These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today

Larry Holzwarth - September 30, 2019

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Deciding the beaver shared attributes with fish allowed its tail to be eaten on days of fasting. Wikimedia

14. The Church influenced much of the medieval diet

The most powerful legal authority in medieval Europe was the Roman Church, and its liturgical calendar had much to say regarding medieval food and diet. Fasting during medieval times meant abstention from animal products, which included cheese, eggs, and anything containing either. Fish was allowed. Fasting occurred throughout Lent and Advent, all Fridays, the eves of most Holy Days, all Wednesdays, and in many parts of Europe Saturdays as well. On certain days, such as Good Friday, fasting meant consuming just one meal throughout the course of the day. Interestingly, fasting did not extend to beer or wine, nor were there restrictions, for the most part, on snacking on fruits or breadstuffs.

During days where food intake was not restricted by fasting, there were other influences exerted by the church and its teachings. It was considered immoral to eat breakfast too soon after arising, an edict which was more easily followed by the idle rich (and the clergy) than by the working class. Throughout the medieval period the sick and young children were exempt from the restrictions of fasting, but other than infants most children were forced by the circumstances to follow them anyway, since meals weren’t prepared for the rest of the family in poor and working class homes. At all times of the year the church preached against the sin of gluttony, though some of the most sumptuous banquets of the period were served by popes, princes of the church, and bishops.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Forks were widely used in food preparation, but their use at table was rare. Wikimedia

15. The use of table forks in Europe began in 11th century Italy

Personal table forks were in use in the Eastern Roman Empire and in Persia for centuries before they began to appear in Europe. When they did it was mainly to facilitate the serving of pasta to oneself. By the beginning of the 14th century they were relatively common among the upper classes of the Italian states and by the middle of the 15th century their use was known in the Iberian Peninsula. It was expected of guests invited to dinner to bring their own fork (and knife) with them. Both were considered to be too personal of an item for the host to provide. In some countries, a spoon designed for personal use began to emerge around the same time. Prior to their arrival, most food at table was eaten off of a personal knife, or delivered to the mouth using the fingers, or bread, as the implement.

The rest of Europe, including France, was reticent in adopting the use of forks, though it became common in France long before the Anglo-Saxon countries accepted them. Some church leaders and theologians considered them to be vain and argued against their use. Most of Europe adopted the personal spoon, and knife, as suitable implements with which to convey one’s food to one’s mouth in the late medieval period, but not until the 1700s did forks begin to appear commonly on English tables and in the hands of English diners. Until that time the English and the Germanic regions preferred using the trencher – a plate made of bread – as the means of conveyance, supplemented with a knife and spoon.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The belief in the four humors extended to the nature of foods and the manner in which they were prepared. Wikimedia

16. The belief in the 4 humors dictated the manner in which food was prepared

The commonly accepted existence of the four humors drove many of the recipes for food preparation well beyond the combination of ingredients. It was believed that in most foods the humors were distributed unevenly, and chopping and mixing the food was necessary to balance the manner in which it was ingested. This was especially true of fruits and vegetables, and led to them being so treated even if they were to be served alone. This also led to the mixture of fruits, nuts, oysters, bread, and other foods and stuffing them into a fowl to be cooked, or a sheep’s stomach to be boiled, ensuring the humors were balanced before entering the human digestive system.

Digestion itself was believed to be the body’s means of further cooking the food. Food (in wealthier homes) was served in a manner which made the task of digestion easier, or so it was believed. Lighter foods were served first. This was so that the heavier foods which followed, such as beef or pork, did not go straight to the bottom of the stomach, preventing it from being properly “cooked” on the way down. Cheese was believed to be easily digested, and cheese courses came to be served at the end of the meal. A combination of cheese and light fruits to close the meal (some fruits were considered to be heavy foods) accompanied with wine became common in wealthy circles.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Desserts became more complex throughout the Middle Ages. Wikimedia

17. The custom of desserts at the end of a meal began in the medieval period

Once more in a nod to the need to maintain health through ensuring balance of the humors, during the medieval period the course known today as dessert became common, for those who could afford to eat well. It consisted of foods which were believed to help close the digestive organs, allowing them to go about their task uninterrupted. Foods believed to be suitable for the purpose were cheese and some fruits. In the beginning they were sometimes sweetened with honey. As time went on fresh fruits began to be replaced with concoctions similar to today’s preserves. In winter months, snow mingled with such preserves became an early form of ice cream.

