The Function and Connotation of Swine in the Sixteenth Century

“A Drunkard is a Swine”

midsixteenth century

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cornelis Anthonisz (1505-1553)


Deutsches Leben der Vergangenheit in Bildern

In the middle ages, pork was only available to the nobility and the extremely wealthy. Lords and abbots might serve pigs at their most important meals, but laborers would have little to no meat in their diet. Instead, they would subsist mostly on vegetables and grain. A standard meal for a harvester consisted of a vegetable soup and bread. Their only exposure to pork would be during the harvest months, when the lords who hired them would provide their meals. Even then, it was a rare luxury, as meat comprised only 2% of the meal in 1256. Over time, meat became more prominent, with 23% of these harvest meals being meat in 1424. Pork was the most likely meat available, with one budget allotting three pigs, and an assortment of sheep and geese, to one meal.

By the sixteenth century, pork was available to people of most financial backgrounds, but it was still very much a luxury item. Unless one was extremely wealthy, their primary sustenance was still stew and bread. Pork straddled a line between being a wide-spread foodstuff and an extravagance, causing it to be a common symbol of wealth and indulgence in physical pleasures.

While noble households would use this connotation in order to prove their power, having roast pigs as the center pieces for meals, social reformers used it to criticize the growing materialism and sin they found in their society. Living pigs were common, due to being in high demand among the wealthy. This meant that their behaviors would be familiar to these writers’ audience, and they could be compared to the lowest of society without much need for explanation and context.

Prominently among these reformers was Martin Luther, the author of the 95 Theses, who spoke out against the faults he saw in the Catholic Church and in German society. In his 1539 sermon, “Sermon on Soberness and Moderation against Gluttony and Drunkenness”, Luther suggested that indulgence in food and alcohol made one less that human, more a pig than a man. He summarized his thoughts on the status of his nation by saying that “Germany is a land of hogs and a filthy people which debauches its body and its life. If you were going to paint it, you would have to paint a pig.” Other reformers, such as Sebastian Franck, used this same rhetoric in order to condemn the indulgences of the sixteenth century. One such statement claimed that “only pigs eat what the drunkard leaves in his pants”.

Works Cited

Anthonisz, Cornelis, A Drunkard is a Swine, midsixteenth century. Woodcut, 31.7 x 21.9 centimeters. in Animals and the Early Modern Identity, ed. by Pia Cuneo. Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2014, figure 1.2.

Dyer, Christopher. “Changes in Diet in the Late Middle Ages: The Case of Harvest Workers.” The Agricultural History Review 36, no. 1 (1988): 21-37.

Laudan, Rachel. “Birth of the Modern Diet.” Scientific American 283, no. 2 (2000): 76-81.

Luther, Martin. “Sermon on Soberness and Moderation.” The Standard Bearer. October 15, 2002. Accessed October 14, 2018.

Stewart, Alison. “Man’s Best Friend? Dogs and Pigs in Early Modern Germany.” in Animals and the Early Modern Identity, ed. by Pia Cuneo. Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2014, 19-44.