Medieval dining – an unusual perspective on history

A shorter version was originally published on Blogcritics.

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition is a collection of academic monographs, arising from a diet research group that came to recognise that to maximise understanding of this fascinating topic, it is necessary to be truly cross-disciplinary, to draw on historical, archaeological and scientific expertise. Inevitably in any such collection, some articles are more accessible and interesting to the general reader such as myself than others, the overall picture is fascinating, and given there’s much lost ecological knowledge here, potential valuable. It fits rather neatly with another recent read of mine, also from the London Library, on medieval manure.

But above all there’s a detailed vision of medieval life, viewed from an unusual perspective. And that perspective, if we’re thinking of the diet most people for most of the time in question, is pottage – a thick soup based on grain but into which pretty well anything handy could be thrown, although as time goes on and wealth grows, bread becomes more important. In 1394, one Lincolnshire ploughman was given 15 loaves of bread a week, seven of them made from wheat (the most expensive kind – the poorest could be made from pea flour). Beer and ale consumption also rises over time, with the quality, so that 1365 the ordinances governing a chantry in Chesterfield were amended. so that “Where the ordinances say that the chaplain shall totally abstain from visiting taverns, this is to be understood as meaning that he shall not visit them habitually.” (p. 23)

There’s considerable insight into the medieval landscape through understanding of food and farming.

“Medieval cereals would have been much more genetically diverse, so that a single field -even of a single crop – would show (for example) variations in height, time of flowering, resistance to disease, and colour. Despite this internal diversity, there would still have been different races with characteristics in common that farmers would recognize; these are known today as landraces. Landraces offer a diversity of characterctics within a single crop, which reduces the risk of serious crop failure in unfavourable conditions. Under optimum conditions, this is generally at the expense of maximising yields; but for farmers in traditional agricultural societies, the trade-off is well worthwhile, as some harvest is considerably better than none. …fields can also be seen to have supported a considerable diversity of arable weeds… Some… may have been tolerated by farmers as a minor food source in their own right, especially for ‘green’. The various species of fat hen and goosefoot (Chenopodium spp) for example, have edible leaves, and recent experimental work suggests the collection or cultivation of fat hen in the late prehistoric period.” (p. 47)

Included here is much agricultural skills and knowledge we’ve lost, but might have to regain – even lost words, like ‘maslin’, a mix of rye and wheat, and spring-sown ‘dredge’, a mix of barley and oats. (p. 13) This could make a valuable read for those trying to restore sustainable agriculture to Britain.

There’s also fascinating insights into the change and development of medieval society through, of all things, changes in butchery. Until the mid-10th century, there seems to have been no such thing as professional butchers, and the way carcasses were cut up was haphazard, and suggests they were often lying on the ground. Documents from then on suggests meat markets and fleshmongers in major towns – a charter of 932 notes a cattle market outside the walls of Canterbury, and there are similar records for Winchester and York around the same time. Archaeology shows that carcasses start to be split into equal sides, having been suspended and meat cleavers used. Linguistic history is also telling – Anglo-Norman vocabulary is used for choice cuts, while poorer cuts, such as ox tail, retain their Anglo-Saxon labels. Archaeological evidence also shows rural areas were salting or hot-smoking their meat for preservation, but that this was rare in towns, where meat seems to have been available year-round. (p. 69-70)

Horsemeat, a subject of some contemporary interest, was at least sometimes eaten, a significant number of bones butchered like those of cattle suggest, but the editors suggest this was probably a food of the rural poor, although they wouldn’t have had access to those horses for use when alive. (p. 271) Although the gradual rise of the plough horse meant that by the 13th-century dairies started to appear – with less need for cattle for traction, more calves could be slaughtered for meat, freeing milk for dairying. (p. 59)

Dairy products were at some level an insurance, able to be stored for times of want, so Piers Plowman’s two cheese are husbanded carefully – essential when a single cow was unlikely to produce more than 90lb of cheese and butter a year. But in aristocratic households, there seems to have been a particular link between women and dairy consumption – the household of Dame Alice de Bryene bought cheese for boon workers and other labourers in 1412-13 and 1418-9 but also milk and cream for the lady’s chamber. The Countess of Warwick in 1420-1, catering to her three daughters,sux gentlewoman, one of whom was caring for her own child, and the female chamberers, was particularly buying dairy on days when fish rather than flesh was being eaten. It’s almost like peering into these chambers – getting a close look at what these women were eating. (p.99-100)

There’s also interesting thoughts about why we know what we know. Fish bones are most likely to be preserved in below-ground features such as cesspits and rubbish pits. So we know quite a bit about the consumption on aristocratic and monastic tables, places where these were built, but much less about the fish eaten in humbler abodes where the waste went out the door and on to the fields.

But it’s not all serious information. There are some lovely introduction to medieval humour: 16th-century Cornish ale, made from oats, as it often was in the southwest and north,was said to be “lyke wash as pygges had wrestled dryn”. (p. 13) And a reminder that legal hairsplitting goes back a long way: for monks near full-term embryos from slaughtered animals might count as fish, since they were “swimming” in embryonic fluid.

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