By the mid-14th century marzipan – a confection made with honey or sugar and dried, ground almonds – appeared in France and Italy, probably another item brought back to Europe from the Turks. Desserts became more elaborate affairs during the 14th century, with baked goods in the form of rudimentary cookies and waffles appearing on tables. Sugar, expensive and rare, and valued for its medicinal properties, was used when the wealthy wanted a dessert to both please and impress guests. Sweetened custards, candied fruits and nuts, and tarts filled with fruits all emerged to close the stomach at the end of the meal during the medieval period, often accompanied with mulled wine.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Songbirds were often trapped and baked into pies, as a nursery rhyme suggests. Wikimedia

18. Foods considered strange to modern minds were relatively common

During the medieval period there were other sources of meat which to the modern mind would seem unpalatable, at least to most. Hedgehogs were a food source, and their blood was considered to have medicinal qualities in some cultures (they are still a food source for some, including Romani people). Their spines also offered many uses in medieval times throughout Europe. Porcupines were likewise valuable for several uses of their spines, and rather than waste the carcass they were butchered and eaten, with some recipes surviving in modern times, for those interested. Birds today considered only for their value in songs and eating insects were considered fine eating as well.

Songbirds such as robins, wrens, larks, and blackbirds, were caught in traps, and the English in particular enjoyed baking them in pies, another innovation of the medieval period, and the source of yet another nursery rhyme. Swans, peahens, and peacocks often graced the tables of the wealthy, presented at table in elaborate displays. One of the favored means of impressing the guests at table was a full peacock, his tail reattached and spread to its full glory while being carried in by the servants. Some peafowl were domesticated on European estates, giving glory to the master’s grounds before the time came for them to give glory to his dining table.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Beer was considered a healthful and nourishing food, taken at all meals by some. Wikimedia

19. Brewing beer in medieval times was a means of preserving grain

There are those who believe that beer was the preferred beverage of the medieval period because it was considered more healthful than water. Not true. A physician of the 13th century wrote of beer that “it harms the head and the stomach, it causes bad breath, and it ruins the teeth”. He was far from alone. The same physician pointed out that drinking beer together with wine made the drinker intoxicated far more quickly, a not particularly astute observation. The monasteries led the production of beer at the beginning of the medieval period, both to save grain which would otherwise go to waste, and to sell the beverage.

Hops became a major crop in some areas around the monasteries. In areas with no monastery upon which to rely, brewers began to make and sell beer, most large estates had their own breweries, and many of the working class brewed their own at home. By using hops, beer could be kept for up to six months, but few lasted that long in the northern countries of Europe. By the 15th century in England, annual consumption was about 60 gallons per person, of all ages, and it was consumed at every meal. In the Low Countries and the Germanic regions, consumption was even higher.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Wine too was considered a healthful beverage, though the best wines were consumed only by the wealthy. Wikimedia

20. In the Mediterranean regions wine was the preferred beverage

Beer was consumed across Europe, as were wines, but in the Mediterranean countries wine was preferred over beer. Red wine was believed to improve the blood, another factor in balancing the humors of the body. For this reason, medicinal bleeding was nearly always followed by a dose of red wine mixed with water. Wine was also approved by the medical community when it was spiced and mulled, both made it more favorable to the bodily humors in their learned opinions. Then as now, the higher the quality of a wine generally meant it was more expensive and the best red wines usually were in the hands of the wealthy. Cheaper and less alcoholic wines could be found in the hands of the poor. Some could only afford vinegar.

Cooking guides from the 14th century included instructions on the best ways of preserving unused wines, and the means of making them palatable again when they began to go bad. The number of instructions which have survived indicates that it was a fairly common problem, which is readily understood when it is considered that the concept of sterilizing the vessels into which it was poured was still centuries away. Some cheaper wines were mixed with vinegar in order to lengthen their shelf life, but many still went bad before they were consumed, and required doctoring in order to drink them.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Mead was a popular drink made from honey and used to preserve some fruits and vegetables. Wikimedia

21. Mead and other alcoholic beverages were made from honey across the medieval world

Mead was made of a mixture of honey, water, and yeast, though sometimes white wine was substituted for the water. The maker, dependent upon where he was, often added other ingredients in accordance with local traditions and tastes. In medieval Europe mead was often a product of a monastery, where bees were kept and honey was harvested. It was also used in the brewing of some beers and ales. A particular form of mead was used to prevent the fruits of summer from spoiling before they could be consumed, and was made with fruits to augment the taste (honey does not contain bacteria, though that fact was unknown at the time).

