These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today

Larry Holzwarth - September 30, 2019

Throughout history, in medieval times what and how people ate and how their food was prepared was obtained, even what kind of food it was, dependent on their position on the social ladder. It depended upon how much money they had. Most people did not have very much. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few. There was no equivalent of a middle class at the beginning of the period. There was also little knowledge of such things as nutrition and diet. Stoves were non-existent, and for many, the only utensils available for cooking were a kettle and a spit over an open fire.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Threshing wheat during the Middle Ages was, like most labor, backbreaking work. Wikimedia

Bread was the staff of life, though it was usually grainy, made of coarse flour and sometimes unleavened. There was milk, from cows, sheep, and goats, usually reserved for consumption by children, or made into cheese for preservation. From their own harvests, people learned to preserve grains by brewing them into beer and ale. Their wealthy compatriots made wines and liquors. Everyone ate heavily of meat, except on those days the church calendar forbade the consumption of animal flesh. Nearly one-third of the year carried such proscriptions. Here are some of the quirkiest food habits- including food and drink- during the Medieval period.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The head of a boar and other dishes at a relatively modest medieval table. Wikimedia

1. Eating local was a necessity, rather than a social phenomenon

A person’s diet was based on the same rule which dominates the real estate industry centuries later; location, location, and location. Besides being seasonal, available food depended on the region in which one resided. In less populated areas where game was available, it was often the center of the menu at dinner. Anything which lived in the woods or flew in the air was considered game. There are recipes for robins, and their eggs, from the medieval period, which were old then. Swan was a delicacy on the tables of the wealthy. On many estates in England and in Europe, deer were considered the property of the landowner, and tenants could be punished for killing them. But rabbits and squirrels were fair game.

Beef became a feature of the meals of the wealthy but the less fortunate could not afford it, nor did they have the means of preparing large cuts of beef on their smaller hearths. They subsided on much smaller meats, rabbits, squirrels, rodents; and birds such as pigeons, robins, larks, and doves. Chickens were valued for their eggs and seldom killed for the plate in the early medieval period, it was far more likely for poultry to be in the form of geese or duck. Often they too were the property of the landowner, and the tenant who killed them faced severe punishment including branding or maiming, for the sin of having roasted duck for his families dinner.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Markets did not carry much in the way of seafood, unless they were near the sea. Wikimedia

2. Seafood was limited to those living by the sea

For those living along the coastlines, a bounty was present for the taking, far more plentiful than today. Oysters abounded on all of the world’s seacoasts, and though it is unknown who first decided to eat an oyster, once started humanity consumed them with gusto. Clams and mussels were added to the diet too. They were eaten raw from the shell, or thrown on an open fire to steam in their own juices. Fish were taken from the sea to be eaten fresh, or salted and smoked for preservation. It is likely that salted fish was one of the first commodities sold to other consumers, rather than eaten solely by whoever harvested it.

Fresh waters, not yet polluted by the progress of humanity, yielded a bounty too, and those living near waterways found fish to be a major portion of their diet. The seasons were marked by the times fish ran in the streams, and early festivals of celebration surrounded the communal taking and salting of fish. Because it was so important in the preservation of food, salt was an expensive and highly cherished commodity. Near the coasts, it was easily obtained, in the hinterlands less so, and it became an item of trade of significant value. Fish was a large part of the diet throughout the world, in all cultures, and at all meals.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Monks became beekeepers and herbalists, producing honey for use as food and medicine. Wikimedia

3. Honey was a food, a medicine, and the source of alcoholic beverages

Honey from wild bees was obtainable for those with the nerve to face the swarming bees. By the medieval period, hives were being husbanded by beekeepers in apiaries, and honey was an important part of the diets in the European and Asian worlds. It was a sweetener for other foods and food on its own. The comb was often eaten as well, or the wax was used for other purposes, such as the making of candles, or of wax seals for the wealthy. Bees became a symbol of wealth and luxury, and appeared on the arms of noble families. The sugars in the honey they made also became useful in the making of wines and a beverage called mead.

Mead was made in ancient times, as much as 7,000 years BCE in China, where it was made with honey and rice. In Norse mythology, mead was consumed by the ancient warriors and the gods, the city of Edinburgh, in Scotland takes its name from Din Eidyn, an ancient hall where mead was made and consumed. In the early medieval period in the monasteries, where herb and flower gardens were maintained for their medicinal value, apiaries also emerged, nurturing the bees which pollinated the plants. The monks harvested the honey, and used it to produce mead for consumption as well as beers and other liquors.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Nearly all of the pig was used as food, with the rest providing other necessities such as lard and bristles. Wikimedia

4. Pork became a major source of meat throughout the Western world

Pigs are edible from their curly tail to their whiskered snout. That which is not consumed directly can be rendered into fat or gelatin. Their bristles were made into brushes, their hide into tough leathers. They can eat virtually anything, scavenging upon the wastes produced by other animals, including the two-legged kind. They didn’t require special pasturing as did sheep and cattle. They can fend for themselves in woods and fields, and though they rapidly become feral such condition does not detract from their food value. As such, they were ideal for raising in both rural areas and urban, and without the religious restrictions imposed in the Jewish and Muslim worlds, they were a valuable food source.

