The Colonial Society of Massachusetts
Graduate Student Forum in Early American History
Colonial Society of Massachusetts
Graduate Student Forum in Early American History
Dissertation Title: Feast, Fast, and Flesh: The Violence of Hunger in Colonial New England and New France
Although food history is an established academic field, the study of hunger and violence is only now an emerging part of it, and has yet to affect interpretations of early America. My dissertation is a comparative history of how hunger violently shaped culture among European colonists and Indians in New England and New France. No previous study has focused on these factors in this era, which saw over a century of on-and-off imperial war between Britain, France, and Native American allies on both sides, and widespread anxieties about hunger. This project addresses three important historiographical gaps: 1) hunger as a driving force of cultural adaptation in wartime (which cultural histories of war have rarely focused on); 2) histories of food and war in North America (as have been done for early modern Europe); 3) a serious consideration of scarcity (rather than the plenty which has tended to characterize food history).
My findings suggest that, fearful of hunger’s destructive force in society, communities ceremonially regulated eating and fasting in an effort to control the body’s powerful urges. The chaos of war, however, forced many people outside of these social strictures and into the grip of violent appetites, where hunger caused people to violate cultural taboos to stay alive. This project analyzes both the social norms that attempted to regulate the body, and the breaking point at which these norms collapsed in the face of overwhelming physical need. In my dissertation, I am reinterpreting sources such as captivity narratives, sermons, religious and dietetic treatises, treaty conference proceedings, diaries, cookbooks, and material culture with a new focus on the slippage between violence and sustenance in these texts.
By analyzing this complex period, my dissertation connects the history of violence to the history of food in colonial America. While military and cultural historians have emphasized the tremendous damage that war and famine wrought in European society in the seventeenth century, historians of North America have not grappled with the cultural ramifications of wartime hunger in the colonial period. My project breaks new ground by considering how hunger shaped Indian and European experiences of war in early America. In addition, my dissertation makes an important contribution to food studies, by reorienting the field towards the study of scarcity. The field of food studies has often focused on food's abundance more than its absence, neglecting the reality that scarcity and longing have long characterized many peoples' experiences of food. The violence of food scarcity characterized daily life in colonial New England and New France, and has also left a destructive legacy in American history: after the colonial period, Euro-Americans continued to use scarcity as a weapon in wars against the Indians for centuries.
The overall structure of the dissertation first examines the social norms that held hunger at bay, then considers the consequences when violence thrust people outside the bounds of these cultural taboos. The first two chapters of the dissertation, “That Cup of Wrath: Feasting and Fasting on the Eve of War,” and “Govern Well Your Appetites: Feasting and Fasting on the Eve of Peace,” concern “visceral rituals,” ceremonies of eating and not-eating that regulated hunger and stabilized the social order in this violent period. These ceremonies include toasts at treaty conferences, Puritan and Catholic feast and fast days, and food rationing in military encampments. However, these rituals of social cohesion also had undertones of violence, as my third chapter, “This is My Body: Communion and Cannibalism,” demonstrates by comparing English Puritan, French Catholic, and Indian communion ceremonies. The final two chapters, “Arrows of Famine: Hunger and Starvation,” and “The Violence of My Appetite: Disgust and Sustenance,” examine what happens when war forces people out of the stabilizing ritual space and into the grip of the violent appetite, where they violate social norms in order to stay alive. Mothers stole food from children, guests attacked their hosts, and people consumed foods they would have ordinarily found disgusting, forbidden, or unclean. Each chapter uses material culture analysis to unpack a series of symbolically-charged, broadly-defined “meals”: colonial commissioners and Indian diplomats drank toasts together but did not share a dinner table at treaty conferences; communion vessels anchored rituals of symbolic cannibalism among French and English colonists as well as Indians; rotting meat evoked physiological and moral disgust in Samuel Kirkland, an English colonist missionizing the Seneca.
The central methodological challenge—and a major contribution—of my project, is the question of how to write hunger as both a physiological necessity and a cultural construct. While theorists—most famously Elaine Scarry—have written extensively about the distance between pain and the written word, scholars are only now beginning to create a theoretical means for writing about other physical sensations, such as hunger. In my dissertation, I am writing an entire chapter about what hunger makes people do: my historical actors eat disgusting things, and do disgusting things. But I also am working to write a chapter about the experience of hunger itself. I am still grappling with how to write food history when the absence of food is precisely the issue. Moreover, as is the case with many projects on the colonial period, excavating Indian perspectives and experiences is a particular challenge. While primary sources from my chronology spill over with accounts of colonists' hunger, English narrators often minimized, distorted, or completely ignored Indian hunger.
For example, one of my richest primary sources, the journal of the young English missionary Samuel Kirkland on his first mission to the Seneca from November 1764 to June 1765 (actually composed after 1800) records periods of scarcity in harrowing detail. His struggles to find food he deemed edible in a time of want point to different food expectations for Indians and English. A few months after Kirkland arrived to preach among the Seneca in 1764, the village fell into a late-winter famine. The Seneca had only recently resettled in the area after living in a refugee camp, reliant on British rations during the Seven Year's War. The previous summer, they had planted their corn too late and an early fall frost destroyed most of their crop. They had exhausted their meager winter stores, and game was rare. "Provisions are exceeding scarce- the wild game they killed in the winter is nearly consumed- but little corn in the whole Town- some families entirely destitute," Kirkland reported in March. 1 The Indians traveled to find corn for sale but prices had skyrocketed. Kirkland himself traded one of his shirts for four cornmeal cakes. So great was his hunger, "At first sight I thought I could devour them all at one meal," but he vomited up the first cake he ate. 2 He kept the remaining cakes until they began to mold, and "then gave them to the children," his adoptive nieces and nephews, "who devoured them instantly." 3 The hungry children could stomach what Kirkland could not. By April, the scarcity in the village had only deepened. Kirkland found himself "emaciated" with "some loss of bodily strength." 4 He ate squirrels, acorns, and rotten meat, suffering extreme digestive distress, and described all of these experiences in stomach-churning detail. The kind of hunger that Kirkland experienced among the Seneca tested his faith, challenges his categorizations of what was and was not food, and caused him to break the social contract in ways large and small.
By contrast, the hunger of the Seneca—the people with whom Kirkland shared a family, a home, and a table—remained remote in Kirkland’s telling. The Seneca merely flitted around the periphery of Kirkland’s all-consuming hunger. For example, preparing a meal of rotting meat, Kirkland’s sister in law confided to her husband “she was afraid their brother whiteman would not eat” the repugnant foods reserved for times of crisis. 5 But Kirkland told only of his own disgust at consuming rotting meat, and had nothing more to say about the experiences of his Seneca family eating this desperate meal. Reconstructing Indian experiences of food shortage, using clues like these, is one of the most important puzzles of my dissertation, and I trust that the other participants in the Graduate Student Forum will help me to work through these questions.
1. Samuel Kirkland, Diary Volume 1, 1764-5, Pre-Revolutionary Diaries, 5.9:29, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.