‘Slobbering Away With Their Hands’: Cutlery, Cookery and Identity in The Life of Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh

By Clare Walker Gore. Clare has recently completed her PhD, which explored disability in the Victorian novel, at Selwyn. She is taking up a junior research fellowship at Trinity this summer. Her project examines disability and life-writing in the nineteenth century.

Portrait of Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, taken from the frontispiece of Sarah Steele’s biography

One of many fascinating moments in Sarah Steele’s 1891 biography of her cousin, Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, takes place when he is having dinner with a Kurdish Prince on his journey from Moscow to Baghdad. Steele quotes Arthur’s diary entry for February 6th, 1850, in which he recounts how:

‘After sunset, dinner was brought in on three trays, which were placed on the floor, one before our host, a second before Tom and Wood, and a third before me. We accordingly set to work, Tom and Wood slobbering away with their hands. I had fortunately a camp-knife and fork in my pocket and got on passably, first attacking a very rich-looking mess; but having swallowed one mouthful was obliged to desist, feeling very much the worse. The dish consisted of rotten cabbage, stewed in vinegar and oil, flavoured with a very nasty sort of spice. I next attacked the greasy pilau. Knowing that it always contained something in the shape of meat inside, I set to work to burrow, and at length succeeded in hauling out the back of a lamb, which I began to eat – but, the Governor having finished, etiquette obliged me to come to also. In vain I waited for another tray to make its appearance. The washing of hands followed, and I had to consider myself as having dined.’

(The Right Honourable Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, pp.60-61)

Reading this account of a young Irish aristocrat smugly eating with a knife and fork while his brother and tutor are forced to adopt foreign table manners, a modern reader is likely to make all sorts of deductions about his tastes, his experiences, his attitudes, and his sense of identity. What no reader could deduce from this account is that Arthur Kavanagh had no hands.

Knowing this cannot help but change how you read the passage. It isn’t just that you want to know how he was able to manage cutlery, but that you notice the displacement of difference which takes place when he depicts the eating habits of his foreign hosts. It is the use of hands which appears aberrant in this account; not only is Arthur’s lack of hands obscured, but his superiority to those who are ‘slobbering away with their hands’ is firmly established. Through his use of cutlery, he is able to get on ‘passably’, with the test he is passing presumably being the maintenance of British standards when abroad. He falls in with his hosts as far as ‘etiquette obliged’, but clearly marks his difference from them in his written account, disparaging not only the way they eat but what they eat: the food is ‘nasty’, ‘greasy’, its unfamiliarity rendering it almost unrecognisable as food at all, ‘something in the shape of meat’ rather than meat itself.

This passage is typical of Arthur’s diaries, in which cutlery and cookery keep on cropping up. As the trio make their astonishingly dangerous journey from Moscow to Baghdad, and the months of his exile from Ireland stretch into years, the one thing Arthur seems to feel he can complain about is foreign food, and the uncivilized means and places in which it is consumed. He describes cold, hunger, danger and illness, but rarely acknowledges any adverse reaction to them. He is more than willing to record the moments when his servants complain about the terrible conditions, frequently noting that they do, but he seldom allows himself to record negative emotional reactions to anything – apart from the food.

Of course, this may be a reflection of the priorities of a nineteen-year-old with a healthy appetite, but it also enables Arthur to mark his difference from those he meets on his travels, to establish his own identity as a British gentleman in contrast to their identity as foreigners. His recorded reactions to foreign food enable him to demonstrate that while he is stoical in the face of privation, his tastes are constant, and alien cookery and the absence of cutlery offend them. He may eat with foreigners, but he will not be reduced to ‘slobbering away with [his] hands’.

Steele’s approach to recording Arthur’s life strongly recalls the diaries in which he records his travels, which she quotes at length during this part of the biography. Just as Arthur makes no mention of his physical difference from others, so Steele erases his disability as far as possible. Anyone reading The Right Honourable Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh to learn about the practicalities of living with physical impairment in the nineteenth century would be sorely disappointed: we are not told how he wrote with a pen, how he used cutlery, how he fired a gun, or whether he had a wheelchair. We very rarely see Arthur grappling with an environment that is poorly adapted to his needs, and we never see others registering the physical difference that would, usually, give rise to a person being labelled as ‘afflicted’ or ‘deformed’ or ‘crippled’, to use the terms of the day. As a result, this social identity is held at bay: Steele does not use a single word from the contemporary lexicon of disability to describe Arthur, and in a real sense, he is not disabled in her biography. The subject she constructs simply does not inhabit this identity category. Instead, his identity as an Irish gentleman – and a particular kind of Irishman at that, a landowning Protestant loyalist – is established through depicting him in situations which mark his difference from those who do not embody this identity. On his travels, the foreigners he encounter play this role, and so do his servants and sometimes even his brother and tutor; back on his estate, his Catholic tenants occupy this position, necessary foils to Arthur’s identity as ‘the Father Confessor’ of Borris (The Right Honourable Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, p.135).

