A Common Diet

“English peasants in Medieval times lived on a combination of meat stews, leafy vegetables and dairy products which scientists say was healthier than modern diets.”
~ Frédéric Leroy

There is an idea that, in the past, the poor were fed on bread while the rich monopolized meat. Whether or not this was true of some societies, it certainly wasn’t true of many. For example, in ancient Egypt, all levels of society seemed to have had the same basic high-carb diet with lots of bread. It consisted of the types and amounts of foods that are recommended in the USDA Food Pyramid. And their health suffered for it. As with people eating the same basic diet today, they had high rates of the diseases of civilization, specifically metabolic syndrome: obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Also, they had serious tooth decay, something not seen with low-carb hunter-gatherers.

The main difference for ancient Egyptians was maybe the quality of bread. The same thing was true in Medieval Europe. Refined flour was limited to the wealthy. White breads didn’t become commonly available to most Westerners until the 1800s, about the same time that surplus grain harvests allowed for a high-carb diet and for the practice of fattening up cows with grains. Unsurprisingly, grain-fed humans also started become fat during this time with the earliest commentary on obesity coming from numerous writers of the era: Jane Austen, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, William Banting, etc.

In the Middle Ages, there were some other class differences in eating patterns. The basic difference is that the feudal serfs ate more salmon and aristocracy more chicken. It is not what a modern person would expect considering salmon is far more healthy, but the logic is that chickens were a rare commodity in that the poor wouldn’t want to regularly eat what produces the eggs they were dependent upon. Besides the bread issue, the Medieval aristocracy were also eating more sugary deserts. Back then, only the rich had access to or could afford sugar. Even fruit would have been rare for peasants.

Feudalism, especially early feudalism, was actually rather healthy for peasants. It’s not that anyone’s diet was exactly low-carb, at least not intentionally, although that would have been more true in the centuries of the early Middle Ages when populations returned to a more rural lifestyle of hunting, trapping and gathering, a time when any peasant had access to what was called the ‘commons’. But that did change over time as laws became more restrictive about land use. Still, in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, health and longevity drastically improved for most of the population.

The living conditions for the poor only got worse again as society moved toward modernity with the increase of large-scale agriculture and more processed foods. But even into the late Middle Ages, the diet remained relatively healthy since feudal laws protected the rights of commoners in raising their own food and grazing animals. Subsistence farming combined with some wild foods was not a bad way to feed a population, as long as there was enough land to go around.

A similar diet was maintained among most Americans until the 20th century when urbanization became the norm. As late as the Great Depression, much of the population was able to return to a rural lifestyle or otherwise had access to rural areas, as it was feasible with the then much smaller numbers. Joe Bageant describes his childhood in a West Virginia farming community from 1940s-to-1950s as still having been mostly subsistence farming with a barter economy. We’ve only seen the worst health outcomes among the poor since mass urbanization, which for African Americans only happened around the 1960s or 1970s when the majority finally became urbanized, centuries after it happened in Europe. The healthier diet of non-industrialized rural areas was a great equalizer for most of human existence.

The main thing I thought interesting was that diets didn’t always differ much between populations in the same society. The commonalities of a diet in any given era were greater than the differences. We now think of bread and refined flour as being cheap food, but at an earlier time such food would have been far more expensive and generally less available across all of society. As agriculture expanded, natural sources of food such as wild game became scarce and everyone became increasingly dependent on grains, along with legumes and tubers. This was a dramatic change with detrimental outcomes and it contributed to other larger changes going on in society.

The divergences of diets by class seems to primarily be a modern shift, including the access the upper classes now have to a diversity of fruits and vegetables, even out of season and grown in distant places. Perception of grains as poor people food and cattle feed only become a typical view starting in the 1800s, something discussed by Bryan Kozlowski in The Jane Austen Diet. As with the Roman Empire, the poorest of the poor lost access to healthy foods during the enclosure movement and extending into industrialization. It was only then that the modern high-carb diet became prevalent. It was also the first time that inequality had risen to such an extreme level, which forced a wedge into the once commonly held diet.

