Medieval food consisted of many of the same ingredients as we still use today, with the exception of imported foods which reached Europe later, such as potatoes, tea, coffee, and chocolate. Other imported ingredients, like sugar and certain spices, were available but costly. The main differences between then and now lay in the problems of preserving food over the lean months of winter and early spring, or in transit, as in moving fish inland, this last an imperative due to the Church’s rules about non-meat days.
Another underlying difference was a social one. In the medieval period there was a far greater gulf in eating habits between aristocracy and royalty on the one hand, and the common people on the other. Nowadays the diet across all classes is much closer, although the rich will always have access to exotic foods and wine out of the reach of the less well off. Medieval food consumed by the clergy showed the same social divide as with laymen – the great churchmen (bishops, wealthy abbots and the like) ate like the aristocracy, while a poor parish priest often ate no better, and sometimes worse, than his parishioners.
In my books, I am concerned above all with the common people, so I will not be writing here about the diet of the aristocracy. The descriptions of some medieval feasts leave us reeling, wondering not only how they managed to eat so much, but also why they did not drop dead afterwards. Perhaps that myth about a surfeit of lampreys has a grain of truth in it!
Village Cottage, Town Cottage
It is necessary to bear in mind certain differences between those who lived in the country and those who lived in towns. In my series of Oxford Medieval Mysteries, I depict both the villagers of Leighton-under-Wychwood and the townsfolk of Oxford. The former, obviously, had more land, whether they held it freely or in villein service to a lord. They would have some means of growing the two staple grain crops, wheat (for bread) and barley (for ale), as well as legumes like peas and beans. They would generally have more room for a vegetable garden and an orchard, for chickens and pigs, perhaps a cow or two, a few sheep or goats.
On the other hand, townsfolk at the time (except the very poor) would generally own or rent a messuage, a small house with a long strip of garden at the back, providing room to grow vegetables, keep hens and a pig, perhaps a bee skep, and to plant a few fruit trees and bushes. There would not often be room for a cow. Flour and barley would need to be bought, as would dairy produce, while the country housewife could make her own butter and cheese. On the other hand, townspeople had access to taverns and inns, and to bakeries and pie shops, even, in the large towns, street vendors of snack foods. The street cry ‘Hot pies, hot pies!’ is an ancient one.
The fundamental staple medieval food was bread. For the poorest, it was their main source of sustenance. This explains the constant concern at the time to regulate the price and quality of bread. It also explains why drought or blight destroying the wheat and other grain crops was a major disaster, leading to famine and even death amongst the poor. With care, both unground grain and their flours can be kept over winter, so this was a source of medieval food even when it was difficult or expensive to preserve other foods.
There were a number of different types of bread, of which three were common. The cheapest, roughest sort was known as ‘horse bread’. This was not only a term of disparagement, but also an accurate description, as it was fed to horses as well as the very poor. It was made of ground up dried peas and would have been hard and pretty tasteless. However, it would contain protein, so it was not without value.
The next grade up was ‘maslin bread’. The term covers a wide variety of mixed grain bread and was eaten by the majority of the population. It contained a mixture of wheat, rye, barley, oats – whatever grains were available. The greater the proportion of wheat, the higher the status. It produced a brown or dark brown loaf. If it contained a great deal of rye, it would be almost black, like modern rye bread. It’s amusing to think that this kind of mixed grain bread, so despised by the aristocracy at the time, is now regarded as far healthier and tastier than plain white bread. Maslin bread was nourishing and could sustain a hard-working medieval labourer. Being high in fibre as well, it would have been a healthy part of the diet.
The finest bread, eaten by the aristocracy, was ‘manchet’. This was a white bread made purely from the best wheat, milled small and then laboriously sieved through a coarse cloth. It would have had little nutritional value, but by eating it the aristocracy made an implied point – with all the rich meat they consumed, they ate bread only as what we would call a ‘side’. It was not, for them, as it was for the rest of the population, the staff of life.
Ale and Beer
Medieval food included ale. Everyone drank it, and the barley from which it was made provided sustenance, so that it was a food as well as a thirst quencher. Most housewives made ale at home on a regular basis (it did not keep well). The main ingredients were boiling water and malt, which was made by sprouting damp barley in a warm place, then roasting it. It was added to the boiling water together with a selection of herbs (every housewife had her personal recipe). Once the ale had brewed, it was strained and stored in a barrel. Some women became ale-wives, brewing ale on a larger scale and selling to their neighbours, a good source of income for a poor woman, perhaps a widow. Even young children and the elderly drank ale, for it was much safer than the often polluted water supply. This did not mean everyone went about drunk. The alcohol content was low, especially in ‘small ale’, the weakest version.
Beer made with hops began to filter into England from the Continent, mainly Germany and the Low Countries, in the early 1400s. Its advantage over ale was that the hops acted as a preservative, so it could be kept for longer than ale. At first hops had to be imported, which held back production, but from about the 1420s hops were grown in England, where the main hop growing areas until recent times became Kent and Herefordshire. Of late, imported hops have been cheaper than locally grown ones, but there are signs of a trend back to English hops.
