This blog accomapnies Louise Stewart’s Historical Journal article ‘Social Status and Classicism in the Visual and Material Culture of the Sweet Banquet in Early Modern England

Today, the term ‘banquet’ is commonly used to refer to any lavish feast.  However, in the Tudor and Stuart period the word had a different, and very specific meaning, referring to a separate meal which consisted solely of sweet foods.  In September 1591, for example, Queen Elizabeth I visited the Earl of Hertford at his estate at Elvetham.  The lavish entertainments provided for the queen during her four day stay included water pageants, fireworks, feasts and a glittering ‘banquet’.  A printed account of the entertainment makes it clear that this banquet was no ordinary meal.  It was served in the garden after supper, ‘all in glass and silver’ and accompanied by a spectacular fireworks display.  The queen was presented with a thousand sweet dishes including sculptural sugar work representing her arms, castles and forts, human figures and mythical and exotic animals as well as preserved fruits and other confections.  This elaborate spectacle was typical of the sweet banquet.

Until now, the early modern sweet banquet has received relatively little scholarly attention, partly due to a perceived lack of sources.  However, more and more primary sources relating to this period are being made available online alongside digital text mining tools, making it possible to search large bodies of material for specific data quickly.  Using these resources in combination with archival research has revealed a multitude of references to the sweet banquet in early modern sources from state papers to household accounts.

These indicate that the sweet banquet was a pervasive dining practice from the 1520s until the middle of the seventeenth century.  It quickly spread beyond the court to the country houses of the nobility and gentry.  Here, banquets took place in small ‘banqueting houses’, on the roof or in the grounds of the main house.  Surviving material culture indicates that the banquet was associated with distinctive forms of tableware and interior decoration, and people were willing to invest significant amounts of money in hosting them.  Furthermore, the banquet is revealed as a conscious attempt to recreate a dining practice from the ancient world, that of the symposium.  Like the symposium, the Tudor banquet was capable of communicating complex messages about politics, status and cultural refinement.

Read Louise Stewart’s full article Social Status and Classicism in the Visual and Material Culture of the Sweet Banquet in Early Modern England in the Historical Journal here.

Main image credit: The Honorable Entertainement geven to the Queenes Majestie in Progresse, at Elvetham in Hampshire, by the right Honorable the Earle of Hertford, 1591, London, © Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

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