Archive for July, 2018

What to Eat and Drink in Medieval England

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

The eighth chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: What to Eat and Drink.  It describes how various people ate and drank in 14th century England.  This posting will deal with the rhythms of medieval eating and drinking as well as the contrasts between how the peasants ate and drank compared with the merchants living in the towns and cities, with the nobles, and with monastic residents.  The English class system meant that peasant fare was usually quite modest compared to what many merchants ate.  Also, monks ate well as did the nobility, especially, the royalty.  In general, most food and drink was obtained locally which meant that there were good years and bad years.  In 1390-91, for example, bad weather caused many people in England to starve.  Finally, there was less variety of food available in 14th century England because foods from the New World such as potatoes, tomatoes, and turkeys were unknown in England.

The main meal was usually in mid-day, followed by a lighter meal in the late afternoon.  There was often no breakfast, but people expecting to travel would break their fast before starting their journeys.  My novels often mentioned that people broke their fast before setting out on a journey.  Seasons were important for medieval people because the methods of preserving food were more limited than today.  Vegetables were most abundant during the autumn harvest season, and fish were most available in the summer when weather conditions were best for fishermen.  There was more daylight in summer, both for catching fish and for transporting the catch to people living near the sea or along the rivers.  Those who could afford meat found that lamb, pork, beef, and birds were most available in late autumn. More slaughtering of livestock took place then due to the high cost of feeding animals through the winter season.  The medieval church declared that meat must be avoided on many days throughout the year, including every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as well as throughout Advent and Lent.  Fish was the substitute if available and affordable.

Bread provided the key item in the peasant diet and was usually baked locally.  Until the middle of the century, bread was often dark rye but could also be made from oats, bran or other cereals.  Then, the better-off peasants, such as yeomen, might be able to grow some wheat and thus produce white bread.  Bread as it aged and dried out, might be used as a trencher, substituting for a wooden plate on which other food could be placed.  After that, older bread might be used as animal feed.  Next in importance for the peasants was pottage, a term for stew or soup which could be stretched when food was not in abundance.  Any vegetables in the peasant diet were grown by the family, so they were very seasonal.  Meat for the poor was scarce and what little was available had to be obtained by poaching which was a serious crime for peasants.  Fish was often too expensive for peasants to substitute on meatless days.  Bread was their staple and the preferred peasant beverage was ale.

Merchants who emerged in the 14th century were usually wealthier than peasants, sometimes competing in wealth with nobility.  They often lived in the towns and cities where markets and fairs made more things available for people to buy.  They tended to eat much better than the peasants as they could afford to buy such meat as lamb or beef as well as red wine to go with it.  The markets offered many varieties of bread including white bread by the time of my stories.  Fruits were brought into markets for those who could afford them.  Edward Aust, Lady Apollonia’s second husband, is treated with pomegranate fruit in Plague of a Green Man.  These were available in the markets of Exeter in 1380 and came from North Africa.

Taverns and ale houses were places within towns and cities where people with means could drink.  The taverns accommodated travelers, usually sold wine and were more upmarket than ale houses but the taverns did vary in quality.  Patrons could be of a rougher sort and the wine of poorer quality in some taverns.  Other taverns catered to professional people and the gentry and these cared about their reputations, so they served good wine in a clean and wholesome atmosphere.  Alehouses only served ale, cider or mead and often provided entertainment.  The clientele was often lower on the social scale than at most of the taverns.  Both taverns and alehouses were places that characters in my stories sometimes visited in the evenings.

The nobility ate very well, often enjoying many-course dinners which extended long after grooms and valets had consumed their own rations and left the hall to their superiors.  The nobleman’s hall offered a spectrum of food quality and quantity.  At the lower end of the hall, there were small servings of basic pottage in contrast to lavish servings of the finest foods for the lord at the top table.  The lord’s table could feature a course of as many as five meat dishes such as brawn or meat from a pig’s or calf’s head that is cooked and pressed in a pot with jelly, pottage containing beef or mutton, pottage containing chicken or pork, stewed pheasant or swan, and a meat fritter made with the entrails of animals.  Other courses would each have several dishes including more meat dishes, so that important guests were advised to be careful not to eat too much along the way as the lavish meal continued.  On the non-meat days, the lavish eating continued.  Each course offered several varieties of sea food in lieu of meat, with the most favored varieties such as sturgeon held back until the third course.

Fruits and vegetables were often incorporated in the sauces in which meat and fish were prepared.  Bread at a nobleman’s table was the best available, as was his selection of wines which was usually much greater than that available in a tavern.  Both wine and ale had to be available in the home of a nobleman because most of the staff only drank ale in contrast to the wine which the nobility drank.  Royalty were at the top of the nobility, and most of them ate very well.  The picture below shows a king eating at a royal feast.

The food in monasteries might be compared with that in the home of a nobleman, but there were some interesting differences.  The abbot often had separate lodgings where he entertained important guests who ate like lords with him.  Yet, the abbot was frequently selected from among the monks, so his relationship with the monks was often quite different than that of a lord to his servants.

Another difference was based on a rule of Saint Benedict which prohibited members of the order from eating four-legged animals.  This rule greatly reduced the options for meat on those days of the year when it allowed meat for most other Christians, but monasteries invented some ingenious ways to get around this limitation.  The precise wording of the rule was a prohibition of eating meat in the “refectory” or dining room of the monastery.  Many institutions developed a second dining room which was not called a refectory but a misericord or place of mercy.  Half the monks could eat any given meal in the misericord and thus satisfy the cravings which the monks had for meat.  A given meal had multiple meat courses just as in noble houses, so that over a year’s time, a monk might average at least one meat dish per day.

Those at the bottom of the class ladder ate modestly and often struggled in hard times.  Those at the top did much better.  Even the monastic restrictions on eating meat did not prevent clever monks from finding ways to get around the rules and eat plenty of meat.