Dietary Laws

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Dietary Laws in the widest sense of the term, would embrace secular legislation such as the sumptuary laws which various governments from classical times up to the present have passed in an effort to stem excesses of gluttony, flagrantly unfair distribution of foodstuffs, and other practices perceived as harmful to the state.

Sumptuary laws were a feature of ancient Greece and Rome, medieval and early modern Western Europe, pre-modern China and Japan, and even post-colonial America. While the earliest regulations concerned the conduct of funerals and the behaviour of female mourners, their chief concern was usually clothing and material indicators of status. But alimentary matters often featured, whether the number of dishes permitted a middle-ranking samurai, the scale of entertaining thought seemly for a Roman noble, or the exact size of a dinner served to a bishop, dean, or archdeacon in the newly established Anglican Church. Funerals and celebrations at other rites of passage, however, remained a preoccupation. The Jews of Tykocin (Titkin) in Poland in 1705 forbad women who had just given birth sending out casseroles or honey cakes to anyone other than the midwife or the rabbi’s wife. In part, these rules preserved hierarchies under threat from new and thrusting social groups. Alternatively, there was a moral message about greed and luxurious display. And there were signs that the laws were used by emergent governments to impose social conformity. Or they could be to protect domestic supplies, production, or wealth.