Mead is probably the beverage most associated with medieval life today, though it was less prominent than either wine in the south of Europe and beer and ale in the north. The Danish warriors in Beowulf fortified themselves with mead, and as a result it became mainly associated with the Scandinavian countries and the Vikings. Ancient texts from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East all contain references to an alcoholic beverage made with the co-operation of bees, though without their knowledge, and it seems to have been the result, like beer, of the observation of thin porridges fermenting themselves as a result of the natural yeasts and sugars contained therein.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Medieval castles were built to ensure adequate water supplies in case of siege. Wikimedia

22. Water was the most common beverage of the medieval period, despite myths to the contrary

The beverage which was most often consumed by medieval men, women, and children, was water. This was true win both small, isolated villages and in the growing cities. In the mid-13th century, London began the construction of the Great Conduit, a system of pipes which routed water from a natural spring at Tyburn to a pumping house, where it was then directed to a series of cisterns around the city. Most citizens went to the cisterns to draw water, or paid a water-carrier to get it for them. Wealthier citizens could pay the city council to install pipes of their own, tapping into the conduits.

On the continent of Europe many of the aqueducts erected by the Romans continued to provide clean drinking water to cities and towns. Others built community cisterns and some estates routed drinking water to tenants. Communities learned to draw their drinking water from upstream of the town and discharge its effluence below. Castles and fortifications were built with several wells to obtain water and cisterns to store it, as well as roofs designed to collect rainwater. Wine and especially beer were consumed frequently, but both were considered to be healthful (in moderation) and beer was considered to be a food, liquid grain, as it were, rather than just a means of quenching thirst. It was however rare to consume water at meals, when only foods were to be taken, in a manner conducive to maintaining a healthful balance of humors.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The Roman Aqueducts continued to supply drinking water in much of Medieval Europe. Wikimedia

23. More on the drinking of water during the medieval period

How and where the myth regarding the necessity of drinking beer and wine due to the impurity of water in medieval life began is immaterial. The existing body of evidence is that water was used throughout the era to quench thirst. But many doctors did warn against drinking water with meals, or even just before them. This was based on Galen, who was the source of most medical knowledge for medieval doctors. Galen warned that too much water filled the stomach and did not allow for the proper intake of food, as previously discussed, weakening the digestion which created bad humors, “which flow and drift across the whole body in its cavity”. To Galen, the effect was the same as when the body fasted.

Records of the first water distribution systems in larger cities of Europe began in the medieval period, but in most smaller towns water was free, from community wells and nearby streams and springs. Thus, there are few records describing its use, but neither are there records describing it as unhealthful for consumption. There are records from medieval doctors and writers which described how to detect water which was unsafe to drink. And in 8th century Bavaria, a law was passed which penalizing anyone who fouled a public fountain, “with any filth”, requiring them to both clean the fountain of the offending material and pay a fine to the town.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Medieval farmers timed the slaughter of animals to coincide with the seasons, in part because of the difficulty feeding them in the winter. Wikimedia

24. Preparation of foods for the winter months

Livestock destined for consumption at the table was normally slaughtered in the fall, after crops had been harvested, in time for them to be preserved by pickling, drying, or smoking. Pigs, which weren’t reliant on pasture for food were slaughtered year-round. Fall was the best time for slaughter because it meant that less fodder for livestock would be necessary for the coming winter. Essentially, the medieval populace used the same methods of preservation as those of antiquity, which would remain unchanged, more or less, until the early 19th century, with the advent of canning.

Fruits and some vegetables were packed in jars, in honey or a pickling solution, and sealed with beeswax. Other vegetables were packed in brine or vinegar, as were some fish. Fruit was also packed in honey and mead. Butter in medieval kitchens was highly salted, much more so than its modern counterpart, in order to lengthen its shelf life. Unripe grapes were squeezed for their juice. Because the fruit had not yet created the sugars during the ripening process, the juice was high in acid, and was used in the creation of sauces and flavorings as well as in pickling. Over the entire year, the cutting and storing of wood, the source of heating and cooking fuel, was an ongoing process.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Within the walls of medieval cities such as Avila, prepared foods were sold in shops and by vendors. Wikimedia

25. The medieval period saw the birth of the professional food industry

Professional cooks emerged during the medieval period, employed at the great estates and in the smaller shops of the urban centers. Cheesemongers made and sold cheeses, poulterers sold birds; butcher’s beef, pork, and game. Prepared foods were sold from tradesmen hawking their wares on the streets, as were some meats such as rabbits and sausages. In Europe, and especially in England, the culinary achievement of the pie crust led to wholly edible pies, sold by a tradesman who was known as the pieman. Virtually any food could be baked into pies; meats, vegetables, fruits, and fish and eel, which became known as a sea pie. Pies became a favorite meal of workers at midday, rather than a dessert.

