Food, the Royals and magic 

Contending with the insecure

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If you love getting inside the skin of how people lived in the past and have a spare 150 bucks to drop, you might want to consider The Folio Society's re-issue of a classic, Religion and the Decline of Magic.

Originally published in 1971, there's a good chance your library's copy, if there is one, will have more than a few wiccan pentagrams or sayings scrawled on the flyleaf or margins. Spring for it if you don't have the 150.

The author, Sir Keith Thomas, is a British historian widely regarded for his ability to make what might otherwise be a dreary trek through history something remarkably alive. Likewise Hilary Mantel, who wrote the intro to the Folio version.

Ms. Mantel, highly acclaimed as an "extraordinary writer" and only the second author, after J. M. Coetze, to earn two Bookers (for her excellent serial novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, set in the same Tudor-ish period as Thomas's book), got herself into hot water earlier this spring for a lecture she gave at the British Museum. It was sponsored by the London Review of Books, on whose website you can read, or listen to, the full text.

Mantel's topic was risky: pointing out the parallels in the purpose of women like the new Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton; the bulimic Diana; or ill-fated Anne Boleyn — in fact, all royal women and their royal bodies — as something to be admired, and to breed.

Her points, peppered with vivid food allegories, are pretty "right on" as we used to say back when Religion and the Decline of Magic was first published. But as often happens, some of her remarks — the most unflattering ones regarding Kate, of course — were taken out of context and caused a stir. These were the tasty bits about how the Duchess was earlier seen as a jointed doll "on which certain rags are hung."

"In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore..."

Mantel goes on, using gutsy gustatory metaphors: Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks. When she, Mantel, saw the Queen at a function at Buckingham Palace, she passed her eyes over her, the Queen, "...as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity..."

There is much to be had about eating and food in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies as well. The servants and ladies-in-waiting watch with eagle eyes and dissect the eating of Anne Boleyn or "Lady" Mary, Henry VIII's daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, or Catherine herself. How much they eat. What they eat. Which foods they crave. Whether they accept a particularly prized food gift as an offering. Food as prognosticator, like tea leaves in the bottom of a teacup: Was the lady happy? In love? Brooding? Pregnant? Defiant?

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