The early Middle Age communities (more akin to ancient city-states) established a more similar lifestyle between the rich and poor, as they literally lived close together, worshiped together, celebrated Carnival together, even ate together. A lord or knight would have maintained a retinue of advisers, assistants and servants plus a large number of dependents and workers who ate collective meals in the main house or castle. Later on, knights were no longer needed to defend communities and aristocracy became courtesans spending most of their time in the distant royal court. Then the enclosure movement created the landless peasants that would become the working poor. As class divides grew, diets diverged accordingly. We are so entrenched in a high inequality society, we have forgotten that this is severely abnormal compared to most societies throughout history. The result of greater inequality of wealth and power has been a worsening inequality of nutrition and health.

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Reconciling organic residue analysis, faunal, archaeobotanical and historical records: Diet and the medieval peasant at West Cotton, Raunds, Northamptonshire
by J. Dunne, A. Chapman, P. Blinkhorn, R. P. Evershed

  • Medieval peasant diet comprises meat and cabbage stews cooked on open hearths.
  • Dairy products, butter and cheese, known as ‘white meats of the poor’ also eaten.

The medieval peasant diet that was ‘much healthier’ than today’s average eating habits: Staples of meat, leafy vegetables and cheese are found in residue inside 500-year-old pottery
by Joe Pinkstone

They found the surprisingly well-rounded diet of the peasants would have kept them well-fed and adequately nourished.

Dr Julie Dunne at the University of Bristol told MailOnline: ‘The medieval peasant had a healthy diet and wasn’t lacking in anything major!

‘It is certainly much healthier than the diet of processed foods many of us eat today.

‘The meat stews (beef and mutton) with leafy vegetables (cabbage, leek) would have provided protein and fibre and important vitamins and the dairy products (butter and ‘green’ cheeses) would also have provided protein and other important nutrients.

‘These dairy products were sometimes referred to as the “white meats” of the poor, and known to have been one of the mainstays of the medieval peasants diet. […]

Historical documents state that medieval peasants ate meat, fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables.

But the researchers say that before their study there was little direct evidence to support this.

A Neverending Revolution of the Mind

In a recent book, Juliet Barker offers new perspective about an old event (1381: The Year of the Peasant’s Revolt, Kindle Locations 41-48):

“In the summer of 1381 England erupted in a violent popular uprising that was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Previous rebellions had always been led by ambitious and discontented noblemen seeking to overthrow the government and seize power for themselves. The so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was led by commoners— most famously Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle— whose origins were obscure and whose moment at the forefront of events was brief. Even more unusually, they did not seek personal advancement but a radical political agenda which, if it had been implemented, would fundamentally have transformed English society: the abolition of serfdom and the dues and services owed by tenants to their lord of the manor; freedom from tolls and customs on buying and selling goods throughout the country; the recognition of a man’s right to work for whom he chose at the wages he chose; the state’s seizure of the Church’s wealth and property. Their demands anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.”

Our understanding of the origins of modernity keep being pushed back. It used to be thought that the American Revolution was the first modern revolution. But it was preceded by generations of revolts against colonial elite. And before that was the English Civil War, which increasingly is seen as the first modern revolution. We might have to push it even further back to the Peasant’s Revolt.

It makes sense when you know some of the historical background. England had become a major center of wool production. This unintentionally undermined the feudal order. The reason is that an entire community of feudal peasants isn’t necessary for herding sheep, in the way it had been for traditional agriculture. So, by the time the Peasant’s Revolt came around, there had already been several centuries of increasing irrelevance for much of the peasant population. This would continue on into the Enlightenment Age when the enclosure movement took hold and masses of landless peasants flooded into the cities.

It’s interesting that the pressure on the social order was already being felt that far back, almost jumpstarting the modern revolutionary era four centuries earlier. Those commoners were already beginning to think of themselves as more than mere cogs in the machinery of feudalism. They anticipated the possibility of becoming agents of their own fate. It was the origins of modern class identity and class war, at least for Anglo-American society.

