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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds At the University, I do a lot about the history of women, I do a lot about the history of royalty, but I’m also very involved, a key part of my life is the public history course. And that is when our students who, up until then have been studying history as you would, sources, documents, evidence, say, how do we engage our history with the outside world? The public history module was very, sort of unique in how we went about the research.

Skip to 0 minutes and 35 seconds A lot of the modules involve you going into a place, finding specific set texts, and really just reading through them and using that to support an argument that’s sort of already quite well-established, whereas the public history module was very unique in that we were left to our own devices and we really had to think on our feet and use our own instincts and intuition to find out what we wanted to use as evidence. It was very interesting and it really changed how I went about researching for future projects. During the Elizabethan period, we just see a mass amount of food all being brought out at once, and just a pick and choose.

Skip to 1 minute and 9 seconds It was all about opulence, it was all about showing your wealth, and it was all about what you could afford. A typical Elizabethan feast was all about money, status, what you had on the table, and showing off. There was a lot of food, a lot of meats, in particular, peacocks were used at the time. They were bred especially for this. Obviously, the meat would be eaten, and then their tail feathers would be used to decorate the rest of the table. If we look at the famous nursery rhyme, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, there is a line in there which says ‘Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie’. We can assume from this that this actually may have happened.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds A jester may have suggested to the court that they bake a pastry lid and put it on top of some black birds, so when they open it, it comes out and surprises the guests. My favourite piece of information, although it sounds rather simplistic, was bread. Bread was a symbol of class and a symbol of status. It depicted where you were in the social ladder. If you were a high-class person of wealth and status, you would have manchet bread, which was a fine mill, bolted twice grain. It would be pure, it would be white. Whereas for the lower-class person, you would be eating a hard, wholemeal starchy bread that just was really hard to eat.

Skip to 2 minutes and 30 seconds The research that we were doing was around Victoria’s 17th birthday celebration what she would have eaten, what was presented to the guests, and how the feast was organised and how it took place. I looked at,kind of the written guidelines on dinner parties, and kind of the etiquette at the time. So we found actually finding the evidence quite difficult. The research was really challenging because it was unlike anything we’d really faced before. Usually we expect to find some sort of black and white, solid answers on what was served, hard evidence that would give us a real answer and some real clarity as to what was going on.

Skip to 3 minutes and 5 seconds And so it was up to our intuition and our best judgement to make a decision on what we could presume was served. In my research, I looked at Naval ledgers in my local archive in Southampton. Obviously, there’s no way for us to know exactly where the goods that were coming through the Southampton port areas were going to, but we can assume that the finer, say, wines or meats would head to the upper class of society. And then the more common stuff, your common beer from Germany, would probably just go to the average people. We looked at a lot of what the servants were also served and how the servants would have eaten.

Skip to 3 minutes and 38 seconds It was an enormous feast, an enormous job for the staff. We found that lobster was so prevalent in Victorian Britain that it was actually legally bound that lobster was not allowed to be served to staff more than twice a week. Something that’s become a delicacy now was then almost, sort of, abhorred that it was so commonly used, and that was something that the servants were served which I think waiting staff today would be quite jealous of.

Skip to 4 minutes and 0 seconds I found I think it was, like, in a diary entry or some evidence that I came across that Victoria was actually advised to cut down on her drinking, which is quite surprising for an up-and-coming monarch to be seen as drinking quite a lot when she’s going to become one of the most important female figures in history. We’re training our students to be both historians, to look at evidence, to look at documents, to weigh up the sources, to make arguments, but also to create these public history endeavours. To say to themselves, what is history worth in the outside world? And that, as an educator, I think, is the most thrilling thing.

Skip to 4 minutes and 40 seconds And I think it’s our duty as educators to make history both scrupulous, scholarship, accurate, but also to engage with the wider world.

Goodbye from the University of Reading

It’s been a pleasure to meet you and to learn with you over the past five weeks. We hope you enjoyed the course!

During your learning journey over the past five weeks, you’ve met many experts from The University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces. A number of enthusiastic students have also played a role behind the scenes.We introduced Food and Nutritional Science students: Brodie, Christopher and Holly in our science Steps and you’ve watched the end of week animations created by our Typography students: Louise, Ben and Ross.

In this video we’d like you to meet our History students: Ben, Caitlin, Jade, Jake and Natalie. They chose to complete some related research on Elizabeth I and Victoria as part of their second year undergraduate module on Public History. Throughout the course our expert historians have highlighted that concrete evidence can be elusive when researching the past and they have to make their best judgement when interpreting the, often limited, sources to hand. As you’ll see, this point resonates with our students too as they tell us more about some of the fascinating discoveries they made and their experience of setting about a piece of independent history research for the first time.

The University of Reading was established in 1892 and has a world-class reputation for the quality of our teaching, research and links to business.

If you’d like to continue your studies, and find out more about the University of Reading we hope you’ll find this list of follow-up links helpful:

Our Department of History offers a range of undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research opportunities for those keen to pursue the next step.

The Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences is the largest University department of its kind in the UK. The department is internationally recognised for the quality of its research and enjoys a high public profile both domestically and internationally.

Our Department of Typography and Graphic Communications is proud to be in the Guardian’s top 5 for undergraduate design courses in the UK. And even prouder that the same table places them at number 2 nationally for graduate employability in design.

Additional reading

If you enjoyed Week 5 and you’re keen to find out more about Victoria you may be interested in reading Kate’s book ‘Becoming Queen’.

Museum of English and Rural Life

Designated as an Outstanding Collection, The Museum of English Rural Life MERL houses the most comprehensive national collection of objects, books and archives relating to the history of food, farming and the countryside.

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A History of Royal Food and Feasting

University of Reading