye. […]
There is direct evidence that the nutritional status of many populations was, indeed, improving in the early part of the eighteenth century, because human stature was generally increasing in Europe as well as in America (see Chapter 2). This is a strong indication that protein and caloric intake rose. In the British colonies of North America, an increase in food consumption—most importantly, of animal protein—in the beginning of the eighteenth century has been directly documented. Institutional menus also indicate that diets improved in terms of caloric content.
Changes in British income distribution conform to the above pattern. Low food prices meant that the bottom 40 percent of the distribution was gaining between 1688 and 1759, but by 1800 had declined again to the level of 1688. This trend is another indication that a substantial portion of the population that was at a nutritional disadvantage was doing better during the first half of the eighteenth century than it did earlier, but that the gains were not maintained throughout the century.
The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860
By Christopher Clark
Livestock also served another role, as a kind of “regulator,” balancing the economy’s need for sufficiency and the problems of producing too much. In good years, when grain and hay were plentiful, surpluses could be directed to fattening cattle and hogs for slaughter, or for exports to Boston and other markets on the hoof. Butter and cheese production would also rise, for sale as well as for family consumption. In poorer crop years, however, with feedstuffs rarer, cattle and swine could be slaughtered in greater numbers for household and local consumption, or for export as dried meat.
Increased crop and livestock production were linked. As grain supplies began to overtake local population increases, more corn in particular became available for animal feed. Together with hay, this provided sufficient feedstuffs for farmers in the older Valley towns to undertake winter cattle fattening on a regular basis, without such concern as they had once had for fluctuations in output near the margins of subsistence. Winter fattening for market became an established practice on more farms.
When Food Changed History: The French Revolution
by Lisa Bramen
But food played an even larger role in the French Revolution just a few years later. According to Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, by Linda Civitello, two of the most essential elements of French cuisine, bread and salt, were at the heart of the conflict; bread, in particular, was tied up with the national identity. “Bread was considered a public service necessary to keep the people from rioting,” Civitello writes. “Bakers, therefore, were public servants, so the police controlled all aspects of bread production.”
If bread seems a trifling reason to riot, consider that it was far more than something to sop up bouillabaisse for nearly everyone but the aristocracy—it was the main component of the working Frenchman’s diet. According to Sylvia Neely’s A Concise History of the French Revolution, the average 18th-century worker spent half his daily wage on bread. But when the grain crops failed two years in a row, in 1788 and 1789, the price of bread shot up to 88 percent of his wages. Many blamed the ruling class for the resulting famine and economic upheaval.
Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-food-changed-history-the-french-revolution-93598442/#veXc1rXUTkpXSiMR.99
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What Brought on the French Revolution?
by H.A. Scott Trask
Through 1788 and into 1789 the gods seemed to be conspiring to bring on a popular revolution. A spring drought was followed by a devastating hail storm in July. Crops were ruined. There followed one of the coldest winters in French history. Grain prices skyrocketed. Even in the best of times, an artisan or factor might spend 40 percent of his income on bread. By the end of the year, 80 percent was not unusual. “It was the connection of anger with hunger that made the Revolution possible,” observed Schama. It was also envy that drove the Revolution to its violent excesses and destructive reform.
Take the Reveillon riots of April 1789. Reveillon was a successful Parisian wall-paper manufacturer. He was not a noble but a self-made man who had begun as an apprentice paper worker but now owned a factory that employed 400 well-paid operatives. He exported his finished products to England (no mean feat). The key to his success was technical innovation, machinery, the concentration of labor, and the integration of industrial processes, but for all these the artisans of his district saw him as a threat to their jobs. When he spoke out in favor of the deregulation of bread distribution at an electoral meeting, an angry crowded marched on his factory, wrecked it, and ransacked his home.