They were far less expensive to raise than beef, and unlike venison, there was less likely to be a penalty for killing one running wild in the woods. Truly wild boar was however a game animal often preserved by noble landowners. It was also a daunting animal to take while hunting using only a longbow due to its tough hide and surprising speed. The development of the crossbow, and later firearms, made hunting wild boar more feasible. Until then it was often taken using traps. In the manors of the wealthy pork was often consumed seasoned with a paste made of the ground seeds of the mustard plant, mixed with honey and vinegar.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Bread of varying quality was consumed at every meal, and often served as the plate or bowl for the rest of the meal. Wikimedia

5. Bread was very much the staff of life

Bread was made from a variety of grains, as with all foods based on what was grown locally, during the early medieval period. Barley, rye, oats, and wheat were the most often used. The wealthy had their own mills on their estates, the less well-off purchased their flour from a miller. Often they took their own grains to the miller for grinding, paying for the service with a portion of the resulting flour. The finer the grind, the more expensive the grinding, and bread made from finely ground flour was a privilege of the wealthy. The rest subsided on coarser bread made from less finely ground flour. Cakes emerged during the medieval period as food for the rich.

The rich also consumed darker brown breads, often in the form of the plate or bowl in which their foods were served. The sauces and juices from the other components of their meal soaked into the bread, which was eaten by tearing off small portions one at a time, using the only pieces of cutlery available at the beginning of the medieval period, spoons and knives. Forks were a relatively late development of the culinary arts. Meat was not presented finely sliced on the bread plate, often it would still be on the bone, to be eaten in a manner similar to how a leg of fried chicken would be consumed centuries later. At poorer tables, bread also served the functions of the modern-day napkin, assisted by the sleeve.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The crusades brought advances in the Islamic world to Europe, as well as new spices. Wikimedia

6. The Crusades brought foods and spices to Europe

The crusaders returned from their noble efforts in the Holy Lands bringing with them, besides plunder, foods which they adopted from the infidels they had encountered. Among them were dates and figs, which they had heard about from their priests reading the Bible. They also found foods indigenous to the Mediterranean relatively unknown in the northern European climes, lemons, oranges, olives and others. Pepper began to grow in importance, as a flavoring which vastly improved the taste of meats which until then had been flavored only with locally grown herbs and salt.

Still, most of the new foods brought back from the exotic lands visited by the crusaders remained in the purview of the wealthy, since only they could afford them. The rest lived very much by doing what in a much later day would be called eating local. Methods of food preservation, which were limited to drying, salting, and smoking, and pickling, as well as poor roads and transportation, made it the only practical means of obtaining food. Even the animals brought to butchers and poulterers usually arrived at their final destination on foot, or in the case of chickens in cages carried by horse or goat-drawn carts. Because of the nature of their journey, they could not travel very far.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Many estates overcame the perils of fishing by using water nearby to raise freshwater fish locally. Wikimedia

7. Farm-raised fish had its birth during the medieval period

During the medieval period the very wealthy, those living in castles or on landed estates, often left the fish swimming in the streams and lakes nearby for the use of their tenants and wandering vagrants. They used ponds, sometimes building them, on their estates to raise fish of their own, sometimes stocking fish not indigenous to local waters. Though by no means the fish farms which emerged as part of the commercial food industry in the twentieth century, they were early versions of the same concept. Fresh fish was thus always available for their tables, and salted or dried fish was available for trade, or even sale to the peasantry.

Eel was also widely popular, as it is today for those with a taste for it, and was eaten fresh, pickled, or dried. Eel was so common in the waters of Europe that fishing nets intended for other fish often became clogged with the creatures. Since eel was so common, it came to be regarded as being for the common people. Well into the twentieth-century eel, especially in England, was regarded as a food for the urban poor, and eels were harvested in the Thames River in the center of London. They were also popular in the German provinces, as well as in France and the Scandinavian countries.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Elaborate sauces were a feature of medieval cuisine, but not to cover the taste of spoiled food as is commonly believed. Wikimedia

8. Sauces for food became popular during the medieval period

At the beginning of the medieval period, the sauce with which food was served was based on milk, or wine, or butter, or simply the juices which emerged as part of the cooking process. Because bread was so important to the overall caloric intake, flour could not be wasted to prepare sauces and gravies, except for on the tables of the very rich. Nor were there a variety of spices available to flavor them, until later in the period. Throughout the medieval period, the preparation of sauces evolved, and the art of cookery evolved with it, both in the kitchens of the wealthy and on the hearths of the less well-to-do. The earliest sauces were coarse, and would not be recognized as sauces today.

