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The Symbolism of Food in Italian Medieval Literature

Food in literature serves as more than just a plot device or backdrop; it embodies deeper anthropological significance, reflecting cultural norms, social structures, and historical contexts. In literature, this perspective is manifested through the use of food imagery as a cultural vessel. Authors often employ food to evoke specific cultural landscapes, traditions, and rituals, allowing readers to glimpse into the culinary practices of different societies.

Moreover, food acts as a metaphor for social hierarchies and power dynamics. Through descriptions of feasts, banquets, or meager meals, authors subtly comment on social inequalities and class distinctions prevalent in their societies. The symbolism of food extends beyond its literal consumption; it becomes a reflection of social status, wealth, and privilege. Additionally, food rituals and traditions depicted in literature highlight the communal aspect of dining experiences. Meals are often portrayed as moments of social cohesion, where characters come together to share food, stories, and laughter. These communal gatherings underscore the importance of food not only as a means of sustenance but also as a catalyst for interpersonal relationships and cultural exchange (Anselmi and Ruozzi, 2011).

In essence, the anthropological perspective on food in literature underscores its multifaceted role as a cultural artifact and narrative device. By examining the ways in which food is depicted and interpreted in literary texts, one might gain valuable insights into the complex interplay between food, culture, and society. Claude Lévi-Strauss' groundbreaking work "The Raw and the Cooked” (1964) laid the foundation for understanding the symbolic meanings embedded in food within different cultures. Lévi-Strauss argues that food is not merely a source of sustenance but a system of communication, a symbolic language through which societies express their values, beliefs, and social structures.

The Raw and the Cooked 

In understanding the role of food in literature, it is crucial to delve into the anthropological perspectives, as elucidated by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Examining the symbolic significance of food in human societies, Lévi-Strauss, a fundamental figure in structural anthropology, illuminated its multifaceted role, extending far beyond mere sustenance.

Anonymous, (17th Cen.), Still Life with Fruit and Birds
Figure 1: Anonymous, (17th Cen.), Still Life with Fruit and Birds

According to Lévi-Strauss, food operates as a system of signs and symbols that encode social structures, cultural values, and individual identities. In his seminal work The Raw and the Cooked, Lévi-Strauss explores the dichotomy between raw and cooked foods as a metaphor for the cultural transformation of nature into culture. Raw food represents the natural state, while cooked food symbolizes human intervention and cultural elaboration. This distinction, Lévi-Strauss argues, reflects deeper symbolic meanings embedded within culinary practices, such as notions of purity, contamination, and social hierarchy. Moreover, Lévi-Strauss emphasizes the role of food in mediating social relationships and constructing group identities. Food taboos, rituals, and culinary traditions serve as mechanisms for defining kinship, community boundaries, and cultural belonging. Through shared meals and communal feasting, individuals reaffirm social bonds and express collective values, reinforcing cohesion and solidarity within the group.

In the context of literature, Lévi-Strauss' insights offer a framework for interpreting the symbolic significance of food narratives. Italian authors often draw on culinary imagery to evoke a sense of cultural identity, social dynamics, and personal experience of authors. Whether depicting the rustic simplicity of peasant fare or the opulent banquets of the aristocracy, food serves as a metaphor for society's values, traditions, and aspirations (Seppilli, 1994).

Food in Western Culture 

The intertwining of literature with the realm of food and its myriad expressions – from sustenance and gustatory pleasure to gluttony, and even the absence thereof, as hunger and thirst – spans across ages and cultures. This universality stems from the recognition in all literary traditions of the deep connection between humanity and nourishment, a bond as elemental as birth and death, alongside the spectrum of human emotions such as joy, sorrow, love, and the intricacies of social interactions. The enduring presence of this theme begs the question of the reason for this thematic persistence. 

The answer lies, perhaps, in the primal significance of nourishment to the human experience. Across literature, from ancient epics to contemporary tales, echoes of this connection are found. It can be interesting to consider, for instance, the biblical narrative of Genesis, where the allegory of the original sin and the expulsion from Eden revolves around the imagery of the forbidden fruit, emblematic of humanity's insatiable desires. Equally memorable is the episode in Genesis where Esau, driven by hunger, exchanges his birthright for a humble meal of lentils, underscoring the primal power of food even in matters of inheritance (Di Girolamo, 1990).