As a literary critic, I’m intrigued by the posthumous collaboration between Arthur and his biographer, the ways in which the chapters of the biography which are lifted straight from his diaries continue and complement Steele’s narrative approach. More than this, I want to understand why, in order to construct Arthur as the gentleman-hero of his own life story, both Arthur as diarist and Steele as biographer felt that they needed to write out his physical difference. Was disability simply incompatible with masculinity? Or with authority? Or with Britishness? Or was something else entirely going on? Over the course of my research fellowship, I hope to uncover the answers to these questions – and to come closer to understanding what is at stake in this striking vignette about a dinner in a Kurdish palace, eaten well over a century ago.


Objects of Enquiry: Insights Offered by Museum Collections

By Andrew Z. Lorey. Andrew is an M.Phil student in the Division of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the historical archaeology of Oceania and on the effects of climate change on archaeological heritage.DSC02268

Object E 1919.5.19 – Photograph of a hair comb from Malekula, Vanuatu. Photo by the author. Courtesy of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), Cambridge

Though we do not frequently acknowledge them, material objects present themselves in innumerable instances during our daily lives. They serve many functions within our lives, often aiding us in accomplishing tasks or simply entertaining us.

Each of us owns a variety of material possessions, and the same was true of people in the past. Objects created and used by people, also called artefacts, represent one aspect of the material record. This material record, in turn, forms the primary data set studied by archaeologists and museum professionals.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at the University of Cambridge contains objects from all over the world and from many different time periods. As is the case with most museums, curators may only display a small fraction of their total collections, and many artefacts lie hidden away in storage spaces waiting for researchers to come along and rediscover their stories.

Object E 1919.5.19, pictured above, is one such object. It provides a somewhat jovial impression at first glance, and its grinning face and shell bead eyes draw our attention to the centre of the artefact. Its white and red pigments also capture our attention, and upon reflection and well-reasoned discernment, we may successfully infer that the object was designed to function as a comb or hair adornment.

But can this artefact tell us anything else? Can it reveal anything about the people who originally created it? Where is it from? How did it come to be housed at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, England?

Although the physical characteristics of Object 1919.5.19 cannot reveal a great deal about its collection, consultation of museum archives showed that the comb was added to the museum’s collections in 1919 and donated by a man named E. G. McAfee. The artefact’s location of origin is listed as the island of Malekula in the country of Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides). Beyond this information, however, museum records do not reveal a great deal concerning the comb.

To better understand the life history of this comb, we must also examine the broader social and economic considerations that shaped relations between Europeans and Melanesians at the turn of the 20th century.

The years leading up to 1900 were especially tumultuous in the South Pacific. Australian, Fijian and Samoan plantation owners had been conscripting islanders in Oceania into labour through a process labelled blackbirding since the 19th century, and a variety of missionaries sought to spread Christianity to the indigenous populations throughout the region. Aside from blackbirders and missionaries, historical accounts often note the presence of private merchant vessels travelling through Melanesia as well.

E. G. McAfee may have obtained our hair comb through direct trade with islanders on the island of Malekula, islanders may have produced the comfb specifically for the burgeoning tourist trade or one of McAfee’s contacts in the region may have obtained the comb and then given it to him. No matter the context of origin, the comb’s origins within the early 20th-century period of Melanesian history ascribe many important meanings to it beyond its simple aesthetic characteristics.

Within our example of this comb from Malekula, we have discussed the important meanings and values that inhere within what could easily be disregarded as a static and insignificant object in a museum collection. As disciplines, archaeology and museology offer important insights regarding material objects that may inform our understanding of social and economic concerns. As we have seen, any object may yield a number of important insights.


Interpreting the charters of Anglo-Saxon England

By Albert Fenton. Albert is a PhD student in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the documentary culture of late Anglo-Saxon England.

A charter of Bishop Ealdred of Worcester to Dodda, his minster, granting a lease and drawn up as a chirograph (S 1405).

Of all the forms of writing that have survived from Anglo-Saxon England, charters are amongst the most compelling.

The word ‘charter’ itself has a broad meaning, and applies to a diverse range of different types of material, which came to be preserved in the archives of religious houses across the country until the dissolution of the monasteries.

One such type of charter is the royal diploma, usually written in Latin, which provided evidence of a grant of land made by the king to another group or individual, done with the approval of an assembly of the king’s favoured courtiers and leading magnates. These documents were important and often visually imposing, reflected by the complexity of their Latin and the rhetorical claims they made about the power and authority of Anglo-Saxon rulers. Other forms of charter include wills, royal and ‘private’ writs, leases, manumissions, marriage agreements and memoranda recording legal disputes, often written in the vernacular language, Old English.