One such was porridge, made from oats, which could be served in a variety of thicknesses, including a very thin broth known as gruel. It was consumed separately or as a sauce with bread or vegetables. The earliest known beers were simply fermented gruel, though by the medieval period the preparation of beer had become more sophisticated and refined. Sauces, as were most foods, were prepared over an open fire, which made the cooking of complex mixtures difficult, as temperature control was iffy at best, and pots and pans were heavy affairs, difficult to manipulate over the fire.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The beliefs of doctors heavily influenced the preparation and consumption of food. Wikimedia

9. Medical thought of the day influenced cooking techniques and recipes

During the medieval age, the overwhelming belief of the medical profession was that the body contained four “humors” which must be maintained in balance to ensure good health. The same was true of nature, and of the foods which nature provided. For the medieval cook, at least among the educated, which is another way of saying the wealthy, it was necessary to maintain the balance when preparing food. Fish, for example, was regarded as cool and wet. It should be thus prepared in a manner which rendered it hot and dry, and seasoned appropriately.

Pork on the other hand was considered to be hot and wet, based on the nature of the animal from which it was produced. Roasting cooked it while inducing the proper balance. Beef, being obtained from an animal considered dry was best prepared by boiling, at least according to British cooks. The Germans too believed beef best boiled, and the modern equivalent of the pot roast emerged in both cultures. The use of herbs, and later spices, for flavoring also considered the desirability of maintaining the balance of humors, since what was taken into the body would alter the humors within that vessel, and thus alter the health of the consumer.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Porridge was used as a meal, a supplement to a meal, and as a medicine. Wikimedia

10. Porridges were made with many ingredients other than oats

Besides the aforementioned grains, millet and buckwheat were also known to the medieval cook and often used to make porridges of various thicknesses to make a meal, a part of a meal, a snack, or as a medicine. For the latter purpose they were usually a thin gruel, and often used as the vessel to convey the herbs or other medicines prescribed by a doctor or the applicable folklore turned to for a cure. Porridges (and breads and sauces) could be fortified with finely ground nuts including walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, and even acorns. Thick wheat porridges appeared on finer tables at mealtime as a side dish, cooked using broth from the boiled beef, or sometimes in wine.

Grains boiled in milk, sweetened with honey and thickened, made porridges that had the texture of modern puddings, and were often served for dessert. Almond milk, made by soaking finely chopped almonds in liquid, was also used as the main ingredient. Some were flavored with local fruits, both fresh and dried. Numerous other flavorings were used to flavor porridges including grasses, legumes, other vegetables, and even fish or poultry, depending on the time of day at which it was served and what role it was to play in the overall meal. Dried peas were used so commonly that it led to a famed nursery rhyme which began. “pease porridge hot”.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Children drank fresh milk, but the majority of it went to make cheese. Wikimedia

11. Milk was consumed as a protein source for those who could not afford meat

Medieval kitchens seldom resorted to fresh milk as a cooking ingredient, because of the difficulties in keeping it fresh, and because most of it was consumed by children or converted to cheese. For cooking, almond milk was preferred. For adults, except for the ill who drank it as part of a medicine, milk was consumed as cheese. Milk was readily available and cheese was relatively inexpensive, and it became a major source of protein among the poor. Bread and cheese were often the meal of a poorer working man, washed down with beer or ale. Contrary to popular belief, water was consumed liberally during the medieval period, especially from springs in the rural areas, and wells in the more developed communities.

Cheeses were often locally made, but the widely known cheeses of today were also known in the medieval period, hard and soft. In France brie was produced, in the Low Countries edam was known, and a cheese similar to today’s Stilton was produced in England. As with beer and medicine, many monasteries became cheese producers, as a means of preserving the milk produced by cattle and goats. Soft cheeses produced from the whey of milk also emerged and were eaten widely in the Mediterranean region, including ricotta in the Italian peninsula. Cheese was used in cooking as well, as a flavoring for other foods and in sauces, often served melted over bread, blended with almond milk, beer, or wine.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Herbs grown and studied by monks and the spices from Africa and the east led to complex flavors in medieval cooking. Wikimedia

12. Flavorings in cooking became complex during the medieval period

Throughout Europe, herbs of many varieties grew naturally, and in the monasteries, they were grown for both medicinal purposes and as flavorings for food. The use of herbs in cooking was based on the four humors, and originally was meant as a means of keeping foods healthful for the body, easing digestion and maintaining balance. Spices however were rare and expensive, limited to the tables of the wealthy, who used them both to flavor foods and to create ostentatious displays of the depths of their pockets. Nearly all spices came from Africa or the east. Black pepper was the most eagerly sought spice, followed by cinnamon, though many others were known to medieval cooks.

