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.