Food and Foreignnes in Sir Thomas More


  • Joan Fitzpatrick University College Northampton



In Sir Thomas More, by Anthony Munday and others, foreign culinary appetites are associated with physical and sexual degeneracy, and the perception that foreign consumption is harmful to English natives acts as a dominant theme. The accusations rehearsed against resident foreigners in the play are that they have a detrimental effect upon the economy (specifically causing inflation), they have strange culinary practices, and they bring disease. One of the play's key linkages brings these last two together: vegetables grown by the foreigners infect Londoners and so undermine the security of the city. The body's consumption of infected vegetables becomes a powerful symbol for what the rioters believe to be the effect of London's absorption of aliens: as the body consumes that which will infect it so London incorporates the seeds of its own destruction by allowing the aliens to remain. Just as a body that has been poisoned should purge itself of the poisonous matter to ensure its well-being, so violent efforts to purge London of its foreigners are considered necessary by the rioters to ensure the safety of the city. Complaints made by Londoners against European foreigners in Sir Thomas More can be contextualized via contemporary accounts of the Irish diet in colonial prose writings that describe unusual and degenerate consumption in order to draw distinctions between civilized English men and their foreign inferiors. The dating of Sir Thomas More is itself difficult and a further complication is the relationship between the manuscript's main text, an apparent layer of censorship, and the 'additions' in several hands, but I will nevertheless attempt to contextualize the play's interrelation of food and civil disorder in the light of food shortages in the 1590s and early 1600s that gave rise to real riots. My study of food in the play links Shakespeare's 'addition' (Hand D) in a way that supports recent work on the manuscript's specific theatrical provenance.