Why did our ancestors prefer white bread to wholegrains?
by Rachel Laudan
Only in the late nineteenth and twentieth century did large numbers of “our ancestors”–and obviously this depends on which part of the world they lived in–begin eating white bread. […]
Wheat bread was for the few. Wheat did not yield well (only seven or eight grains for one planted compared to corn that yielded dozens) and is fairly tricky to grow.
White puffy wheat bread was for even fewer. Whiteness was achieved by sieving out the skin of the grain (bran) and the germ (the bit that feeds the new plant). In a world of scarcity, this made wheat bread pricey. And puffy, well, that takes fairly skilled baking plus either yeast from beer or the kind of climate that sourdough does well in. […]
Between 1850 and 1950, the price of wheat bread, even white wheat bread, plummeted in price as a result of the opening up of new farms in the US and Canada, Argentina, Australia and other places, the mechanization of plowing and harvesting, the introduction of huge new flour mills, and the development of continuous flow bakeries.
In 1800 only half the British population could afford wheat bread. In 1900 everybody could.
In Georgian times the introduction of sieves made of Chinese silk helped to produce finer, whiter flour and white bread gradually became more widespread. […]
A report accused bakers of adulterating bread by using alum lime, chalk and powdered bones to keep it very white. Parliament banned alum and all other additives in bread but some bakers ignored the ban. […]
The Corn Laws were passed to protect British wheat growers. The duty on imported wheat was raised and price controls on bread lifted. Bread prices rose sharply. […]
Wholemeal bread, eaten by the military, was recommended as being healthier than the white bread eaten by the aristocracy.
Rollermills were invented in Switzerland. Whereas stonegrinding crushed the grain, distributing the vitamins and nutrients evenly, the rollermill broke open the wheat berry and allowed easy separation of the wheat germ and bran. This process greatly eased the production of white flour but it was not until the 1870s that it became economic. Steel rollermills gradually replaced the old windmills and watermills.
With large groups of the population near to starvation the Corn Laws were repealed and the duty on imported grain was removed. Importing good quality North American wheat enabled white bread to be made at a reasonable cost. Together with the introduction of the rollermill this led to the increase in the general consumption of white bread – for so long the privilege of the upper classes.
In many contexts Linné explained how people with different standing in society eat different types of bread. He wrote, “Wheat bread, the most excellent of all, is used only by high-class people”, whereas “barley bread is used by our peasants” and “oat bread is common among the poor”. He made a remark that “the upper classes use milk instead of water in the dough, as they wish to have a whiter and better bread, which thereby acquires a more pleasant taste”. He compared his own knowledge on the food habits of Swedish society with those mentioned in classical literature. Thus, according to Linné, Juvenal wrote that “a soft and snow-white bread of the finest wheat is given to the master”, while Galen condemned oat bread as suitable only for cattle, not for humans. Here Linné had to admit that it is, however, consumed in certain provinces in Sweden.
Linné was aware of and discussed the consequences of consuming less tasty and less satisfying bread, but he seems to have accepted as a fact that people belonging to different social classes should use different foods to satisfy their hunger. For example, he commented that “bran is more difficult to digest than flour, except for hard-labouring peasants and the likes, who are scarcely troubled by it”. The necessity of having to eat filling but less palatable bread was inevitable, but could be even positive from the nutritional point of view. “In Östergötland they mix the grain with flour made from peas and in Scania with vetch, so that the bread may be more nutritious for the hard-working peasants, but at the same time it becomes less flavoursome, drier and less pleasing to the palate.” And, “Soft bread is used mainly by the aristocracy and the rich, but it weakens the gums and teeth, which get too little exercise in chewing. However, the peasant folk who eat hard bread cakes generally have stronger teeth and firmer gums”.
It is intriguing that Linné did not find it necessary to discuss the consumption or effect on health of other bakery products, such as the sweet cakes, tarts, pies and biscuits served by the fashion-conscious upper class and the most prosperous bourgeois. Several cookery books with recipes for the fashionable pastry products were published in Sweden in the eighteenth century 14. The most famous of these, Hjelpreda i Hushållningen för Unga Fruentimmer by Kajsa Warg, published in 1755, included many recipes for sweet pastries 15. Linné mentioned only in passing that the addition of egg makes the bread moist and crumbly, and sugar and currants impart a good flavour.
