Peculiarities of horsemeat consumption in nineteenth century Europe

Dr Tatsuya Mitsuda (Research Associate, Clare College)

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Keynes Hall, King's College, Cambridge

Before the early nineteenth century the consumption of horsemeat was banned. Even though during times of dire need, such as famines and wars, people resorted to eating horses it was very much a clandestine custom which, through pontification by Rome, was for a long time associated with paganism.
My talk will focus on why and how, during the course of the nineteenth century and mainly in western Europe, attempts were first made to repeal the Papal decree that had banned horsemeat and then to popularise it as a major source of nutrition for the urban masses. All of this will be placed within the broader context of the growth of cities and their reliance on horsepower, the discontent brewing among the lower classes and the fear of these hungry men and women rising up, a sentiment especially palpable within the upper echelons of society.
During the recounting of this undulating story, I will comment upon the intervention not only of politicians but also of nutritionists, veterinarians and animal welfare activists who, as newcomers to the public debate on food, advocated, from different disciplinary and moral standpoints, the take-up of horsemeat in a major way. How their decisions impacted on the population as a whole will also be assessed.
At a time when food is in the spotlight as never before - reaction to poisoned imported Chinese dumplings and whale meat are two recent examples within the Japanese context which spring immediately to mind - I will bring a historical perspective to this contemporary issue and, in elaborating upon the differences in attitude towards horsemeat between France, England and Germany in nineteenth century Europe, arrive at a better understanding of why certain foods are accepted while others are not.