There were other changes happening around then. It was the beginning of the Renaissance. This brought ancient Greek philosophy, science, and politics back into Western thought. The new old ideas were quickly spread through the invention of the movable type printing press and increasing use of vernacular language. And that directly made the Enlightenment possible.

The Italian city-states and colonial empires were becoming greater influences, bringing with them new economic systems of capitalism and corporatism. The Italian city-states, in the High Middle Ages, also initiated advocacy of anti-monarchialism and liberty-oriented republicanism. Related to this, humanism became a major concern, as taught by the ancient Sophists with Protagoras famously stating that “Man is the measure of all things.” And with this came early developments in psychological thought, such as the radical notion that everyone had the same basic human nature. Diverse societies had growing contact and so cultural differences became an issue, provoking difficult questions and adding to a sense of uncertainty and doubt.

Individual identity and social relationships were being transformed, in a way not seen since the Axial Age. Proto-feudalism developed in the Roman empire. Once established, feudalism lasted for more than a millennia. It wasn’t just a social order but an entire worldview, a way of being in and part of a shared world. Every aspect of life was structured by it. The slow unraveling inevitably led to increasing radicalism, as what it meant to be human was redefined and re-envisioned.

My thoughts continuously return to these historical changes. I can’t shake the feeling that we are living through another such period of societal transformation. But as during any major shift in consciousness, the outward results are hard to understand or sometimes hard to even notice, at least in terms of their ultimate consequences. That is until they result in an uprising of the masses and sometimes a complete overthrow of established power. Considering that everpresent possibility and looming threat, it might be wise to question how stable is our present social order and the human identity it is based upon.

These thoughts are inspired by other books I’ve been reading. The ideas I regularly return to is that of Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism and the related speculations of those who were inspired by him, such as Iain McGilchrist. Most recently, I found useful insight from two books whose authors were new to me: Consciousness by Susan Blackmore and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton.

Those authors offer overviews that question and criticize many common views, specifically that of the Enlightenment ideal of individuality, in considering issues of embodiment and affect, extended self and bundled self. These aren’t just new theories that academics preoccupy themselves for reasons of entertainment and job security. They are ideas that have much earlier origins and, dismissed for so long because they didn’t fit into the prevailing paradigm, they are only now being taken seriously. The past century led to an onslaught of research findings that continuously challenged what we thought we knew.

This shift is in some ways a return to a different tradition of radical thought. John Locke was radical enough for his day, although his radicalism was hidden behind pieties. Even more radical was a possible influence on Locke, Wim Klever going so far as seeing crypto-quotations of Baruch Spinoza in Locke’s writings. Spinoza was an Enlightenment thinker who focused not just on what it meant to be human but a human in the world. What kind of world is this? Unlike Locke, his writings weren’t as narrowly focused on politics, governments, constitutions, etc. Even so, Matthew Stewart argues that through Locke’s writings Spinozism was a hidden impulse that fueled the fires of the American Revolution, taking form and force through a working class radicalism as described in Nature’s God.

Spinozism has been revived in many areas of study, such as the growing body of work about affect. Never fully appreciated in his lifetime, his radicalism continues to inform and inspire innovative thinking. As Renaissance ideas took centuries to finally displace what came before, Spinoza’s ideas are slowly but powerfully helping to remake the modern mind. I’d like to believe that a remaking of the modern world will follow.

I just started an even more interesting book, Immaterial Bodies by Lisa Blackman. She does briefly discuss Spinoza, but her framing concern is the the relationship “between the humanities and the sciences (particularly the life, neurological and psychological sciences).” She looks at the more recent developments of thought, including that of Jaynes and McGilchrist. Specifically, she unpacks the ideological self-identity we’ve inherited.

To argue for or to simply assume a particular social construct about our humanity is to defend a particular social order and thus to enforce a particular social control. She makes a compelling case for viewing neoliberalism as more than a mere economic and political system. The greatest form of control isn’t only controlling how people are allowed to act and relate but, first and foremost, how they are able to think about themselves and the world around them. In speaking about neoliberalism, she quotes Fernando Vidal (Kindle Locations 3979-3981):

“The individualism characteristic of western and westernized societies, the supreme value given to the individual as autonomous agent of choice and initiative, and the corresponding emphasis on interiority at the expense of social bonds and contexts, are sustained by the brain-hood ideology and reproduced by neurocultural discourses.”

