The following document was prepared for a school renaissance day.  It is intended as a simple, short document that dismisses some of the myths common about medieval food.  It would also be suitable for public demonstrations.  It certainly does not discuss all aspects of medieval food and eating as that would be a whole book, but it does touch on the major points.  Feel free to use and distribute as necessary.

Helewyse de Birkestad.

MKA Louise Smithson

smithson@mco.edu

 

Medieval Food, Fact and Fantasy

Myth #1: Medieval food was highly spiced to hide the taste of rotting meat.

Absolutely not.  Many medieval recipes call for the use of spices such as cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, that are not used widely in modern cooking, especially not in meat dishes.  However, there is good information from household accounts of the day that the amount of spices used was not excessive compared to the number of people being fed.  The spices were expensive and were often used sparingly to flavor or scent a dish, not to overwhelm it.  There was no refrigeration in the middle ages so animals were taken to town while alive, slaughtered there and sold within two days.  The two day rule was mandated by law and a butcher who sold rotten meat could expect to face stiff fines.  Many of the upper classes maintained large estates which gave them ready access to freshly killed meat.

Myth #2: Medieval people ate huge chunks of meat off the bone with their hands.

There is a shred of truth in this myth.  Forks were not invented until the 1500’s in Italy, even then they really did not come into widespread use until the late 17th century.  So the guests at a feast ate with knives, spoons and their fingers.  However, in high ranking society there were very strict rules of etiquette governing eating.  The ewerer was a person whose task it was to carry a bowl and a pitcher of scented water, he would approach each guest, pour water over their hands and give the guest a towel to dry them.  If a roast was being served a carver, often a member of the nobility, would carve the meat into small bite size pieces and serve it to the guests.  The etiquette books state that food should be held with the tips of the fingers, when dipping meat into the shared sauce dish the eater should not dip their fingers in it, nor double dip.  Items were sometimes skewered on the eating knife and transferred to the mouth, for soup type dishes all guests would have spoons.  If you believe Hollywood, the bones were thrown onto the floor for the dogs.  This is highly unlikely. Would you throw your leftover food on the floor at home? No, neither would the nobility in the renaissance. 

Myth #3: They ate only meat and never ate vegetables.

This myth arose because the feast menus available from the highest echelons of society are a list of meat dish after meat dish.  In addition, the household records available do not often record purchases of vegetables.  In contrast however, there are good records of extensive kitchen gardens, books describing many vegetables and how to cook them.  In one of the recipe books from Italy in the 16th century (Epulario, or The Italian Banquet, 1598) there is a whole section on vegetables and how to cook them.  

Available foodstuffs, a comparison between the twentieth century and the 16th Century

In the twentieth century we are very lucky, food is transported across the world.  This means that you can eat Asparagus at Christmas, even though it is a spring vegetable, because somewhere in the world it is spring.  In Europe in the sixteenth century no such thing was possible, all food was available seasonally and locally.  This means that everything was available for only a limited time in the year.  This means that things like milk were only available from about March or April through to September, because they had not yet got the trick of getting cows pregnant year round.  The higher classes of society also hunted and ate a considerable amount of game meat, including: rabbit, pheasant, venison, boar, larks, herons etc.  In addition, foods native to the American continent had not yet appeared in Europe, this means no potatoes, sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, beans, squash and a whole host of other things.

 

Food Type

Twentieth century

Sixteenth century

Starch

Potato, bread, rice, pasta, corn, other grains

Bread, rice, pasta, other grains. No potatoes or sweet corn.

Food Type

Twentieth century

Sixteenth century

Fats

Butter, margarine, corn, canola, vegetable oils and olive oil most common.

Animal fats most common: lard, suet, dripping, tallow.  Olive oil widely used.  Few other vegetable oils.

Meat

Most commonly: chicken, pork, beef, lamb, turkey.  Available year round.

Most commonly: chicken or capons, beef, salt pork, lamb and mutton (very common), game meat, all available seasonally.  No turkey.

Vegetable

Wide variety, freely available year round

Variety but NO new world vegetables, i.e: zucchini, pumpkin, green beans, tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers.  What was available was locally and seasonally variable, unless dried.

Diary

Fresh milk and butter are available year round with a large selection of cheese

4/5 of milk was obtained between April and September, butter does not keep indefinitely, some cheeses but local varieties would be used more frequently, limiting variety.

Seasonings

Most of modern American cooking uses relatively few spices.  Cinnamon is used mostly in pies and deserts.

Use of many imported spices in cooking, including many not often used today.  A typical household could be expected to have: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, galangal (a root similar to ginger), saffron, pepper, long pepper, cubebs, nutmeg, coriander and mustard.  No all-spice or .

Nuts

Pecans, walnuts, filberts, almonds, peanuts, used mostly in sweet foods.