A hierarchy developed in the cooking industry, with those employed at the estates tending to specialize, (bakers, grillers, confectioners, etc) and those employed by the urban shops considered lesser skilled and mere tradesman. The wealthy scorned the urban shops which catered to the working class and the poor, as well as many of the foods they prepared. Many believed that the constant exposure to the heat and smoke of the medieval kitchen negatively affected the bodily humors, and cooks were stereotyped as hot tempered as a result. Restaurants were unknown, though inns and taverns offered food, usually prepared in their own kitchens, as an accompaniment to their patrons’ wine or beer.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The church insisted that eating too soon after rising was sinful. Wikimedia

26. The menu for a typical day for a member of the medieval working class

The church taught, and medical professionals (many of whom were trained by the church and were also priests or monks) agreeed that eating too soon after rising in the morning was sinful and bad for health. Most of the working class were aware of this admonition, and got around it by not sitting to breakfast. A morning beer before beginning the daily toil was common, accompanied with bread and sometimes cheese, or cold meat. Lunch was often carried in the pockets for consumption at midday, or purchased from a vendor. The popularity of pies is attributed to their suitability to this purpose, both portable and palatable cold.

The main meal of the day was served at dinner for the working class, and it was there that it was most likely to consist of more than one course, lighter foods followed by heavier foods, and washed down with wine, beer, or mead. For the working class and poor cabbage was a mainstay, prepared in a variety of ways. The evening meal might be served on a wooden plate or bowl, or one made of bread, or might be laid out directly on the table. Foods delivered to the table were usually in the container in which they had been prepared, and the diner helped himself using spoon or knife. The idea of napkins had not yet occurred to etiquette students.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The wealthy had more leisure time and enjoyed longer and more elaborate meals. Wikimedia

27. The menu for the wealthy was somewhat different from the less fortunate

The wealthy were far more likely to observe the church proscription against early eating, and formal breakfasts were rare. The fast could be broken by snacks; fruit, breads, and other such items were usually consumed during the morning. The main meal of the day was typically served at midday, and it was then that the estate’s cooks and bakers produced the food which was served with epicurean flourishes. The wealthy were far more likely to drink wine with their meals than beer, though beer was not unheard of, due to its perceived healthful properties. Several courses were prepared and served, and consumed in the manner dictated by medical thought of the time.

Unless guests were to be entertained at dinner, it was often a much more subdued affair than the midday meal, served after vespers (an evening prayer ritual). Foods prepared outside of the estate’s own kitchens were not served. Most of the food was obtained from the estate. Urban dwellers of wealth purchased most of their food, of necessity, but due to class status exempted themselves from purchasing prepared foods from urban vendors. The church prohibited long stays at table in the evening, and elaborate banquets with excessive food, and unless the meal was part of entertaining guests, the ban was for the most part followed.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Banquets in the great halls and castles were typically frowned upon by the church. Wikimedia

28. The church frowned on banquets and feasts with excessive eating

The stereotypical medieval banquet, with long meals of lavishly prepared foods, supplemented with wines, ales, and other drinks did occur in the great halls and castles of the rich and the nobility. Despite the official position of the church that such events were immoral and sinful, many of the most elaborate known, the records of which survive, were hosted by members of the clergy, including several popes. Most records of these banquets are focused on who attended and the entertainments which were offered, as well as the decorations. During the early part of the medieval period, dinners in the great halls and houses were communal, with the entire household, including servants, dining together.

