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Recently I went on a day trip to the Warwick Castle thus igniting my interest in medieval England. I have since read enormous amounts of information on the period and downloaded pod casts and other information on the life, customs and politics of this period. The natural progression was, therefore, a post on the kind of food eaten during this time. The information available was vast and I soon realized that I would have to break my post into two parts if I wanted to do it any justice.

As is commonly known the average life expectancy in medieval England was about 35 years. Diseases and death were common with alarming low levels of sanitation prevalent. Most lived in hovels made of mud and wood. Oftentimes, an entire family of six or seven people lived under one roof which consisted of two rooms, one for living and another for cooking. Meals took place in the kitchen which normally had a stone oven or an open fire. Even the rich had limited number of rooms, with most eating in the kitchen where the hearth and fire kept them warm.

The violent times of the Dark Ages led to a primitive medieval society lacking in elegance or refinement. In the early Middle Ages food was basic and the ingredients home grown. Class distinction was enforced strictly and food was an important marker of this social status. People ate depending on which class they belonged to. Nobility like lords and bishops ate well with meats, white bread, sugary treats and wine. Peasants, farmers, craftsmen, labourers ate black bread made with rye or barley.  

Much food is in the tillage of the poor: but there is that is destroyed for want of judgment

The average medieval peasant grew his own rye and barley and baked it into thick black bread in the community or in the lord’s oven. Individual ovens were expensive and not allowed for then the lord could not charge an additional fee which was collected for the use of his oven from the peasants.

The bread was often accompanied by pottage, a stew of meat or fish with grains, herbs and vegetables. Typically, the pottage was kept over the fire for a period of days and whatever was available like vegetables like leeks, onions, turnips, beets, berries and even apple cores was added to it during the course of the day. Lucky families may occasionally add salted pork or a slice of fatty bacon for flavor and protein. The result was a dish that was never quite the same twice. Pottage has consistently remained a staple diet of the poor throughout most of the 9th -15th centuries.Cheese too was a common foodstuff, made and eaten by all classes.

Breadplates

Water was not favoured due to its high contamination rate and low prestige value. Instead, ale was an important drink in the medieval world and was consumed as a staple food, along with bread. It was drunk by all classes and age groups. Also consumed was mead, a fermented drink of honey and water. Its alcoholic content varied from mild to that of a strong wine. Depending on local tradition it was also brewed with spices, fruits, or grain mash. Mead has had a multicultural history featuring in chronicled records of almost all civilizations across Europe, Africa and Asia. Infact, it has often been regarded as the ancestor of all fermented drinks. Mead later came to be used for more medicinal purposes.

Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive

Nobility had several class distinctions within itself, starting from the king or pope and moving down the social order to dukes, earls, squires and priests. An elaborate banquet was often used to impress guests with the lord’s generosity and wealth. It was also often that a lord bankrupted himself in an effort to overindulge his guests.

A typical feast served beef, pork, mutton, venison, poultry, game, fish, eggs, white bread, milk and cheeses. Vegetables were served in lesser quantities to mark a definite class distinction. Only vegetables such as onions, garlic and leeks graced a noble’s table. There was also usually a profusion of wines along with the more common ale, cider and mead. Sugar or honey was used to sweeten deserts like jelly, cold baked tarts and custards. Sugar was expensive and could only be afforded by the rich landowners.

While not serving feasts to guests, a lord’s everyday dinner usually consisted of two or three courses, mainly meats and pastries, bread, wine or ale, cheeses and nuts. Fruit was only usually served in pies or was preserved in honey.

Common meats preferred during those times were mutton and veal. During the middle of the thirteenth century, the Church forbade Christians the use of poultry on fast days with some exceptions like teal, widgeon, moor-hens, and a few kinds of shell fish. The pea-fowl played an important part in the chivalric banquets of the middle ages. According to old poets the flesh of this noble bird was “food for the brave”. Another poet of the thirteenth century said that, “thieves have as much taste for falsehood as a hungry man has for the flesh of the peacock”. Later the pea fowl was replaced by turkey and pheasant as their flesh was considered somewhat hard and stringy.

Roast pheasant 

The winter months were a time of scarcity, and preparations were made during the rest of the year to ensure the availability of meat. One such preparation was the harvesting of pigeons. Preservation processes like salting and smoking were also used on meats and fish.  

 

I will end this post with this thought – that though the rich were fed well all through the summer months and the harsh winter months, it was the poor who survived better, fending off diseases and illness. The wealthy ate few fresh vegetables and fruits consequently lacking in essential vitamins and fibre. This often led to diseases like scurvy and rickets, bad teeth and skin disorders. In comparison, the diet adopted by the poor was rich in basic minerals, fibre and vitamins. The hard physical labour kept them hardy and fit, ready to deal with the hardships of the times.