Pecans and peanuts are new world foods and were not used.  Almonds were very heavily used, both to make milk and in many savory dishes.  Walnuts and filberts were also occasionally used. 

So what would a typical meal be?

What you ate depended in large part upon your status in society.  Renaissance society was much more stratified than today’s. 

The lowest level of society, the peasant, was in large part dependent on his own land to provide his food.  This meant that meals would be simple, expensive spices would be absent.  The peasant’s main source of calories would be bread, mostly a coarse brown bread called Maslin.  This bread had a high amount of fiber and could be made from wheat, rye, oats or barley.  Meals would have most likely consisted of bean or vegetable stews with little meat depending on the time of year and the wealth of the peasant.  We know little about what the peasant ate as at the time no-one was interested in the peasant. 

In the sixteenth century there was an increase in the middle or merchant classes.  These persons had wealth and could afford a greater variety of foodstuffs.  For the most part they took their eating habits from the nobility.  Although they did not have either the money nor the land to eat quite as well.  Bread would still have been the major part of any meal.

The highest level of society, the nobility ate the best of all.  They had hunting rights, owned large tracts of land that was farmed for them and from which tithes (in goods, services or money) were paid.  Breakfast for all was a simple affair, a slice of day old bread, some beer, maybe a slice of cheese or roasted meat.  The largest meal of the day was lunch, on special feast days lengthy and exquisite feasts were served.  The following is a menu from a feast served to King Richard, with the Duke of Lancaster at the Bishop of Durham’s residence at London in 1387.  Taken from Two fifteenth-century cookbooks

The first course

Veneson wit Furmenty (Venison with cracked wheat).  A potage called viaundbrus (a soup called meat broth).  Hedes of Bores (boars head).  Grete Fless (great flesh, usually roasted or boiled beef).  Swannes rosted (roasted swans).  Pigges rosted (roasted suckling pig).  Crustard lumbard in paste (lombard pie, contained dried fruit and custard).  And a sotelte (a subtlety was a food item made to look like something else, this could be sugar paste made to look like fruit or cups and plates, a castle made of pastry, a peacock served in its feathers spouting flame).

The second course

A potage called Gele (a jellied soup made from calves feet).  A potage of Blandesore (a white soup).  Pigges rosted (roasted suckling pig).  Cranes rosted (roast crane).  Fesauntes roasted (roast phesant).  Herons rosted (roast heron).  Chickens endored (gilded chickens).  Breme (a fish).  Tarts (tarts, could have been either sweet or savory).  Broke braune (shredded meat).  Conyngges rosted (roasted hare).  And a sotellte (another subtlety).

The thirde course

Potage, bruete of almonds (soup, made with almonds).  Stwde lumbarde (lombard stew).  Venyson rosted (roasted venison).  Chekenes rosted (roasted chickens).  Rabettes rosted (roasted rabbits).  Patric rosted (roasted partridge).  Quailes rosted (roasted quail).  Larks rosted (roast larks).  Payne puff (a bread puff, like a fritter).  A diss of gely (a jellied dish, probably savory).  Longe frutours (milk fritters).  And a sotelte (another subtlety).

A huge amount of food, but only the top table, which would have sat the King, the Duke of Lancaster and the Bishop and a few other nobles, would have received all dishes.  The more costly and rare a dish the less of it would have been prepared.  The top table often tasted a dish and then sent it to a favorite on a lower table (those below the salt). 

For more information

Websites:

www.pbm.com/~lindahl/food.html      a web resource for medieval cooking leading to many sites worldwide

www.godecookery.com  a web site with many recipes made understandable for the modern cook, a very comprehensive site

Reference books:

Food and Feast in Medieval England.  P.W. Hammond 1995.  Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd. Stroud.

English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David 1980.  The Viking Press. NY. Various reprintings

The Joy of eating: a cook’s tour of history.  By Katie Stewart 1977. Stemmer House Publishers.

Great cooks and their recipes: from Taillevent to Escoffier.  Anne Willan 1977, 2000.  McGraw-Hill. NY.

Frances. Daily life in medieval times : a vivid, detailed account of birth, marriage and death; food, clothing and housing; love and labor in the middle ages / by Frances & Joseph Gies. New York : Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 1999.

Recipe books:

The Medieval Kitchen: recipes from France and Italy.  Odile Redon 1998.  University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

Pleyn Delit: medieval cookery for modern cooks.  Constance B Hieatt, Brend Hosington and Sharon Butler 1996.  University of Toronto Press. Toronto, Buffalo.

Early French cookery : sources, history, original recipes and modern adaptations / D. Eleanor Scully, Terence Scully ; with illuminations by J. David Scully. 1995. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine medieval recipes for today .  Barbara Santich. 1995 Chicago Review Press,

Chicago.