Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Near a Thousand Tables excerpt

Reading distributed in class on Thursday, also available in my faculty mailbox in FloMo. Add your comments and questions about the excerpt here.



  1. I thought it was interesting how some historians thought that the Medieval peasants strong dependency on rye led somehow to their mental delusion

  2. Dear Greg – It’s not just that they were eating rye, but the rye could have a fungal infection. Eating rye infected with the parasite Claviceps purpurea could cause death or hallucinations – some scholars believe this explains the visions of “witches” in early Salem. Look up work by Linnda Caporael if you’d like to learn more! There is also an excellent book by George W. Hudler, Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, that describes episodes throughout history involving strange funghi like Claviceps purpurea.

  3. Daniel Macias · · Reply

    It was interesting to see how this article followed history through the development of food. My question is more opinion based: after reading this article and reading several chapters in our Human Web book- how would you say the Human Web book stack against the Fernandez article? In the Human Web text, we get history through the development of human webs, while in Fernadez we get history through the development of food. Which one do you feel is the more accurated or vivid from the both?

    1. Dear Daniel – This is a great comparison. How does Fernandez-Armesto question the primacy of humans in our retelling of history? (check out p.95)

  4. Ryan Lester · · Reply

    I was surprised that rye starts out as a weed. I wonder how people first decided to try that for food. Also if it starts as a weed, why is it getting rarer? Wouldn’t that make it easy to produce?

    1. Dear Ryan – How would you define a “weed”? Does the author’s description of who eats rye and why they ate it help shed light on why it is becoming a rarer grain today?

  5. Rye, barley, millet, rice, maize and wheat are all types of grain some were weeds and most were wild. How did and what do they mean by domesticating these grains? How did they figure that they could eat these grasses and that had more nutrition than others or that if you took off the shell or left it on it was better for you nutritonally?

    1. Dear Keisha – Good question. Domestication is a mysterious subject. The author highlights the strangeness of wheat’s dominance over other grains, and hypothesizes that it is because of the desire for bread and wheat’s ability to rise with the help of yeast.

      Just like we saw tool-making occur over hundreds of thousands of years, it probably helpful to think of domestication of grasses as a very drawn out process, one that did not depend on individual innovation, but rather adaptations and selection of particularly hardy or prolific seeds over many generations.

  6. Jose Castaneda · · Reply

    Following comments on the use or consequences of fungus throughout historiy, it is interesting to see that Fungus hallucinations were actually used in ceremonious acts by the Aztecs and some other Mesoamerican cultures. For further reading for whoever is interested I found this article:

  7. Alex Tenorio · · Reply

    I found it interesting how the five staples of grain were rye rice wheat barley maize and millet. I was curious of why in this excerpt the author did not mention sorghum, since this is a very important species of grasses. What makes these grasses superior over sorghum from a historical standpoint?

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