Wittenwiler’s Wedding Feast V: A Heroic Death

Another piece of the feast in Der Ring, illustrating the dangers of eating fish improperly.

Schlaraffenland as envisioned by Pieter Breughel the Elder c. 1567, courtesy of wikimedia commons

Then they started on the fish that were on the table. Straub (a server) wanted to try them first (chredenzet haben), but he saw such grasping and chasing over the platter that he chose instead to grab a piece for himself. He was lucky it was the largest, and how quickly it was gone! Who would have waited for their neighbour to be served first at this hour? There was no time for that, I should think. The servers would have cut the fish apart for them, but they (the guests) could not wait for it. The dish seemed too tempting. Reuschindhell (lit. rush-into-hell) grasped a particularly slimy head piece that seemed good to him nonetheless. He thought to himself: “If you are gnawing the head, that already means you are too late, but if you leave it be, you have no enjoyment at all and have come in vain.” Thus he drew it through his mouth three times and laid it in front of himself again, as complete as it had been. He was luckier the next time: He caught a middle piece, and how quickly that was gone!

By now, brave Varindwand (lit: break-into-the-wall) had grasped the head. He thought it did not please his brother, and how quickly he swallowed it up! And thus he could not live, for the fish bones (grät) thrust through his neck! Then spoke Galgenswanch (lit: swing-on-the-gallows): “Dear God, receive our thanks!” Thus Farindwand’s soul passed away to the land of Cockaigne (gen Schläuraffen land), that was well suited to him. His body was thrown into the river Necker. What harm was that to his companions? If you would eat your fill, guard against having too many fellow diners. But if you would fight successfully, you must have a good number of friends. Thus also thought Uotz vom Hag (lit. from the woods). He wanted to take an eater (fresser) out of the game and said: “Her Guggoch (lit. Sir Cuckoo) is a man who can himself make poems about Dietrich von Bern. We would much rather hear those than sit here eating those dead fish.”

Guggoch was flattered and began telling his tale: “Some heroes sat in a hall, and they ate prodigiously every time…” et cetera, to the end. But his audience were quick and ate up all the fish before the singer noticed. When his song was over, Guggoch wanted to start eating, looked around, and found nothing. He scratched his head and shouted out: “I am a child (i.e. a fool) and you, Uotz, a right knave! This trick shows it.” While he had sung joyfully earlier, now he mourned tearfully, but to all the others, it was a great joke.

This episode is so grotesque it stands out even in the context of a generally outrageous poem. Of course, people actually did die this way. I doubt it was at all common, but it was also not unheard of (and still isn’t – several people choke to death on food every year). The idea that fellow diners would casually dispose of the body and return to their feast, though, is as unimaginable to the medieval mind as it is to us. The point is to illustrate the greed of these peasants. An important marker of good manners was never to eat greedily. This is easier if you don’t need to worry where tomorrow’s dinner comes from, obviously, and also helped by the certainty that there is enough food for everyone on the table. Here, that is obviously not the case. This gets even worse in the next course as food supplies dwindle and the diners get progressively more confrontational.

The sense of shortage, incidentally, is very likely realistic. Fresh fish was a luxury item most people tasted rarely, if at all. There is every reason to think that most festive tables would have featured small portions, and since food was served in shared bowls, not ‘à la Russe’ in individual portions as is the custom today, sharing it out fairly depended on the restraint of all diners. This is a central concern of all surviving manners books. The way that people here fight over food, trick others into forgoing their share, or steal from each other is the very opposite of this tenet.

An interesting aside here is the final destination of the deceased diner’s soul: Schläuraffen land, the mythical land of Cockaigne. This is obvviously not intended as a serious theological point, but it shows that the idea of this place was already so firmly established it could serve as a throwaway punchline. The still proverbial Schlaraffenland is a kind of worldly paradise, a realm where food and drink are naturally plentiful and the best can be had without effort. In a way, it is the perfect afterlife for a glutton.

Heinrich Wittenwiler‘s massive poem ‚Der Ring‘ (the ring) is a somewhat puzzling piece of literature. Most likely produced in Constance around 1408-10, it tells a complex story of love, adventure, and deceit set in a peasant environment exploited for comedy value, but seems to have a genuine didactic purpose, though one often enough achieved by satirically describing the very opposite of desired conduct. In this, it resembles later Grobianic literature. I will limit myself to translating the parts that are relevant to food and table manners, but would advise anyone with enough command of German to read it in its entirety.

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