Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2013
In almost all human societies, access to the resources necessary to sustain life is one of the defining expressions of rank. The extent to which individuals and groups are able to satisfy their most basic requirements for food and drink are as sure an indication as any of their place within the hierarchy of wealth and esteem. In many communities, both the quantity and the quality of essential consumption serve not only to express but also to create those fine grains of distinction and difference upon which caste systems or class structures are built.
In early modern England the food and drink that people ingested provided resonant markers in the expression of worth and the articulation of status. This essay seeks to explore some of the social significance invested in these forms of consumption between the late sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries. As Keith Wrightson has demonstrated, however, this was a period in which the constitution of English society and the texture of relations between its inhabitants were evolving and diversifying in important ways. Thanks to Wrightson's work we have a much more vivid sense not only of the manner in which economic distinctions between the ‘poorer sorts’, ‘middle sorts’ and ‘better sorts’ of people were being reconfigured in these generations, but also of the new forms of social identity that this bequeathed. One reflection of contemporary changes in economy and society was the introduction of novel foodstuffs and the revision of established attitudes towards old ones.