A PhD researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, I’m devoting my time to the wonderful sensory world of food history and early modern communal dining. For the non-academic that’s basically 16th and 17th century dinner parties and really that’s how I’m approaching my work. Imagine a 21st century dinner party. What would you talk about? What image would you try and project? What does your home say about you? How do you want your guests to feel? What messages are you conveying in the food you serve, what you serve it from, and the space in which you serve it? Our experiences around the table are dependent on our self-fashioned identity and the identity imposed on us by others. Transfer all this back to the early modern period (generally 1450-1750 although the brackets really depend on the academic) and that’s my area of research. From agency and materiality, to the history of the senses and emotions to physiology, from emotional communities to social and pious performances, architecture to the actual recipes and dinner conversations. We can understand a lot about the early modern period through the microcosm of the dinner party, through looking at those seated around the table and what they might have been thinking and doing in a highly pressurised social event. This involves approaching things from a 16th and 17th century mindset set against a backdrop of reformation, civil war, interregnum and restoration.
My work will focus on three National Trust properties in the north west of England: Little Moreton Hall, Speke Hall and Rufford Old Hall, all three of which have many of their communal dining spaces still in tact and largely unchanged. I am very lucky to be working as a PhD researcher as part of a collaborative doctoral award from the National Trust and Manchester Metropolitan University and funded through a university Vice Chancellor Scholarship.
My working title is Eating Together: Commensal Dining in Early Modern Gentry Houses 1530-1670 and I am particularly interested in whether the three families I am concerned with (the Moretons, Norrises and Heskeths) knowingly manipulated and influenced their dinner guests through the architecture, décor, food stuffs, sensory experience and ceremony of commensal dining. Equally, I am interested in how the culmination of these factors also affected family members too; the household patriarch, the devout gentry mistress, their sons and daughters. People shape environments and environments shape people. For me, there is no better way to explore the lived experience of family and social life during this tumultuous period than through the nexus of the dinner party.