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Dining Habits of the Middle Ages
You might assume that the bad hygiene associated with the Middle Ages extended to the dining habits of the time. In actuality, noblemen in Medieval England probably ate better than people of today.
Of course, the plight of the poor was a different story. The feudal era is famed for financial inequality on a seismic scale; which is illustrated by the dramatic contrast between what rich and poor had available for their daily sustenance.
Here is an overview of how people from various classes of society dined during the Middle Ages.
Staples of the Medieval Diet
Certain foods were mainstays of medieval cuisine for rich and poor alike, but there were significant differences in the ingredients used.
Bread was consumed in great quantities by all classes of society, but the type of bread varied according to the wealth of its recipient. The poor used barley, oat and rye; while wheat was reserved for the upper classes.
Peasant bread was dark, while rich man's bread was white. White bread signified high status because it showed you had the time and resources to sift the wheat multiple times.
Ironically, white bread is the cheaper version nowadays, while healthy brown bread is the preferred choice for those who can afford it.
Pottage was another staple of the medieval diet. The word referred to anything cooked in a pot (mainly stews).
Naturally, peasant's pottage utilised ingredients that were easy to come by, such as vegetables; while the rich consumed more sophisticated pottage (called mortrew), which usually included meat and spices.
What Did the Poor Eat During the Middle Ages?
A peasant's diet was composed primarily of bread, dairy, and stew.
Meat was extremely hard to come by for peasants, who worked the lord's estate but were not entitled to any of its resources, such as the range of livestock.
These estates were usually located near forests, but the common folk weren't allowed to eat the animals that dwelt there either. Hunting was a lordly pursuit.
Chickens were a source of eggs and thus too valuable to kill. It was a sign of extravagance to eat chicken, as it meant you were wealthy enough to disregard the need for eggs.
The only meat that peasants could hope to get their hands on was pork. Pigs were cheap to take care of, and mostly just fed themselves. It was common for a peasant to keep a pig out back and slaughter it at the onset of the winter.
Dairy was available; mainly in the form of cheese, as milk spoilt quickly.
Salmon was the only fish that peasants could consume on a regular basis. Again, somewhat ironic; as salmon is highly sought after nowadays, but back then it was freely available in rivers.
Vegetables could be grown in gardens and were considered peasant food because they were so easily obtained. Fruit and vegetables were cooked, as it was believed that eating them raw could cause illness.
Ale was the drink of choice since the water was dirty and unsafe. If you were lucky enough to have access to a clean source of water, such as a well, then you could drink it; but peasants generally had ale for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Cooking was usually done over a hearth in the centre of the hut's living room. Ovens were expensive, and peasants needed permission to use the lord's oven for baking bread.
Meal Times for a Medieval Peasant
- Breakfast: eaten at sunrise; usually consisted of dark bread and ale.
- Midday Meal: eaten between 11 am and 12 pm. This was the main meal of the day for peasants, who needed the energy so they could continue with their backbreaking labour in the fields.
- Supper: eaten at sunset. Bread, ale and vegetable pottage. Maybe some meat or fish if you were lucky.
What Did the Rich Eat During the Middle Ages?
Now we get to it; the real fine dining of the feudal era. Food was important to the rich, as illustrated by the existence of cookbooks such as The Forme of Cury; a 14th-century collection of English recipes at the time.
The rich had access to ingredients that the poor could only dream of.
- Spices were expensive to import but could elevate dishes to a level worthy of a king. Cooked dishes were flavoured with a variety of spices, including caraway, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and pepper.
- Wine was only obtainable for the rich. It was nowhere near the quality of the fine French wines of today, but it signified high status nonetheless.
- Meat and fish were plentiful if you were a rich man in Medieval England. Chicken, mutton and pork were consumed in abundance.
- Sauce-making was an art, and a skilled professional sauce maker could find well-paid employment in the castle of a lord. Most medieval sauces utilised wine or vinegar as a base.
- Dessert was something that existed only for the rich, who dined on decadent puddings, cakes and tarts while peasants with a sweet tooth had to settle for berries.
The Medieval Banquet
Banquets are an iconic element of the Middle Ages, and they were every bit as illustrious as we are led to believe.
They were an opportunity for the rich to demonstrate their wealth and status. Rarely did a few weeks go by without a banquet, and the amount of food served at a single banquet could feed an entire peasant family for a year.
Vegetarians would be shocked by the variety of animals consumed at banquets, which included peacocks, pigeons, porpoises, and even whales.
For the rich, it was important that food not just taste good, but look good too. The dishes served at banquets were presented in elaborate ways. Complex sculptures crafted from sugar, known as sotiltees (subtleties), decorated the table.
A Few Examples of Medieval Dishes
- Black pudding: peasants could not afford to waste anything. If they were able to acquire meat, they made use of every part of the animal; including the blood which was boiled to make black pudding.
- Umble pie: when an animal was slaughtered and consumed by the lord, whatever remained of it could be passed down to the lowly retainers of his household. This included organs such as the heart and liver, all of which were thrown together in a pie. As you might have guessed, this is the origin of the term "Humble Pie".
- Custard tart: a common dessert for the rich.
- Mulled wine: a sweet wine that included various flavourful fruits and spices, also popular with the rich.
- Cormarye: pork loin bathed in a rich red wine sauce; often served at banquets.
- Puddyng of purpaysse: stuffed porpoise stomach., Yes, you heard that right. It's like Scottish haggis, except it's a porpoise instead of a sheep.
- Tart de brymlent: a pie made of fish and fruit, including raisins, apples and pears (medieval folk had no issue with cooking fish and fruit together).
- Pygge y-farsyd: a stuffed and roasted pig, mixed with eggs and bread crumbs, and flavoured with saffron.
Feel free to lookup more medieval recipes at Gode Cookery.
- Alixe Bovey. 2015, 30 April. The Medieval Diet (British Library).
- Michael Delahoyde. Medieval Food (Washington State University)
- C N Trueman. 2015, 5 March. Food and Drink in Medieval England (History Learning Site)
- James L. Matterer. Medieval Recipe Translations (Gode Cookery)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.