Spices could be used to change the colors of foods. The color was also believed to affect the humors, both of the food and the consumer. Probably the most exclusive spice was saffron, rare, expensive, and used by the very rich. Sugar was considered a spice, known only to the wealthy, the poor sweetened their food and beverages with honey, which was often mixed into wine as a medicine. Unripe fruits were sometimes harvested and their juice squeezed to make flavorings which were tart or sour, an alternative to using vinegar for a similar purpose, especially in the northern regions where lemons were not readily available. Surviving medieval recipes indicate that the use of almonds was common, especially in the form of almond milk as an ingredient in cooking.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Salt was a large part of the Medieval diet, both as a preservative and as a flavoring. Wikimedia

13. Despite the saltiness of many foods, salt was always present on the tables of the wealthy

Salt was critical to the preservation of many foods, used in preparing most foods, and presented on the table, often in expensive and elaborate containers. It varied in color and coarseness throughout Europe, depending on where it came from. Salt was mined and harvested from the sea, and it nearly always contained impurities which affected its color. It could be greenish in hue, pink, bluish, and even black. The more coarsely it was ground the less expensive it was, and the salt used in the kitchens of the poor tended to be much coarser than that in common use on tables today.

The salt on the tables of the wealthy was presented in fine cellars or individual salt bowls, with guests often offered their own as part of the setting. The salt which issued therefrom was finely ground, and usually as white as could be found. Guests could serve themselves by pinching the salt and sprinkling it over their food, or through the use of small salt spoons designed for the purpose. Bread was often salted before eating it, that is, it was taken with a pinch of salt. It was also not unusual to apply salt to many of the dishes served as dessert, to help counter the sweetness, and thus maintain a healthy balance of humor.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Deciding the beaver shared attributes with fish allowed its tail to be eaten on days of fasting. Wikimedia

14. The Church influenced much of the medieval diet

The most powerful legal authority in medieval Europe was the Roman Church, and its liturgical calendar had much to say regarding medieval food and diet. Fasting during medieval times meant abstention from animal products, which included cheese, eggs, and anything containing either. Fish was allowed. Fasting occurred throughout Lent and Advent, all Fridays, the eves of most Holy Days, all Wednesdays, and in many parts of Europe Saturdays as well. On certain days, such as Good Friday, fasting meant consuming just one meal throughout the course of the day. Interestingly, fasting did not extend to beer or wine, nor were there restrictions, for the most part, on snacking on fruits or breadstuffs.

During days when food intake was not restricted by fasting, there were other influences exerted by the church and its teachings. It was considered immoral to eat breakfast too soon after arising, an edict that was more easily followed by the idle rich (and the clergy) than by the working class. Throughout the medieval period the sick and young children were exempt from the restrictions of fasting, but other than infants most children were forced by the circumstances to follow them anyway, since meals weren’t prepared for the rest of the family in poor and working-class homes. At all times of the year the church preached against the sin of gluttony, though some of the most sumptuous banquets of the period were served by popes, princes of the church, and bishops.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Forks were widely used in food preparation, but their use at table was rare. Wikimedia

15. The use of table forks in Europe began in 11th century Italy

Personal table forks were in use in the Eastern Roman Empire and in Persia for centuries before they began to appear in Europe. When they did it was mainly to facilitate the serving of pasta to oneself. By the beginning of the 14th century, they were relatively common among the upper classes of the Italian states and by the middle of the 15th century their use was known in the Iberian Peninsula. It was expected of guests invited to dinner to bring their own fork (and knife) with them. Both were considered to be too personal of an item for the host to provide. In some countries, a spoon designed for personal use began to emerge around the same time. Prior to their arrival, most foods at the table were eaten off of a personal knife, or delivered to the mouth using the fingers, or bread, as the implement.

The rest of Europe, including France, was reticent in adopting the use of forks, though it became common in France long before the Anglo-Saxon countries accepted them. Some church leaders and theologians considered them to be vain and argued against their use. Most of Europe adopted the personal spoon, and knife, as suitable implements with which to convey one’s food to one’s mouth in the late medieval period, but not until the 1700s did forks begin to appear commonly on English tables and in the hands of English diners. Until that time the English and the Germanic regions preferred using the trencher – a plate made of bread – as the means of conveyance, supplemented with a knife and spoon.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The belief in the four humors extended to the nature of foods and the manner in which they were prepared. Wikimedia

16. The belief in the 4 humors dictated the manner in which food was prepared

The commonly accepted existence of the four humors drove many of the recipes for food preparation well beyond the combination of ingredients. It was believed that in most foods the humors were distributed unevenly, and chopping and mixing the food was necessary to balance the manner in which it was ingested. This was especially true of fruits and vegetables, and led to them being so treated even if they were to be served alone. This also led to the mixture of fruits, nuts, oysters, bread, and other foods and stuffing them into a fowl to be cooked, or a sheep’s stomach to be boiled, ensuring the humors were balanced before entering the human digestive system.

