The sin of gluttony
Gluttony is defined as intemperate eating. The Catholic Church considers it the fifth of the seven cardinal sins. In the Middle Ages, theologians and moralists condemned it and advocated moderation. The pleasures of eating were safe within the bounds of codified, convivial meals. Since the modern era, the overriding image of a gourmand has been that of a gourmet or a connoisseur of good food. Nowadays, the moral issue has shifted towards the cult of thinness, and health concerns.
A cardinal sin
Pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, sloth and, last but not least, gluttony. The Catholic Church listed these as the seven cardinal sins in the 13th century. Gluttony was regarded as a crucial sin, as it could trigger others. However, it could be either a mortal or venial sin, depending on the severity of intent and the context in which the sin was committed. The pleasures of the stomach were also associated with the pleasures of the loins, namely the sin of lust, which inflames the senses and causes physical upset leading to licentious behaviour. Hence, Christian morality strongly condemned “those whose god is their belly” (Saint Paul, The Epistle to the Philippians, 3:19) and who ate greedily and in excess, as gluttony reduced them to the level of animals and made them flout the principle of Christian charity and sharing, whilst raising suspicions of reprehensible sexuality. Gourmands were typically portrayed as selfish people, who devoured and monopolised, becoming a threat to society, especially in times of food shortages. Medieval literature ridiculed gluttonous, pleasure-seeking monks. King Louis XVI of France (1754-1793) had a voracious appetite and was held responsible for starving his people.
The appreciation and excessive pursuit of good food were not exempt of sin. The Reformers attacked the gluttony of the clergy, who lavishly prepared fish and sweet delicacies on fasting days. Christianity swayed between tolerance and rigorism, hence the enjoyment of good food was an issue debated for centuries.
Temperance, one of the four cardinal virtues, was the almost unanimous response to the sin of gluttony. For several centuries, theologians, moralists and teachers extolled moderation. In fact, ancient dietetics, which recommended balance and moderation, followed the same vein. Although it was considered natural to experience pleasure when eating, it was, however, essential to control one’s appetite and behaviour at the table, and to make meals a time for conviviality. Codifying table manners allowed for a managed fondness for food to be acceptable.
Scientific research and the intellectual and religious contexts of the 17th century liberated the concept of fondness for food. There was then a proliferation of books on the culinary arts. Appreciating good food gradually became a sign of social prestige, firstly in France and then throughout the rest of Europe. Aristocrats in pursuit of hedonism became infatuated with the libertine movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Sophisticated gourmet food was freely associated with other sensual pleasures. In fact, gluttony still had negative connotations but was masked: Gourmands were called ‘friands’ (people with refined taste in food), then, in the 19th century, gourmets and gastronomes or even epicures. At that time, gluttony was generally linked with sweet dishes.
Nowadays, the moral issue of gluttony has reappeared in a new guise. The cult of thinness and medical recommendations are reviving the concept of wrongdoing. Prescribed diets may be restrictive or even frustrating. ‘Giving in to gluttony’ produces feelings of guilt and may suggest weakness of character with regard to both oneself and society, since illness comes at a cost.
Feasting and food: the pleasure of eating and sins of the stomach
The films The Big Feast (1973) and Babette’s Feast (1987) both feature gourmet meals. Babette’s Feast makes this moment of sharing a symbol of life and social bonding, as the characters living in austere conditions actually turn out to be astute gastronomes. In contrast, the protagonists in The Big Feast portray gluttony as an extravagant pleasure of the stomach and the loins, combining the sin of eating and the sin of the flesh to ultimately commit violence against themselves, a sin which, for example, Dante Alighieri relegates to the Seventh Circle of Hell in his narrative poem Divine Comedy.
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