The sweet and decorated pastries were usually consumed with wine or with the new exotic beverages, tea and coffee. It is probable that Linné regarded pastries as unnecessary luxuries, since expensive imported ingredients, sugar and spices, were indispensable in their preparation. […]
Linné emphasized that soft and fresh bread does not draw in as much saliva and thus remains undigested for a long time, “like a stone in the stomach”. He strongly warned against eating warm bread with butter. While it was “considered as a delicacy, there was scarcely another food that was more damaging for the stomach and teeth, for they were loosen’d by it and fell out”. By way of illustration he told an example reported by a doctor who lived in a town near Amsterdam. Most of the inhabitants of this town were bakers, who sold bread daily to the residents of Amsterdam and had the practice of attracting customers with oven-warm bread, sliced and spread with butter. According to Linné, this particular doctor was not surprised when most of the residents of this town “suffered from bad stomach, poor digestion, flatulence, hysterical afflictions and 600 other problems”. […]
Linné was not the first in Sweden to write about famine bread. Among his remaining papers in London there are copies from two official documents from 1696 concerning the crop failure in the northern parts of Sweden and the possibility of preparing flour from different roots, and an anonymous small paper which contained descriptions of 21 plants, the roots or leaves of which could be used for flour 10. These texts had obviously been studied by Linné with interest.
When writing about substitute breads, Linné formulated his aim as the following: “It will teach the poor peasant to bake bread with little or no grain in the circumstance of crop failure without destroying the body and health with unnatural foods, as often happens in the countryside in years of hardship” 10.
Linné’s idea for a publication on bread substitutes probably originated during his early journeys to Lapland and Dalarna, where grain substitutes were a necessity even in good years. Actually, bark bread was eaten in northern Sweden until the late nineteenth century 4. In the poorest regions of eastern and north-eastern Finland it was still consumed in the 1920s 26. […]
Bark bread has been used in the subarctic area since prehistoric times 4. According to Linné, no other bread was such a common famine bread. He described how in springtime the soft inner layer can be removed from debarked pine trees, cleaned of any remaining bark, roasted or soaked to remove the resin, and dried and ground into flour. Linné had obviously eaten bark bread, since he could say that “it tastes rather well, is however more bitter than other bread”. His view of bark bread was most positive but perhaps unrealistic: “People not only sustain themselves on this, but also often become corpulent of it, indeed long for it.” Linné’s high regard for bark bread was shared by many of his contemporaries, but not all. For example, Pehr Adrian Gadd, the first professor of chemistry in Turku (Åbo) Academy and one of the most prominent utilitarians in Finland, condemned bark bread as “useless, if not harmful to use” 28. In Sweden, Anders Johan Retzius, a professor in Lund and an expert on the economic and pharmacological potential of Swedish flora, called bark bread “a paltry food, with which they can hardly survive and of which they always after some time get a swollen body, pale and bluish skin, big and hard stomach, constipation and finally dropsy, which ends the misery” 4. […]
Linné’s investigations of substitutes for grain became of practical service when a failed harvest of the previous summer was followed by famine in 1757 10. Linné sent a memorandum to King Adolf Fredrik in the spring of 1757 and pointed out the risk to the health of the hungry people when they ignorantly chose unsuitable plants as a substitute for grain. He included a short paper on the indigenous plants which in the shortage of grain could be used in bread-making and other cooking. His Majesty immediately permitted this leaflet to be printed at public expense and distributed throughout the country 10. Soon Linné’s recipes using wild flora were read out in churches across Sweden. In Berättelse om The inhemska wäxter, som i brist af Säd kunna anwändas til Bröd- och Matredning, Linné 32 described the habitats and the popular names of about 30 edible wild plants, eight of which were recommended for bread-making.