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
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:

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“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

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