Digestion itself was believed to be the body’s means of further cooking the food. Food (in wealthier homes) was served in a manner which made the task of digestion easier, or so it was believed. Lighter foods were served first. This was so that the heavier foods which followed, such as beef or pork, did not go straight to the bottom of the stomach, preventing it from being properly “cooked” on the way down. Cheese was believed to be easily digested, and cheese courses came to be served at the end of the meal. A combination of cheese and light fruits to close the meal (some fruits were considered to be heavy foods) accompanied with wine became common in wealthy circles.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Desserts became more complex throughout the Middle Ages. Wikimedia

17. The custom of desserts at the end of a meal began in the medieval period

Once more in a nod to the need to maintain health through ensuring balance of the humors, during the medieval period the course known today as dessert became common, for those who could afford to eat well. It consisted of foods which were believed to help close the digestive organs, allowing them to go about their task uninterrupted. Foods believed to be suitable for the purpose were cheese and some fruits. In the beginning, they were sometimes sweetened with honey. As time went on fresh fruits began to be replaced with concoctions similar to today’s preserves. In winter months, snow mingled with such preserves became an early form of ice cream.

By the mid-14th century marzipan – a confection made with honey or sugar and dried, ground almonds – appeared in France and Italy, probably another item brought back to Europe from the Turks. Desserts became more elaborate affairs during the 14th century, with baked goods in the form of rudimentary cookies and waffles appearing on tables. Sugar, expensive and rare, and valued for its medicinal properties, was used when the wealthy wanted a dessert to both to please and impress guests. Sweetened custards, candied fruits and nuts, and tarts filled with fruits all emerged to close the stomach at the end of the meal during the medieval period, often accompanied with mulled wine.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Songbirds were often trapped and baked into pies, as a nursery rhyme suggests. Wikimedia

18. Foods considered strange to modern minds were relatively common

During the medieval period, there were other sources of meat which to the modern mind would seem unpalatable, at least to most. Hedgehogs were a food source, and their blood was considered to have medicinal qualities in some cultures (they are still a food source for some, including Romani people). Their spines also offered many uses in medieval times throughout Europe. Porcupines were likewise valuable for several uses of their spines, and rather than waste the carcass they were butchered and eaten, with some recipes surviving in modern times, for those interested. Birds today are considered only for their value in songs and eating insects were considered fine eating as well.

Songbirds such as robins, wrens, larks, and blackbirds, were caught in traps, and the English in particular enjoyed baking them in pies, another innovation of the medieval period, and the source of yet another nursery rhyme. Swans, peahens, and peacocks often graced the tables of the wealthy, presented at table in elaborate displays. One of the favored means of impressing the guests at table was a full peacock, his tail reattached and spread to its full glory while being carried in by the servants. Some peafowl were domesticated on European estates, giving glory to the master’s grounds before the time came for them to give glory to his dining table.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Beer was considered a healthful and nourishing food, taken at all meals by some. Wikimedia

19. Brewing beer in medieval times was a means of preserving grain

There are those who believe that beer was the preferred beverage of the medieval period because it was considered more healthful than water. Not true. A physician of the 13th century wrote of beer that “it harms the head and the stomach, it causes bad breath, and it ruins the teeth”. He was far from alone. The same physician pointed out that drinking beer together with wine made the drinker intoxicated far more quickly, a not particularly astute observation. The monasteries led the production of beer at the beginning of the medieval period, both to save grain which would otherwise go to waste, and to sell the beverage.

Hops became a major crop in some areas around the monasteries. In areas with no monastery upon which to rely, brewers began to make and sell beer, most large estates had their own breweries, and many of the working class brewed their own at home. By using hops, beer could be kept for up to six months, but few lasted that long in the northern countries of Europe. By the 15th century in England, annual consumption was about 60 gallons per person, of all ages, and it was consumed at every meal. In the Low Countries and the Germanic regions, consumption was even higher.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Wine too was considered a healthful beverage, though the best wines were consumed only by the wealthy. Wikimedia

20. In the Mediterranean regions wine was the preferred beverage

Beer was consumed across Europe, as were wines, but in the Mediterranean countries, wine was preferred over beer. Red wine was believed to improve the blood, another factor in balancing the humors of the body. For this reason, medicinal bleeding was nearly always followed by a dose of red wine mixed with water. Wine was also approved by the medical community when it was spiced and mulled, both made it more favorable to the bodily humors in their learned opinions. Then as now, the higher the quality of a wine generally meant it was more expensive and the best red wines usually were in the hands of the wealthy. Cheaper and less alcoholic wines could be found in the hands of the poor. Some could only afford vinegar.

