If there is one thing that human do since the beginning of evolution, it is eating. We could cover many topics related to food, such as symbolic, evolution, preparation, careers, etc, but let’s keep it down to what really interests us: understanding what men and women of the middle ages ate.
Before we jump into the subject, let’s talk about sources. Historians study food through different sources.
The first one to consider is archaeology. And more complicated than this, archaeology splits in different disciplines. For example, palynology studies pollens. Pollens can survive thousands of years. They are still found in the soil today. By studying pollens, you can understand which plants were cultivated in which proportions compared to wild plants.
Carpology is not the study of carps, but more likely the study of seeds and nuts. Carpologists mostly study the content of latrines to find undigested seeds and nuts, which helps understanding what humans ate.
Anthracology studies calcinated stuff. Anthrocologists study cooking ustencils such as pots, pans, plates, fireplaces to discover traces of burnt food.
The archaeozoologist study animals remains. They not only study what people ate, but also how they raised their cattle. What age they where butchered, what gender were raised, how they were butchered, what parts of the animal were eaten, what parts were thrown away, and which animals were eaten more.
When studying human remains, archaeologists study teeth and bones, and can evaluate the diet, diseases and malnutrition. The wear of the teeth also gives a clue about the diet.
Archaeologists will search all places related to food preparation: kitchen, food containers such as pots and dishes, ovens, fireplaces, presses, breweries, butcher shops, dining rooms, toilets and dumps.
Now the down side of archaeology is that it doesn’t come with explanations. For example, a 7th century archaeological site revealed a large amount of beef bones. What does it means? Is it a pagan ritual? A Christianisation celebration banquet? The collection of cattle by political authorities? A butcher shop? Archaeology is limited to archaeological finds, and the interpretation they are able to do from them.
Apart from archaeology, historians use the written sources to study the medieval diet. The first parts of the middle ages is very poorly documented, as writing was not as common as it was by the end of the era. For the last centuries, accounting books are probably the best sources, but they are more common for higher classes of the society, or for monastic communities. They more likely document food that was bought instead of grown. For this reason, a part of the diet appears to be missing, such as fruits, eggs and vegetables. As for cooking books, they are very rare and they don’t represent very well the global society. Finally, rules books, regulating what people should and should not eat at which moment mostly concerned monastic communities. In other words, we know less about the poor people than the rich and the religious.
What did people eat?
This question is not simple, and there is a million different answers. Depending on the religious believes, the geographical location, the role in the society, the wealth and the century, the diet will be different. In other words, you could say: Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.
People ate what was available to them, either by hunting, fishing, cultivating, foraging and raising cattle. For most people of the middle ages, the greatest preoccupation is to survive from hunger. The most important part of their diet is used to create energy, hence complex carbohydrate, found in cereals, pulses and tubers.
An anthropologist stated that there are 4 great zones in the world, based on the main source of complex carbohydrates.
- The rice zone in Asia
- The corn zone in South America
- The potato and bean zone in the Andes
- And finally the Wheat zone in the middle east
The whole occidental medieval world is located in the “wheat” zone. However, “wheat” takes a larger meaning here.
In old French, the world “bled”, which today is spelled “blé” and used to designate the wheat plant, was used to designate any cereal that could be turned into bread. I’m going to call them “breadable grains” today, although this is not a word. The correct name for the wheat in French was “froment”, and is still used today.
So when I am talking about the “Wheat Zone”, it is more likely the “breadable grains”, as opposed to rice, corn, potatoes and beans, with which you can only make very poor bread.
So bread and “breadable grains” were the core of the medieval diet, and along with wine and meat, composed the triangle of food.
The most used grains during the middle ages were: wheat, oat, spelled, barley and rye. Very often, flour was mixed. For example, wheat as often planted with rye through it, and its flour of mixed rye and wheat is called meslin.
Wheat was more often found in cities, and rural inhabitants more often ate other cereals, or a mix of wheat and other cereals.
The whiter the flour was, the more expensive it costed. The highest quality flour was pure wheat, removed of its bran (The envelope of the grain) and milled finely. However, this is not the richest flour, nutrition wise.