Da Vinci, L. (1495-1498) The Last Supper
Figure 2: Da Vinci, L. (1495-1498) The Last Supper

Turning to classical literature, Homer's Odyssey presents a vivid tableau of culinary imagery, from the abundant orchards of the Phaeacians teeming with luscious fruits to the cavernous abode of Polyphemus, laden with cheeses, lambs, and kids. Even in the realm of the divine, food assumes a central role, as exemplified by the ambrosia consumed by the gods – a stark contrast to the mortal fare.

However, it is within the contours of Western and Christian culture that food acquires a unique, almost sacramental significance. In Christian theology, the Eucharist – the symbolic consumption of bread and wine representing the body and blood of Christ – underscores the profound fusion of the spiritual and the material realms. This fusion finds expression in medieval literature, from the theological treatises of the Church Fathers to the allegorical depths of Dante's Divine Comedy, where the journey through the realms of the afterlife is punctuated by potent images of hunger, thirst, and divine sustenance (Di Girolamo, 1990). In essence, the rich tapestry of literature woven with threads of food and nourishment transcends temporal and geographical boundaries, reflecting the timeless human quest for sustenance, meaning, and transcendence.

The Problem of Gluttony: Social Meanings and Satirical Depictions

In literature, the theme of gluttony emerges as a lens through which authors criticize societal norms, values, and behaviors. Gluttony, the excessive indulgence in food or drink, is often portrayed as a vice with social, moral, and spiritual implications. Drawing on satirical elements, authors use gluttony as a vehicle to expose the absurdities and excesses of their societies while commenting on broader human weaknesses.

In Petronius' Satyricon, (1st Cen. CE) and particularly in the famous "Cena Trimalchionis" (The Dinner of Trimalchio) episode, food serves as a central motif through which the author critiques the excesses and absurdities of Roman society. The extravagant banquet hosted by the wealthy freedman Trimalchio becomes a microcosm of the decadence and ostentation prevalent among the Roman elite. Through lavish descriptions of exotic dishes, elaborate table settings, and extravagant entertainment, Petronius satirizes the pretensions and vulgarity of Trimalchio and his guests, exposing the moral bankruptcy and superficiality of their social world. The Cena Trimalchionis thus functions as a scathing commentary on the excesses of wealth and social status, highlighting the disconnect between appearance and reality in Roman society (Gagliardi, 1933).

In Medieval Times, particularly in Christian literature, gluttony was often depicted as one of the seven deadly sins, representing the overindulgence of one's appetites to the detriment of one's spiritual well-being. This moral framework, rooted in Christian theology, shaped the portrayal of gluttony in literary works of the period, highlighting its sinful nature and the need for temperance and self-control (Lerner, 1984)

Bompiani, R. (1875), Il Parassita
Figure 3: Bompiani, R. (1875), Il Parassita

Food as a Symbol in Italian Ancient Literature 

Ernst Robert Curtius, in his work “European Literature and Latin Middle Ages” (1973), dedicates a brief chapter to the role not only of the gluttony in Literature but also of cooks in Medieval Society. The role itself of being a cook carried with it a multitude of meanings, often veering towards the negative. The act of cooking was likened to alchemy, and the kitchen was compared to infernal places. This association is evident in discussions of soot and smoke, which were common to both cooks and dyers, two categories who were disliked at the time. Perhaps most emblematic of this imagery is the depiction of cooks with cauldrons, so much so that it became the infernal vessel of the fraudulent barterers in Dante's Divine Comedy (Curtius, 1973).

Indeed, one of the most renowned depictions of gluttony in Christian literature is found in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. In the Inferno, the first part of Dante's epic poem, gluttony is punished in the third circle of Hell. Here, the souls of the gluttonous are condemned to lie in a putrid slush, symbolizing the degradation resulting from their excessive indulgence in food and drink during their lives. Dante's depiction of gluttony reflects the medieval Christian worldview, wherein the consequences of sin are vividly portrayed as eternal suffering and damnation (Lerner, 1984).