Cooking guides from the 14th century included instructions on the best ways of preserving unused wines, and the means of making them palatable again when they began to go bad. The number of instructions which have survived indicates that it was a fairly common problem, which is readily understood when it is considered that the concept of sterilizing the vessels into which it was poured was still centuries away. Some cheaper wines were mixed with vinegar in order to lengthen their shelf life, but many still went bad before they were consumed, and required doctoring in order to drink them.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Mead was a popular drink made from honey and used to preserve some fruits and vegetables. Wikimedia

21. Mead and other alcoholic beverages were made from honey across the medieval world

Mead was made of a mixture of honey, water, and yeast, though sometimes white wine was substituted for water. The maker, dependent upon where he was, often added other ingredients in accordance with local traditions and tastes. In medieval Europe, mead was often a product of a monastery, where bees were kept and honey was harvested. It was also used in the brewing of some beers and ales. A particular form of mead was used to prevent the fruits of summer from spoiling before they could be consumed, and was made with fruits to augment the taste (honey does not contain bacteria, though that fact was unknown at the time).

Mead is probably the beverage most associated with medieval life today, though it was less prominent than wine in the south of Europe and beer and ale in the north. The Danish warriors in Beowulf fortified themselves with mead, and as a result, it became mainly associated with the Scandinavian countries and the Vikings. Ancient texts from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East all contain references to an alcoholic beverage made with the co-operation of bees, though without their knowledge, and it seems to have been the result, like beer, of the observation of thin porridges fermenting themselves as a result of the natural yeasts and sugars contained therein.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Medieval castles were built to ensure adequate water supplies in case of siege. Wikimedia

22. Water was the most common beverage of the medieval period, despite myths to the contrary

The beverage which was most often consumed by medieval men, women, and children, was water. This was true win in both small, isolated villages and in the growing cities. In the mid-13th century, London began the construction of the Great Conduit, a system of pipes which routed water from a natural spring at Tyburn to a pumping house, where it was then directed to a series of cisterns around the city. Most citizens went to the cisterns to draw water, or paid a water carrier to get it for them. Wealthier citizens could pay the city council to install pipes of their own, tapping into the conduits.

On the continent of Europe, many of the aqueducts erected by the Romans continued to provide clean drinking water to cities and towns. Others built community cisterns and some estates routed drinking water to tenants. Communities learned to draw their drinking water from upstream of the town and discharge its effluence below. Castles and fortifications were built with several wells to obtain water and cisterns to store it, as well as roofs designed to collect rainwater. Wine and especially beer were consumed frequently, but both were considered to be healthful (in moderation) and beer was considered to be a food, liquid grain, as it were, rather than just a means of quenching thirst. It was however rare to consume water at meals, when only foods were to be taken, in a manner conducive to maintaining a healthful balance of humors.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The Roman Aqueducts continued to supply drinking water in much of Medieval Europe. Wikimedia

23. More on the drinking of water during the medieval period

How and where the myth regarding the necessity of drinking beer and wine due to the impurity of water in medieval life began is immaterial. The existing body of evidence is that water was used throughout the era to quench thirst. But many doctors did warn against drinking water with meals, or even just before them. This was based on Galen, who was the source of most medical knowledge for medieval doctors. Galen warned that too much water filled the stomach and did not allow for the proper intake of food, as previously discussed, weakening the digestion which created bad humors, “which flow and drift across the whole body in its cavity”. To Galen, the effect was the same as when the body fasted.

Records of the first water distribution systems in larger cities of Europe began in the medieval period, but in most smaller towns water was free, from community wells and nearby streams and springs. Thus, there are few records describing its use, but neither are there records describing it as unhealthful for consumption. There are records from medieval doctors and writers which described how to detect water which was unsafe to drink. And in 8th century Bavaria, a law was passed which penalized anyone who fouled a public fountain, “with any filth”, requiring them to both clean the fountain of the offending material and pay a fine to the town.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Medieval farmers timed the slaughter of animals to coincide with the seasons, in part because of the difficulty feeding them in the winter. Wikimedia

24. Preparation of foods for the winter months

Livestock destined for consumption at the table was normally slaughtered in the fall, after crops had been harvested, in time for them to be preserved by pickling, drying, or smoking. Pigs, which weren’t reliant on pasture for food were slaughtered year-round. Fall was the best time for slaughter because it meant that less fodder for livestock would be necessary for the coming winter. Essentially, the medieval populace used the same methods of preservation as those of antiquity, which would remain unchanged, more or less, until the early 19th century, with the advent of canning.

