Unwholesome for man's body?: concerns about food quality and regulation in London c1600 - c1740

Margaret Dorey

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines representations of concern about food quality in early modern England. It shows that such concerns are a recurring issue, although definitions of wholesomeness and fraud, and the methods of commission and detection of quality offences as well as the scale of the problem may change over time. This challenges the current historiography of English food concern, which presents widespread food fraud as a modern issue, emerging in the nineteenth century with the publication of Frederick Accum’s treatise on fraud and its detection, if not later. In focusing on London in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, this study identifies and addresses a significant gap in the study of food fraud in England. Previous work in this field has largely ignored the early modern period, instead eliding the early modern era with scant evidence from medieval records, presenting the pre-modern past as an unchanging monolithic whole and the early nineteenth century as a time of dramatic change.

Conclusions about early modern food fraud have been drawn from limited evidence for a very restricted range of food trades. This examination of early modern food concern investigates a more representative range of trades, including the butchers, flour and meal sellers, fishmongers, poulters and fruit, herb and root sellers, in addition to the grocers and bakers more usually considered. In order to do this it draws on regulatory documents of the food companies, the city and the crown. It also examines printed contemporary health and dietary texts, as well as broadsheets, and popular literature. In addition, it uses court records, including those of the Courts of Assistants for the food companies, the Court of Aldermen, the Court of Common Council and the ward presentments and Sessions papers for London. The records of the Leet Courts for King’s, Guildable and Great Liberty Manors in Southwark, the Court of Burgesses for Westminster, the Court minutes from Bridewell Hospital and the Sessions papers for Middlesex and Westminster were also consulted.

This study takes a qualitative approach, focussing on perceptions and representations of food quality and risk in the early modern records, rather than on quantifying incidence of quality offences. In doing this it utilises the insights offered by anthropological studies of perceptions of risk and danger and recent work by sociologists into trust in food, which show that actual incidence of fraud is only one factor of many that influences ideas about food quality. Other factors, such as perceptions of the relative honesty of sellers and of regulatory rigor, are also significant in influencing trust or concerns about food quality. They also indicate that invocations of food contamination and adulteration can also serve as a means of defining legitimacy and negotiating control. As such, the question asked by this study is not whether accusations of food adulteration and fraud in the past were justified, but rather, what the discussions of food safety in the past can tell us about contested social and trade boundaries within early modern English society. This calls for an approach that asks not only what sellers were accused of, but also who was accused, by whom, when, in what terms, to what possible purpose and with what effect.

The thesis is divided into three sections, which address the different factors that impact on beliefs about the relative potential safety of food. The first two sections test assumptions made in previous studies of food adulteration about the nature of both fraud and regulatory activity in the early modern period. Section one examines perceptions of food. Chapter one contextualizes ideas about food quality within early modern dietary theory, then Chapter two explores contemporary suspicions of fraudulent practice. Finally it examines the supposed ‘newness’ of the frauds Accum exposed in 1820 in the light of the early modern evidence. The second section focuses on the regulatory process. It questions both the caveat emptor view of regulation in the past and the opposing idea that regulation was consistently and invariably applied effectively preventing successful fraud, which underlie assumptions that food fraud is a modern concern. Chapter three outlines the multiplicity of regulations that in theory applied to the sale of food in London, while chapter four considers how this played out in practise. The third section brings in the aspects of seller honesty and reputation, which have previously been omitted from considerations of early modern food regulation. It argues that perceptions of the food sellers and their potential for disorder impacted upon beliefs about the food they sold. Chapter five looks at how the role of the food traders as both wholesalers and retailers placed them against economic theories of their times. Chapter six explores the connections between food sellers and moral disorder. Chapter seven considers the food sellers and pollution, and their possible connection to the danger of epidemic disease. The concluding chapter returns to the question of continuity and/or change in concerns about food fraud over time.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2011


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