Pottage and Frumenty
After bread, the most important medieval food for ordinary people was pottage. Somewhere between a soup and a stew, it formed the staple item at the midday dinner, breakfast having consisted usually of bread and ale, with perhaps a bit of cheese. A basic pottage consisted of whatever vegetables were to hand at the time, the most popular being onions, leeks, beans, peas, carrots, kale, and cabbage, simmered in water. The simmering would kill off anything unpleasant in the water. The greatest variety of ingredients would be available in the summer, but peas and beans were dried for winter, carrots and onions could be stored. To thicken the mixture and make it more sustaining, barley could be added, either the simple grain, or sprouted barley, made in the same way as for ale. The mixture would be flavoured with garlic and herbs. Simply as a vegetable pottage, it would be nourishing. However, on meat days a little chopped bacon might be added, on fish days, some fish. It would be cooked in a three-legged pot (a ‘kettle’) directly over the fire, or in a large pot hung from a bracket.
There were, of course, no potatoes to be found amongst available medieval food. Bread filled the corners as potatoes do today, but there was also frumenty. The basic ingredient was cracked wheat, which could be made at home by pounding the wheat grains briefly with a mortar and pestle. For a savoury frumenty, this cracked wheat was then boiled in broth, with herbs and other flavourings. Served with pottage (or on high days, with meat), it help to stretch the more costly ingredients. For a sweet frumenty, the cracked wheat was parboiled in water, before cooking it again in milk, then stirring in eggs, some dried fruit, and perhaps a little honey.
Milk, Butter, and Cheese
Very little milk was drunk, except by young children, invalids, and the elderly. It was much too valuable as a source of butter and cheese. Moreover, butter and cheese can be preserved, making them even more valuable as a source of protein and fat during the lean times of year. Anyone who kept a cow had a source of these commodities, and housewives were competent cheese and butter makers. They also understood the necessity for scrupulous cleanliness in the production of both products. Traditional knowledge passed down from mother to daughter would have warned against the havoc wreaked by a dirty dairy.
There were three principal grades of cheese, of which the most useful was the hard cheese similar to a modern Cheddar. This took longer to prepare – draining and compressing the curds, salting, curing and turning the large round cheeses – but any woman who had a supply of hard cheese stored in her larder knew that her family would be well provided for. A softer cheese which had not gone through the curing process would be eaten while still fairly new, probably during the abundant milk period in summer, leaving the hard cheese for winter. The very softest cheese, similar to modern cottage cheese, needed to be eaten quickly.
Butter was churned to separate the solid from the liquid, a process which had been known for thousands of years. Once the grains of butter had clumped together in the churn they would be taken out and squeezed, to rid them of any excess liquid, then salted to preserve them as rounds or blocks of butter and stored in the coolest place available. Both the whey from cheese making and the butter milk from butter making would either be drunk or used in cooking.
Meat did not figure largely as a medieval food, except for the rich. Farmers would sell most of the meat they produced to the aristocracy. The exception for both country and town dwellers was the annual pig, fattened throughout the year on scraps, windfall apples, vegetable peelings, anything and everything which could be spared. Come Michaelmas, the pig would be slaughtered and every last scrap would be used. Preserving the hams and sides of bacon was a trying business, involving brine baths, and repeated rubbing with salt and saltpetre, which must have been agonisingly painful, especially if you had a cut on your hand. Some would also be smoked in the chimney. At the end of all the hard work, however, a medium sized family could get its winter supply of meat from one pig.
Country dwellers might have mutton from a ram (ewes were kept for lambs and wool). Rabbits could be a bone of contention where an overlord had rights of warren. On most manors, rabbits were farmed, kept in controlled warrens, but rabbits, once established in England, have always escaped, and securing a rabbit for the pot was a common – if sometimes illegal – activity. In theory the lord might claim a right to hares as well, but hares being wild, this was a grey area. Pigeons were also farmed for their meat and eggs, but certainly wild pigeons would have been snared or shot by cottagers.
In the fens of East Anglia, the local people had common rights to the waterfowl, a substantial part of their diet until their land was stolen by developers in the seventeenth century, the background to my novel Flood. Those living in towns had even less opportunity to obtain meat than country dwellers, although there would be licensed butchers, if you could afford their prices. Beef would be beyond most people’s pockets. Venison was for the rich. Sausages sold by butchers might contain almost anything. Better not to ask.
Because of Church rules regulating medieval food, people were supposed to eat no meat, only vegetables and fish, on two days every week, and every day at certain periods like Lent. This could be a problem for those who lived inland and away from rivers. In some areas the rivers were large enough and the supply of fish and eels ample enough to support local fishermen. Monasteries had fishponds to supply their needs, as did many manor houses.
Otherwise, all the fish for the massive number of customers had to come from the sea, where the trade of fisherman was vitally important in supplying this major item of medieval food. In the days before refrigeration and when all transport was slow, the only way to get fish from the coast to the inland consumers was in the form of ‘stockfish’. This unpleasant food was fish salted and dried to rock hardness, and sometimes even imported from as far away as Scandinavia. Before it could be eaten, it had to be soaked in repeated changes of water, to get rid of the salt, then pounded for a long time with a mortar and pestle until it was even remotely edible. That it was revolting even then is borne out by a good many contemporary accounts. On the evidence, a simple vegetable pottage would have been preferable!
More on medieval food next month.
Till next time,