Fruits and some vegetables were packed in jars, in honey or a pickling solution, and sealed with beeswax. Other vegetables were packed in brine or vinegar, as were some fish. Fruit was also packed in honey and mead. Butter in medieval kitchens was highly salted, much more so than its modern counterpart, in order to lengthen its shelf life. Unripe grapes were squeezed for their juice. Because the fruit had not yet created the sugars during the ripening process, the juice was high in acid, and was used in the creation of sauces and flavorings as well as in pickling. Over the entire year, the cutting and storing of wood, the source of heating and cooking fuel, was an ongoing process.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Within the walls of medieval cities such as Avila, prepared foods were sold in shops and by vendors. Wikimedia

25. The medieval period saw the birth of the professional food industry

Professional cooks emerged during the medieval period, employed at the great estates and in the smaller shops of the urban centers. Cheesemongers made and sold cheeses, poulterers sold birds; butcher’s beef, pork, and game. Prepared foods were sold from tradesmen hawking their wares on the streets, as were some meats such as rabbits and sausages. In Europe, and especially in England, the culinary achievement of the pie crust led to wholly edible pies, sold by a tradesman who was known as the pieman. Virtually any food could be baked into pies; meats, vegetables, fruits, and fish and eel, which became known as a sea pie. Pies became a favorite meal of workers at midday, rather than a dessert.

A hierarchy developed in the cooking industry, with those employed at the estates tending to specialize, (bakers, grillers, confectioners, etc) and those employed by the urban shops considered lesser skilled and mere tradesmen. The wealthy scorned the urban shops which catered to the working class and the poor, as well as many of the foods they prepared. Many believed that the constant exposure to the heat and smoke of the medieval kitchen negatively affected the bodily humors, and cooks were stereotyped as hot-tempered as a result. Restaurants were unknown, though inns and taverns offered food, usually prepared in their own kitchens, as an accompaniment to their patrons’ wine or beer.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The church insisted that eating too soon after rising was sinful. Wikimedia

26. The menu for a typical day for a member of the medieval working class

The church taught, and medical professionals (many of whom were trained by the church and were also priests or monks) agreed that eating too soon after rising in the morning was sinful and bad for health. Most of the working class was aware of this admonition, and got around it by not sitting to breakfast. A morning beer before beginning the daily toil was common, accompanied with bread and sometimes cheese, or cold meat. Lunch was often carried in the pockets for consumption at midday, or purchased from a vendor. The popularity of pies is attributed to their suitability for this purpose, both portable and palatable cold.

The main meal of the day was served at dinner for the working class, and it was there that it was most likely to consist of more than one course, lighter foods followed by heavier foods, and washed down with wine, beer, or mead. For the working class and poor cabbage was a mainstay, prepared in a variety of ways. The evening meal might be served on a wooden plate or bowl, or one made of bread, or might be laid out directly on the table. Foods delivered to the table were usually in the container in which they had been prepared, and the diner helped himself using spoon or knife. The idea of napkins had not yet occurred to etiquette students.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The wealthy had more leisure time and enjoyed longer and more elaborate meals. Wikimedia

27. The menu for the wealthy was somewhat different from the less fortunate

The wealthy were far more likely to observe the church proscription against early eating, and formal breakfasts were rare. The fast could be broken by snacks; fruit, bread, and other such items were usually consumed during the morning. The main meal of the day was typically served at midday, and it was then that the estate’s cooks and bakers produced the food which was served with epicurean flourishes. The wealthy were far more likely to drink wine with their meals than beer, though beer was not unheard of, due to its perceived healthful properties. Several courses were prepared and served, and consumed in the manner dictated by medical thought of the time.

Unless guests were to be entertained at dinner, it was often a much more subdued affair than the midday meal, served after vespers (an evening prayer ritual). Foods prepared outside of the estate’s own kitchens were not served. Most of the food was obtained from the estate. Urban dwellers of wealth purchased most of their food, of necessity, but due to class status exempted themselves from purchasing prepared foods from urban vendors. The church prohibited long stays at table in the evening, and elaborate banquets with excessive food, and unless the meal was part of entertaining guests, the ban was for the most part followed.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
Banquets in the great halls and castles were typically frowned upon by the church. Wikimedia

28. The church frowned on banquets and feasts with excessive eating

The stereotypical medieval banquet, with long meals of lavishly prepared foods, supplemented with wines, ales, and other drinks did occur in the great halls and castles of the rich and the nobility. Despite the official position of the church that such events were immoral and sinful, many of the most elaborate known, the records of which survive, were hosted by members of the clergy, including several popes. Most records of these banquets are focused on who attended and the entertainments which were offered, as well as the decorations. During the early part of the medieval period, dinners in the great halls and houses were communal, with the entire household, including servants, dining together.