Dalì, S. (1960-1964), The Ghost spoken of (Inferno: Canto 34)
Figure 4: Dalì, S. (1960-1964), The Ghost spoken of (Inferno: Canto 34)

The satirical depiction of gluttony in Italian literature serves as a form of social commentary, highlighting the absurdities and contradictions inherent in human behavior. By exposing the follies of gluttony, authors challenge readers to confront their own desires and impulses, prompting reflection on the deeper meanings and consequences of excessive consumption. Through satire and irony, authors illuminate the folly and excesses of human behavior while inviting readers to contemplate the broader implications of their actions. In Italian literature, the satirical depiction of gluttony continues to resonate, offering insights into the complexities of contemporary society and the timeless frailties of human nature (Scholliers and Van Damme, 2001).

Another example of how food was often linked to infernal meanings is found in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. Written in the 14th century, Decameron is a collection of one hundred tales told by a group of young men and women who retreat to the countryside to escape the Black Plague. Amidst the tales of love, betrayal, and wit, food plays a central role. In Giovanni Boccaccio's tales food takes on various meanings and narrative roles. At times, it is vividly described, while in others, it is merely hinted at, with the focus on its presentation. Throughout the banquet scenes, human weaknesses or virtues come to the fore, adding depth to the characters and their interactions (Battaglia Ricci, 2000). 

The banquets in the Decameron might as well serve as true engines of the plot. For example, in the eighth tale of the fifth day, the protagonist is Nastagio degli Onesti. He is infatuated with a woman from the Traversari family, and squanders his wealth on lavish feasts and banquets without being loved in return. One day, he wanders away from the city and witnesses a surreal scene in a pine forest: a knight chasing a young woman, killing her, and having her devoured by dogs. Nastagio discovers that the knight, rejected in life and driven to suicide by his suffering, was a damned soul, while the young woman who rejoiced in the death of her suitor was punished in that macabre manner.

Millet J.E., (19th Cen.), Decameron, Lorenzo and Elisabetta
Figure 5: Millet J.E., (19th Cen.), Decameron, Lorenzo and Elisabetta

Nastagio arranges a banquet in the pine forest and invites his relatives and the woman he loves. During the meal, the woman witnesses the same scene and, fearing she might suffer a similar fate, agrees to marry Nastagio. In the tales of Decameron, we have seen how food is both necessity and pleasure, wealth and misery; it can unite or divide, blend or reaffirm class differences. Boccaccio uses food to narrate tales of love, which governs humanity, extols courtesy, consisting primarily of generosity and magnanimity, and finally glorifies intelligence, enabling humans to achieve what is advantageous to them (Revelli, 2021).

In conclusion, the exploration of food in literature, particularly within the context of Italian literature, reveals a rich tapestry of cultural, social, and symbolic significance. From anthropological perspectives on food as a fundamental aspect of human existence to the satirical depictions of gluttony and excess, and the culinary imagery in medieval literature, food serves as a multifaceted lens through which authors explore the complexities of the human experience. 

Bibliographical References

Alighieri, D. (2007) [original work published in 1472]. Commedia. Carocci.

Anselmi, G. M. and Ruozzi G., (2011), Banchetti Letterari, Cibi, pietanze e ricette nella letteratura italiana da Dante a Camilleri, Carocci Battaglia Ricci, L. (2000). Boccaccio. Salerno Editrice. 

Boccaccio, G. (2013). Decameron. BUR.

Curtius, E. R. (1973). European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Bollingen Series / Princeton Press.

Di Girolamo, C. (1990). A pane e vino. A proposito di alcune recenti pubblicazioni di storia dell’alimentazione. Studi Storici, 31(2)

Ferroni, G. (2012). Storia della Letteratura Italiana: Dalle Origini al Quattrocento. Loescher. 

Gagliardi, D. (1933). Petronio e il Romanzo Moderno. La fortuna del «Satyricon» Attraverso i Secoli,  La Nuova Italia.

Lerner, L. (1984). The gluttons, the drunkards, and the intellectuals: Medieval doctrine and the interpretation of Dante's Inferno. Comparative Literature, 36(2).

Levi-Strauss, C. (1983). The raw and the cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology. University of Chicago Press.

Revelli, A. and others (2021), La Cucina di Dante e Boccaccio, Il Formichiere

Seppilli, T. (1994). Per una antropologia dell’alimentazione. Determinazioni, funzioni e significati psico-culturali della risposta sociale a un bisogno biologico. La Ricerca Folklorica, 30

Scholliers, P., & Van Damme, W. (Eds.). (2001). Food, drink and identity in Europe. Berg Publishers.

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