The poor ate cereals that were less pure, their bread being sometimes black. They could even add pulses (lens, peas and beans (catjang)) in it. Pulses were called or “dried vegetables”. Basically, you added pulses to your bread when you had nothing else to make bread with, but that actually made the bread more nutritious. So, the bread of the rich was poorly nutritious, and the bread of the poor was highly nutritious.
Based on documents, historians estimate that 80 to 95% of medieval men and women’s diet was bread, which means that they ate between 500 g and 3kg of bread per day.
Breadable grains were also eaten boiled (think of porridge in England), or as a polenta with sorghum or millet, or even as pastas in Italia, for the late middle ages.
Anything else eaten was called the “companagium”, which meant “what goes with the bread”. Coming back to my French vocabulary again, the word “viande”, today used to designate meat, was used to designate solid food eaten with the bread. The word “chair” (flesh) was used to designate the meat. That linguistic slide from “solid food” to “animal flesh” tells a lot about the importance of meat in the medieval diet. Which brings me to the second item of the food triangle : Meat
Meat as “Solid food”
The companagium is meant to add flavor to the meal. It is found in 2 types : Animal and vegetal
Garden vegetables : home grown, such as cabbage, onions, leek, carrot, parsnip or turnip.
Greens : home grown, such as lettuce, spinach or sorrel.
Condiments : mustard, garlic, sage, parsley, mint, coriander, savory, fennel, nettles, wild celery, wild asparagus, tanacetum (tansies), hyssop, and even… catnip! Alexanders (smyrnium Olusatrum), garden orache, cheeses (plant), common rue. Those plants ere either picked foraging or eaten wild.
Orchards are rare and precious : olives, grapes, apples, pears, cherries, sweet cherries, plums, quince, chestnut, walnut, almonds, peaches, apricots, figs. In Spain and Italy, it was possible to find bitter oranges and lemons, and through the XVth century, sweet oranges were grown in Southern France.
Foraging : mushroom, wild fruits such as raspberries, wild strawberries (ridiculously small), elderberry, rosehip, blackberry, blackthorn (sloe), sorb fruit, alise (fruit of the whitbeam), medlar, current “dry fruits” (nuts) such as hazelnuts, chestnuts, and pine nuts.
The main source of simple sugar was honey.
Except for the greens, all vegetables were eaten cooked, and roughly cut. Home gardens can also be found in urban areas. Talking about the city of Rennes, about 60% of the city is covered by urban gardens (inside the XVth century walls).
Some of today’s vegetables were not known because they are plants natives of the Americas : bean, potato, tomato, bell pepper (capsicum) and the Jerusalem artichoke (also called sunroot, sunchoke or earth apple).
In the monastic accounting books studied, homegrown products such as vegetables were often not mentioned, as they were not paid for. It is hard to evaluate which percentage of the diet they represented.
Vegetables were added to broth and stews to add flavour, which, of course, accompanied the bread.
Animal products can be meat, but also eggs, dairies and fish. Dogs, horses and camels were raised for their domestic use. Other animals were raised as cattle for their food: pork, sheep and goat. Those animals were also used for traction (beef and hors), protection (dog), dairy product (goat and cow), eggs and feathers (duck, goose and chicken), leather (cow), wool (sheep) and lighting (with grease, such as whale fat).
There was some restriction regarding meat consumption, mostly for health and ethic reasons. Horse and dog meat were forbidden, because they are work buddies. It was forbidden to butcher or sell sick animals. Butchering was regulated for hygiene reason. It was also forbidden to eat meat-eating animals such as wolves or foxes.
Pork and beef were the most common meat eaten, especially on the lower levels of the society. Birds, flying closer to god in the sky, were looked for. The medieval noblemen and noblewomen were eating more variety of birds than we do today: not only chicken, but chicks and roosters, duck, geese, peacock, stork, swan, heron, pigeons, woodcock, plover, quail, lark, thrush, crane and bittern. (Plenty of new words for me).
Pigs were raised on the loose in woodlands. The size of a land could be counted by the number of pigs your land could feed.
