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
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, Medievalists.net. 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, Smithsonian.com 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, Slate.com. May 21, 2013

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

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

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