Along with mentioning Spinoza, Blackman does give some historical background, such as in the following. And as a bonus, it is placed in the even larger context of Jaynes’ thought. She writes (Kindle Locations 3712-3724):

“Dennett, along with other scientists interested in the problem of consciousness (see Kuijsten, 2006), has identified Jaynes’s thesis as providing a bridge between matter and inwardness, or what I would prefer to term the material and immaterial. Dennett equates this to the difference between a brick and a bricklayer, where agency and sentience are only accorded to the bricklayer and never to the brick. For Dennett, under certain conditions we might have some sense of what it means to be a bricklayer, but it is doubtful, within the specificities of consciousness as we currently know and understand it, that we could ever know what it might mean to be a brick. This argument might be more usefully extended within the humanities by considering the difference between understanding the body as an entity and as a process. The concept of the body as having a ‘thing-like’ quality, where the body is reconceived as a form of property, is one that has taken on a truth status since at least its incorporation into the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 (see Cohen, 2009). As Cohen (2009: 81) suggests, ‘determining the body as the legal location of the person radically reimagines both the ontological and political basis of person-hood’. This act conceives the body as an object possessed or owned by individuals, what Cohen (2009) terms a form of ‘biopolitical individualization’. Within this normative conception of corporeality bodies are primarily material objects that can be studied in terms of their physicochemical processes, and are objects owned by individuals who can maintain and work upon them in order to increase the individual’s physical and cultural capital.”

In her epilogue, she presents a question by Catherine Malabou (Kindle Locations 4014-4015): “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?” The context changes as the social order changes, from feudalism to colonialism and now capitalism. But phrased in various ways, it is the same question that has been asked for centuries.

Another interesting question to ask is, by what right? It is more than a question. It is a demand to prove the authority of an action. And relevant to my thoughts here, it has historical roots in feudalism. It’s like asking someone, who do you think you are to tell me what to do? Inherent in this inquiry is one’s position in the prevailing social order, whether feudal lords challenging the kings authority or peasants challenging those feudal lords. The issue isn’t only who we are and what we are allowed to do based on that but who or what gets to define who we are, our human nature and social identity.

Such questions always have a tinge of the revolutionary, even if only in potential. Once people begin questioning, established attitudes and identities have already become unmoored and are drifting. The act of questioning is itself radical, no matter what the eventual answers. The doubting mind is ever poised on a knife edge.

The increasing pressure put on peasants, especially once they became landless, let loose individuals and identities. This incited radical new thought and action. As a yet another underclass forms, that of the imprisoned and permanently unemployed that even now forms a tenth of the population, what will this lead to? Throwing people into desperation with few opportunities and lots of time on their hands tends to lead to disruptive outcomes, sometimes even revolution.

Radicalism means to go to the root and there is nothing more radical than going to the root of our shared humanity. In questions being asked, those in power won’t be happy with the answers found. But at this point, it is already too late to stop what will follow. We are on our way.

The Road to Neoliberalism

It is strange to continually see references to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Hayek’s support of a brutal dictator like Augusto Pinochet shows that, in practice, he had nothing against going down the road to serfdom, in terms of his own confused use of that word. Such support demonstrates that he was morally insane and politically evil, and yet right-wingers continue to use that book like a magical talisman to wave away all alternative leftist possibilities.

Even ignoring the real world context of Hayek’s life, the title of his book is plain bizarre. He is arguing against oppressive centralization of power in large governments. But historically speaking, serfdom was part of feudalism. The one thing feudalism wasn’t is a national dictatorship like that of Pinochet’s Chile. Feudal lords were violently oppressive authoritarians that operated locally and on the small scale. Most of their power came from tradition and brute force at their command, not government and official laws. Feudal lords often fought against the centralized power of kings.

