Food is one of my favourite topics, and if I weren’t obsessing here about the Middle Ages, I’d probably be blogging about my food obsessions. Food is not really a concern in my novel (at least not at the moment), but I’ve done a little bit of reading on the topic as research.
Not a great deal of research was done on medieval food topics until the 1980s, so there is not a large body of work that is available. Of particular interest, though, there are some primary sources on the Internet, in particular, two medieval recipe books that provide great insights into food and eating at the time.
1. Feasts and Fasts: “A Balanced Diet”
The Roman Catholic Church ruled almost every aspect of medieval life, and food and dining customs were not exempt. The medieval calendar was replete with fast days and feast days. Literally every day of the year was marked by a possible feast day, but the Church was diligent in balancing them with plenty of fast days. Weekly fast days included Wednesdays, Fridays and sometimes Saturdays. Overall, meat was forbidden for a full third of the year and all animal products, including eggs and dairy, were prohibited during Lent, the period of about 40 days leading to Easter. It was okay to eat fish, however.
Those were the rules, at least. In practice, people from both the lower and upper classes were constantly looking for ways to fudge the rules. The definition of “fish” was often expanded to include marine and semi-aquatic animals, such as barnacle geese, puffins and even beavers (their tales were so similar to those of fish that they were allowed).
Feast days were ranked by the Church and not all of them were celebrated with feasts in the usual sense; rather prayers were redoubled. The food festivals, however, were sometimes elaborate. Some Benedictine monasteries were known to have set out feasts involving 16 courses! All in the name of the saint, mind you, but the Benedictine monks must have loved their food, as well.
2. Laws and Assizes: Let Them Eat Cake!
Most commoners ate what they could grow, catch or bag themselves. Nobles had more expensive tastes, and could import exotic spices and foodstuffs. But in the later Middle Ages, with the rise of the middle class, the nobles felt there needed to be control on the personal spending of these nouveau riche. They enacted Sumptuary Laws to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures. Thus, it became difficult for an English wool merchant or civil servant to important wine from France or Italy. Nobles had no problems.
Cheating was common among food preparers. One of the first laws to regulate the production and sale of food was the Assize of Bread and Ale, enacted by Henry III in 1267. The law tied the price of bread to the price of wheat so that bakers would not set prices artificially high. In a similar way, the price of ale was tied to the price of wheat, barley and oats. Beer and ale was regulated by gustatores cervisiae, or ale-conners, appointed “to examine and assay the beer and ale, and to take care that they were good and wholesome, and sold at proper prices according to the assize.“
The Assize of Bread and Ale remained in effect until the mid 19th century.
3. Cooking: Of Hearth and Home
Most cooking took place over an open fire (stoves did not appear until the 18th century). This meant that the most common dishes were stews and potages (see below) that involved many ingredients stewed together. Ovens were used only in the richer households and bakeries. However, portable ovens were fairly common. These were filled with food then buried in hot coals for the cooking.
Another common open-fire dish was whole-roasted animals, fish or fowl. Hearths were equipped with racks to hang spits of various sizes, depending on the meat being roasted.
Ingredients were fairly simple, so recipes were mostly not written down. Those that were written down specified ingredients and general cooking guidelines – nothing like the step-by-step recipe formats we use today.
The Forme of Cury is a book of medieval recipes compiled by the cook for Richard II of England. It is available at the Gutenberg project web site. Le Viandier is a French recipe collection from the same era.
4. The Kitchen: No Granite Counter-tops or Fancy Fixtures
For most of the Middle Ages, there were no kitchens in the modern sense. Cooking – even in the larger houses of the nobility – was carried out in a hearth in the main living space, which also served as a kitchen and dining room. This was done for simple heating efficiency.
Later in the Middle Ages, separate kitchens evolved as separate buildings connected by an arcade. This way, the smoke, odors and bustle of the kitchen could be kept out of sight of guests, and the fire risk lessened.
5. Etiquette: It’s a Family Affair
Dining was a communal affair and the entire household (including servants in wealthier houses) were expected to eat meals together. The English bishop and philosopher, Robert Grosseteste advised: “forbid dinners and suppers out of hall, in secret and in private rooms, for from this arises waste and no honour to the lord and lady.”
In monasteries, all the residents ate in the refectory, except servers and monks with other duties. One monk was appointed to read aloud from the Bible or the Holy Rule of St. Benedict while the others ate.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the wealthy moved away from the communal dinner. It was considered an honour to be invited to the private chambers of a Lord or Lady to enjoy an exclusive meal, where more luxurious food items could be served. Before the meal and between courses, shallow basins with scented water were offered with fresh linens for washing. The lower ranked and younger guests were expected to help the superiors in such ways as cutting their meat or keeping their glasses topped with wine, beer or water. It was not unusual for people to share drinking utensils.
Food was served with spoons or bare hands. Knives were used, but it was expected that diners arrive with their own. Only the most special guests were provided with their own personal knife. Forks were available in some parts of Europe, though not commonly used until the 16th century.
6. Food: A Bowlful of Mush
The most common dishes, particularly among commoners, were potages and stews. Potage was a general term for a dish that contained any combination of meat, cereal or vegetable boiled together with water until they form into a thick mush. Some wealthier versions of potage were eaten as a first course in grand meals, such as frumenty (boiled cracked wheat, mixed with almond milk and spiced with cinnamon), jelly (meat or fish in aspic) or mawmenny (thickened chicken mash).
Bread was not as common among the lower classes, particularly in the northern climates, where much of the wheat had to be imported. It became more popular in the latter Middle Ages, however, when it replaced the porridge or gruel-based meals. Once bread took hold as a staple, its consumption soared! By the end of the 14th century, it was estimated that each person ate two to three pounds per day.
One of the most common constituents of a medieval meal, either as part of a banquet or as a small snack, were sops, pieces of bread with which a liquid like wine, soup, broth, or sauce could be soaked up and eaten.
All meals were served on trenchers – most commonly wood or pewter plates. But trenches were originally stale bread crusts. Your potage or cheese or eel aspic would have been served right on the trencher and consumed if desired.
For more on medieval dishes, consult The Forme of Cury or Le Viandier.
7. Drink: Dirty Water or Wine?
Because water contamination was a problem, alcoholic drinks were far more commonly consumed with meals. The upper classes, particularly in England, preferred wine, imported from the grape-growing regions. Beer or ale was the beverage of choice in the lower classes. The beer was consumed at a much earlier stage of fermentation because it was difficult to preserve the liquid. Thus it was probably cloudier and had a lower alcohol content than the modern equivalent.
Plain milk was not consumed by adults except the poor or sick, being reserved for the very young or elderly, and then usually as buttermilk or whey. Fresh milk was overall less common than other dairy products because of the lack of technology to keep it from spoiling.
8. Misconceptions: Get Your Facts Straight!
• It has been said that spices were heavily used to mask the taste of spoiled meat. Preservation techniques were fairly advanced, especially in the latter Middle Ages, and for those who could afford it, fresh meat could be readily sourced at any time of year.
• The medieval custom of grinding and mashing meat, and eating potages and sauces, has been explained by the fact that both commoners and nobles lost their teeth at an early age. Tooth decay was a problem, but in reality, the medieval cuisine included a wide variety of dishes with chewable ingredients, such as fresh vegetables, carved meats and grains.