Leftovers were a problem, since there were few means of storing or preserving them. The leftover food was usually delivered to the poor as alms. This led to the practice of the poor and traveling pilgrims gathering at the estates to receive the food, rather than it being distributed to churches. The practice changed over time to the food being delivered to almshouses and churches, where it would be served to those unable to feed themselves. Leftover bread was seldom distributed, since it had other uses in the kitchen and could last for a few days. Bread was distributed to the poor via the churches and monasteries.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
A depiction of the medieval cook which appeared in an edition of Chaucer. Wikimedia

29. Cookbooks began to appear during the medieval period

The fact that cookbooks which described the obtaining and preparation of food emerged is an indication that literacy was fairly common during the period, at least among the better off financially. The use of spices as a means of disguising the appearance and aroma of spoiled meats and other foods is a fallacy according to the texts; many cooking guides discussed what to look for when inspecting meat, to avoid the possibility of using meat already spoiled. Spices were costly, their use limited to those who could afford it, and important to them maintaining their status within the community. Serving rotten food while attempting to hide the fact with spices would have done little to enhance their reputation.

The cookbooks which did appear were more collections of recipes than they were descriptions of techniques. They were often vague regarding amounts of ingredients to be used, as well as the temperatures and times required to complete a dish. They were written for professional cooks and servants, trained through apprenticeship. Many of the recipes in medieval cookbooks, at least those which survive, are recipes for common maladies such as headache, toothache, and indigestion, and foods which helped to avoid them.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The cook or cooks for Richard II allegedly wrote a collection of recipes, including one for preparing whale. Wikimedia

30. The Forme of Cury was one of the earliest English cookbooks

In the late 14th century, a cookbook was written in scroll form by the “Cooks of Richard II”. While not the oldest collection of recipes written in English (Middle English) it is the oldest yet discovered to mention the use of olive oil. Its heavy use of one ingredient – sugar – suggests that although it includes common dishes, it was meant solely for the use of the wealthy. That view is supported by its inclusion in its recipes of several what were then extremely rare spices, including the first mention in English of cloves and mace. There are also recipes for pasta, vinaigrette, and several vegetable dishes, indicating the influence of Mediterranean cooking had by then reached England, at least among its wealthiest classes.

There are also recipes which indicate the lengths people would go to for comestibles. There are recipes for whale meat, porpoises, and seals. The cooking of cranes and curlews, both water birds, prepared with a stuffing which included other creatures of the sea, were included. The work contains a statement by the author that the recipes were intended to guide the preparation of “Common pottages and common meats for the household, as they should be made, craftily and wholesomely”. It also contains a claim by the author that special dishes for banquets were included. It did not separate the two categories. The preparation of sculptures and decorative displays was also covered, which were often carried to the table by servants as an indication to guests that the meal, possibly of porpoise and beaver tail, was about to be served.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Medieval Diet”. Learning texts in context. The British Library. Online

“Food in the Middle Ages”. Ed. Melissa Weiss. 1995

“Food and Eating in Medieval Europe”. Ed. Martha Carlin, Joel T. Rosenthal. 2003

“A Brief History of Honey”. Article, The Honey Association. Online

“Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination”. Paul Freedman. 2008

“Some Basic Aspects of Medieval Cuisine”. Paul Freedman, Online

“Medieval Porridge or Frumenty”. Article, World History Online. June 7, 2017

“The History of Food”. Maguelonne Toussant-Samat. 2009

“The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages”. Terence Scully. 1995

“Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society”. Bridget Ann Henisch. 1976

“A History of Western Eating Utensils, From the Scandalous Fork to the Incredible Spork”. Lisa Bramen, July 31, 2009

“Attempree diete was al hir phisik: The Medieval Application of Medical Theory to Feasting”. Kristen M. Burkholder. 1996. Online

“They dined on crane: bird comsumption, wild fowling, and status in medieval England”. Umberto Albarella and Richard Thomas. 2002. Online

“From Wine to Beer: Changing Patterns of Alcohol Consumption, and Living Standards, in Later Medieval Flanders, 1300-1550. John Munro. Medieval Academy of America. 2010. Online

“Looking into the long history of mead”. Mary O’Riordan, Irish Times. January 23, 2016

“What Was the Drink of Choice in Medieval Europe?”. Tim O’Neill, May 21, 2013

“Fast Food in Medieval Europe”. Vickie L. Ziegler, 2008

“Changes in Diet in the Late Middle Ages: the Case of Harvest Workers”. Christopher Dyer, 1988. Online

“Medieval Gastronomy”. Exhibit, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Online

“Research reveals Medieval diet was more than meat and gruel”. Lance Gay, Scripps News Service. February 17, 2003

“Medieval Culinary Texts”. Martha Carlin, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Online

“The Forme of Cury”. Text at the British Library. Online