These documents emanated from all sorts of different locations – some of them were associated with the royal court and the agency of the king and those close to him, others from local shire courts where disputes were thrashed out and critical judgements made. Sometimes these texts were preserved in chirographic form – meaning that the document was written out in duplicate, triplicate or quadruplicate. The document could then be cut or torn, across the word ‘CYROGRAPHVM’ (the feet of the sliced letters can be seen dangling from the top section of the document, above.) If the claims of the document came into contention, the divided sections of the chirograph could be reunited, and its veracity re-asserted in a very public, very demonstrable way. It was a creative strategy that allowed charters to be used as weapons in quarrels and feuds, in a society where the symbolic power of the written word was widely accepted. Some sixty-four chirograph-form charters survive from England before the Norman Conquest – indicating that they were a popular way to defend yourself and your interests in an uncertain world.

Through painstaking analysis of this large, complex and diverse body of charters, historians have made profound discoveries and overturned established orthodoxies about the nature of early English culture, identity, politics, society, landscape and law.

Just as tantalisingly, charters also offer evidence of how people may have been speaking differently across England in this period. Amongst the most recent body of charters to be critically edited are those preserved in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral. This is a particularly large archive, and an important one, since many of the charters survive as originals on contemporary single-sheets of parchment membrane, rather than as later copies in registers, cartularies or manuscripts. As charters were copied and re-copied in later decades, their spelling often got altered and mangled, so the contemporary nature of these written artefacts makes them all the more precious to us.

One interesting trait noted by the editors of the Canterbury charters are characteristic spellings – most notably the frequent dropping of initial h-, or the insertion of a redundant h- in words starting with a vowel – usually in periods when charters were being written by clerks from within the cathedral community itself. But when charters were being drawn up by scribes attached to the king’s retinue, the Kentish forms gave way to West Saxon forms: the more hegemonic, ‘standard’ variety of Old English.

Could this dropping of the initial h- in many of the Kentish charters be a dialectal feature that has survived to this day in the estuary accents of north Kent, Essex and London? It’s certainly an alluring possibility, and a reminder of how the distant past can be different, compelling – and yet eerily familiar.

Image Credit: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2015/08/anglo-saxon-charters-internship.html

Culinary Kingship: Medieval feasts and royal authority



For most people, feasting is a quintessential part of medieval culture. Partly this is due to the romantic notion of subtleties, edible delicacies produced by cooks who would shape food into often entertaining forms that disguised their original  ingredients. However, whilst it is easy to see subtleties as alien and humourous they in fact could be used by political figures for propaganda purposes, as an examination of the coronation feast of Henry VI in 1429 shows.

This coronation took place in a period of great political uncertainty as Henry followed the reign of his successful father Henry V, whose famous victories in France had led to his son having a claim to both the English and French crowns. However, this claim was complicated by Henry VI’s young age, he was only eight when the feast took place, and the rival claimant of Charles VII who had also been crowned King of france. A young King always held risk in the medieval period as his weakness could lead to internal conflict as various political factions could vie to influence the boy and govern in his name. Thus the promotion of stability as well as justifying Henry’s rule of France was the order of the day in 1429.

This was achieved through ladening the three subtleties of the coronation feast, which took the form of figures constructed of pastry, with (ironically in the modern sense of the word) unsubtle symbolism. The first set of figures took the form of St Edward and St Louis, famous historical kings of England and France respectively, who brought the figure of Henry VI between them, visually depicting that he was of their descent. This idea of legitimately holding both crown’s was made even more explicit in the third subtlety. Here the Virgin Mary presented a crown to young Henry flanked by St George and St Denis, the saints associated with each kingdom, showing this crown represented both royal titles.

The second subtlety can seem more anomalous but was still arguably vital. It showed both Henry’s father Henry V and the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund. The likely focus here is that both men were ‘miles Christi’ in that they were Christian Kings who defended the Church. Both had fought against heretics in their own lands (Henry the Lollards and Sigismund the Hussites of Bohemia).  The juxtaposition of the two figures would also have likely reminded contemporaries of the two rulers combined achievement of ending the Western Schism , a division in the contemporary Catholic Church caused by the election of two different Popes. Thus here an idea of unity was being expressed, vital in the early years of a child King.

Unfortunately no images of Henry VI’s feast were made for us to have an idea what these figures may have looked like. However, the record of the feast shows us their intended effect: they were supposed to inculcate unity and legitimate Henry’s French claims. Thus even something as bizarre as the subtlety could have clear political purposes.  
Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/35/Late_medieval_boar_head.jpg