Let me put that in a modern context. There are two examples that come to mind that most closely approximate feudalism and serfdom.

The most obvious example was the plantation slave system, the aristocratic slaveholders having been the direct inheritors of the aristocratic feudal lords. I mean that literally and directly. Feudalism morphed into slavery with the one constant being the aristocracy, with a couple of centuries of overlap between the two systems. Interestingly, in the colonies, many of those slaveholding aristocrats fought against the British Empire in the American Revolution because they didn’t like a distant large centralized authoritarian government usurping their despotic power and overruling their own authoritarian aspirations within their local fiefdoms.

A more recent example is that of company towns. They aren’t as common these days, at least not in the Western countries, but from the 1800s to the early 1900s many of them were built in the United States. Before labor laws and protections, which is to say before much labor organizing, company towns were sometimes very much neo-feudalism with the ownership class having near total power over their workers. In company towns, workers were often in debt peonage/slavery and this was used as a form of rigid social control. Their entire lives were dominated by the company. They were required by the company to live in company housing, buy from the company store, go to the company doctor, send their kids to the company school, etc.

All of this relates to what is called corporatism (Southern Californian Birth of Salvific Corporatism; & Fascism, Corporatism, and Big Ag). It was a key pillar of fascism. And of course mass slavery was brought back under fascist states. One might note the growing role of prison labor in the US economy, a tradition that followed directly from slavery (From Slavery to Mass Incarceration).

Both of those examples came at a time when government was immensely smaller and less centralized. Feudalism and neo-feudalism is the very vision of authoritarian libertarianism, if we are to coin such a misnomer. This is is also the era that neoliberals love to fantasize about. It’s unsurprising that neoliberal superstars like Friedman, Reagan, and Thatcher loved Pinochet and any other right-wing authoritarian who came along. Neoliberalism has always depended on the alliance of fascist and theocratic states.

The first and only necessary principle of corporatist neoliberalism (or rather soft fascism) is the plutocratic privilege to deny everyone else’s rights and freedoms. Hayek didn’t care about civil rights and democratic systems of any sort and saw them as potentially dangerous. His so-called liberalism was (and still is) defined by one ideal, that of supposedly freedom of action in terms of unmeritocratic capitalism, but it didn’t apply to the freedom of action of anyone who disagreed with him, especially those not part of the oligarchy (the Golden Rule, those with the gold make and enforce the rules). So, he only believed in freedom of others to do what he thought they should do. Otherwise, they must be stopped from acting freely, even if it involved violent oppression, from mass killings to torture (thousands died, were harmed, went missing, and were made into refugees under Pinochet’s regime).

Of course, this oppressive unfreedom was supposedly only a temporary situation, until the malcontents were taken care of, the anti-capitalist obstacles removed, and the new social order was put in place. Then and only then would freedom reign. That was the dogmatic ideology of laissez-faire capitalism that captured power in Western countries and was violently enforced around the world. It was a serfdom made global, not limited to mere local authoritarianism and a quaint aristocracy. This is why spreading Western freedom around the world has required trillions of dollars of military force and millions killed — bombs and blood. It was Manifest Destiny at a larger scale, with even better rhetoric.

Some call this liberty.

* * *

Nietzsche, Hayek, and the Meaning of Conservatism
by Corey Robin

Hayek von Pinochet
by Corey Robin

Hayek’s Super-Highway
by John Médaille

The road to serfdom and taking the country back
by citizen k

Hayek and Pinochet
by John Quiggin

Capitalism is Not Meritocracy
by Frank Moraes

Bill Black: How Hayek Helped the Worst Get to the Top in Economics and as CEOs
by Yves Smith

The New Road to Serfdom
by Christopher Hayes

The Road from Serfdom
by Greg Grandin

Why libertarians apologize for autocracy
by Michael Lind

Friedrich Hayek: in defence of dictatorship
by Benjamin Selwyn

The Mad Dream of a Libertarian Dictatorship
by Jesse Walker

Money won’t compensate for my torture in Chile
by Leopoldo García Lucero