Hunting was strongly regulated. It was a noblemen right to hunt. Women could hunt with birds of prey. Deer, roe, boars, hares and rabbits were hunted for the meat and fur.
As for fish, fresh water fish were more common, as fish doesn’t stay fresh for a long time unless salted or smoked. Fish ponds allowed to have fresh fish on the table. Through the XIIth century however, a supply circuit is organized to supply the cities in fish from the sea, so they do not have to rely on fish ponds and lake supply, that was starting to run low. Fish was very important, since the Church forbidden meat on certain days of the week and of the year. Depending on the period, there could be 100 to 250 days of abstinence, where it was forbidden to eat meat. I would like to come back on that topic later on, in another history lesson about food. The fish was first dried or smoked, but then a new technique of salt conservation was discovered, making the salt an even more precious product. Codfish, herring, hake, tuna, anchovies and sardine. Whales were also hunted for the meat and grease.
In an abundant year, an artisan could eat around 200g of meat per day. Other sources showed 20 kg of meat per year, which means about 100g per “fat day”. Another study shows 2kg of salted meat per year in some poor villages. Noblemen could have up to 600g of meat per day. Surveys done on human remains in a medieval cemetery shows that men ate more meat than women, and wealthier people ate more meat than the poor. Every class of the society ate pork and mutton. As for beef, it was not very popular, as the animals were killed after a long life of hard work, and the meat wasn’t of the best quality. However, it shows that noblemen would have butchered their animal younger, having better quality meat at their table.
Eggs and dairies
Milk is produced by cows, goats and sheep, depending on the climate. Cold and humid : cows, dry and hot: goats and sheep. In warmer areas, it is important to turn the milk into dairies right away, to avoid bacteria proliferation. For this reason, northern regions drink cow milk and eat butter, and southern regions eat goat and sheep cheese. All in all, not much milk is drunken in the middle ages. In fact, the society considered milk as a retarded beverage, good for the peasants, valets and child. Just like a child, an adult drinking milk is seen as unable to govern himself. Doctors considered milk made teeth fall, weakened adults and gave leprosy. Except for old men to whom it was recommended to drink it directly from the breast, doctors dissuaded anyone to drink milk. Overall, milk was more likely turned into cheese, which was well appreciated by the kings.
Water is not something people wanted to drink. Water was more often than not contaminated. But the real problem, was the bad reputation that water had. It tastes nothing; hence, people considered water as something not nutritious. Wine was the favorite beverage of the middle ages.
Wine was definitely not as strong as it is today. It is estimated that its level of alcohol was between 7 and 10%, and was very often cut with water. People would drink between 1L to 2L per day. Some noblemen liked it a bit too much. Charles le téméraire, duke of Burgundy, was said to be drunk one day out of two.
The chemical process was not perfectly understood. Wine would not last more than a year. White wine with acidic taste were preferred, although, by the end of the middle ages, richer red wine were getting popular. Quality varied a lot and a stronger, sweeter, and older (but never really old) wines were more expensive.
Wine had a very strong biblical symbolism. It was part of the Eucharist. For this reason, peasants tried to grow pretty much everywhere in Europe, even in places where vine weren’t meant to grow. For regions where vine growing was unsuccessful, mead, cider, perry, ale and beer took over. However, wine stayed the preferred beverage of all and had a very strong religious symbolism.
Cider is an apple alcohol, perry is a pear alcohol, ale is a germinated barley alcohol and beer is an ale with an addition of hop, which gives an extra taste, but also helps with the fermentation and preservation. Beer took over the market as a susbstitution for wine, when climate changed by the end of the middle ages, and wine was getting rarer and more expensive.
This completes our food triangle: basically: solids, liquids and bread. Remember that the diet would depend on the wealth, geographical location, religious believes and social occupation. A byzantine emperor would not eat the same as an English peasant or a Muslim warrior. Also, food evolved with climate changes, cultural encounters and mentality changes.
Gauthier, Alban. Alimentations médiévales Ve-XVIe siècle. Paris, Ellipses, 2009.
Birlouez, Eric. À la table des seigneurs, des moines et des paysans du Moyen Âge. Rennes, Éditions Ouest-France, 2009.