Leftovers were a problem, since there were few means of storing or preserving them. The leftover food was usually delivered to the poor as alms. This led to the practice of the poor and traveling pilgrims gathering at the estates to receive the food, rather than it being distributed to churches. The practice changed over time to the food being delivered to almshouses and churches, where it would be served to those unable to feed themselves. Leftover bread was seldom distributed, since it had other uses in the kitchen and could last for a few days. Bread was distributed to the poor via the churches and monasteries.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
A depiction of the medieval cook which appeared in an edition of Chaucer. Wikimedia

29. Cookbooks began to appear during the medieval period

The fact that cookbooks which described the obtaining and preparation of food emerged is an indication that literacy was fairly common during the period, at least among the better off financially. The use of spices as a means of disguising the appearance and aroma of spoiled meats and other foods is a fallacy according to the texts; many cooking guides discussed what to look for when inspecting meat, to avoid the possibility of using meat already spoiled. Spices were costly, their use limited to those who could afford it, and important to them maintaining their status within the community. Serving rotten food while attempting to hide the fact with spices would have done little to enhance their reputation.

The cookbooks which did appear were more collections of recipes than they were descriptions of techniques. They were often vague regarding amounts of ingredients to be used, as well as the temperatures and times required to complete a dish. They were written for professional cooks and servants, trained through apprenticeship. Many of the recipes in medieval cookbooks, at least those which survive, are recipes for common maladies such as headache, toothache, and indigestion, and foods which helped to avoid them.

These Medieval Food Habits Changed the Way Food is Eaten Today
The cook or cooks for Richard II allegedly wrote a collection of recipes, including one for preparing whale. Wikimedia

30. The Forme of Cury was one of the earliest English cookbooks

In the late 14th century, a cookbook was written in scroll form by the “Cooks of Richard II”. While not the oldest collection of recipes written in English (Middle English) it is the oldest yet discovered to mention the use of olive oil. Its heavy use of one ingredient – sugar – suggests that although it includes common dishes, it was meant solely for the use of the wealthy. That view is supported by its inclusion in its recipes of several what were then extremely rare spices, including the first mention in English of cloves and mace. There are also recipes for pasta, vinaigrette, and several vegetable dishes, indicating the influence of Mediterranean cooking had by then reached England, at least among its wealthiest classes.

There are also recipes which indicate the lengths people would go to for comestibles. There are recipes for whale meat, porpoises, and seals. The cooking of cranes and curlews, both water birds, prepared with a stuffing which included other creatures of the sea, were included. The work contains a statement by the author that the recipes were intended to guide the preparation of “Common pottages and common meats for the household, as they should be made, craftily and wholesomely”. It also contains a claim by the author that special dishes for banquets were included. It did not separate the two categories. The preparation of sculptures and decorative displays was also covered, which were often carried to the table by servants as an indication to guests that the meal, possibly of porpoise and beaver tail, was about to be served.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Medieval Diet”. Learning texts in context. The British Library. Online

“Food in the Middle Ages”. Ed. Melissa Weiss. 1995

“Food and Eating in Medieval Europe”. Ed. Martha Carlin, Joel T. Rosenthal. 2003

“A Brief History of Honey”. Article, The Honey Association. Online

“Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination”. Paul Freedman. 2008

“Some Basic Aspects of Medieval Cuisine”. Paul Freedman, Online

“Medieval Porridge or Frumenty”. Article, World History Online. June 7, 2017

“The History of Food”. Maguelonne Toussant-Samat. 2009

“The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages”. Terence Scully. 1995

“Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society”. Bridget Ann Henisch. 1976

“A History of Western Eating Utensils, From the Scandalous Fork to the Incredible Spork”. Lisa Bramen, July 31, 2009

“Attempree diete was al hir phisik: The Medieval Application of Medical Theory to Feasting”. Kristen M. Burkholder. 1996. Online

“They dined on crane: bird comsumption, wild fowling, and status in medieval England”. Umberto Albarella and Richard Thomas. 2002. Online

“From Wine to Beer: Changing Patterns of Alcohol Consumption, and Living Standards, in Later Medieval Flanders, 1300-1550. John Munro. Medieval Academy of America. 2010. Online

“Looking into the long history of mead”. Mary O’Riordan, Irish Times. January 23, 2016

“What Was the Drink of Choice in Medieval Europe?”. Tim O’Neill, May 21, 2013

“Fast Food in Medieval Europe”. Vickie L. Ziegler, 2008

“Changes in Diet in the Late Middle Ages: the Case of Harvest Workers”. Christopher Dyer, 1988. Online

“Medieval Gastronomy”. Exhibit, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Online

“Research reveals Medieval diet was more than meat and gruel”. Lance Gay, Scripps News Service. February 17, 2003

“Medieval Culinary Texts”. Martha Carlin, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Online

“The Forme of Cury”. Text at the British Library. Online