If we think about the food of the Middle Ages, what do we imagine? Maybe pigs and cows, large fireplaces, and tankards with ale. But this picture is only a part of the story. Of course, the dishes in those times were far less varied than those of today. And peasants’ food was far less diverse than that of the upper-classes. But still, we can find some interest when looking into what people ate 1,000 years ago. Alex Moren explains.

John, Duke of Berry, enjoying a great meal in France. Painted by the  Limbourg Brothers , 15th century.

John, Duke of Berry, enjoying a great meal in France. Painted by the Limbourg Brothers, 15th century.

The Dark Ages or the Middle Ages (commonly seen to have been the 5thto the 15thcentury in Europe) are often seen as the time of darkness, hunger and pestilence. It was not a particularly refined time – it was an age of superstition. The period has inspired many legends and tales and still attracts children and adults alike. But just what did people eat during the Middle Ages in Europe?

 

Important Things To Remember: Seasons, Salt And Storage

Medieval life was ruled by the temperatures and the seasons. The food was plentiful in the early summer, with berries and early grains, and in autumn, when the harvest was finished. But even with a good harvest and lots of cattle, food was hard to keep. Cold cellars, deep dungeons and ice were the best ways to preserve something. Curing, smoking and salting the meat and fish was also a way to stock up before winter. People even salted butter so that it would keep longer. And because of that, some of the most precious items were salt and simple spices like garlic. Remember the old fairy tale about the princess who told her father the king that she loves him more than salt? A kingdom without salt could starve, so it was indeed very precious. Spices were rare, although during the Crusades there was greater awareness of cardamom, cinnamon, coriander and pepper. For most the taste of food was much simpler: food could be salty, a little tinged with vinegar or garlic, or sweetened with honey. 

But not only seasons determined what a person could eat; their position determined it, too. A diet of a peasant was very different from a diet of a monk. It may seem that it is better to be someone who grows your own food. But if we look at the life in the Middle Ages more closely, we can see that the “down to the earth life” was also the most dangerous one.

 

Peasants: Barely Any Rules All.

In our century, we often idealize rural life. But actually, being a medieval peasant meant to live a very hungry and dangerous life. In many countries, peasants were not really free. They were obligated to work for the higher classes - for the monasteries or nobles who owned the lands they resided on. And they still had to care for their own land as well. Besides, they had to pay taxes, and they remained even in drought and poor harvest.

The peasant had to depend mainly on what they could grow for food. Wheat was an expensive grain, and usually, it was sent to the nobles or the tax collectors. What was left for the villagers was barley and vegetables like turnip and cabbage.

Raising animals for meat, such as cows, goats or sheep required pastures. Hogs were also very expensive to have. Hunting was also forbidden, as forests belonged to the king or his followers (remember Robin Hood saving some peasants because they killed a royal deer?). Having a cow was a sign of wealth - with a cow, one could get milk, produce cheese and even sell them.

All of these things lead to a simple conclusion  - peasants ate very little and their diet was far from diverse. Usually, in the village, it was porridge, vegetable or chicken stew, fish for religious days (there were many!), and cheese and different kinds of preserved meat, if they were lucky enough. And they ate twice a day. 

So, peasants used to eat little. So, did rich people eat too much?

 

Rich: We Have Wheat and We Have Meat! 

When people had money, pastures and servants, they could have variety in their food, too! All the dishes we usually associate with medieval times, such as a pig being roasted on a stick, stuffed pheasants, pigeons and deer - could all be found on the tables of various nobles, sheriffs, and, of course, kings. They could afford spices as well, so the dishes included sauces and vinegar. No barley bread for the knights and barons - they ate wheat bread, and probably pastries as well. 

Though monks were considered servants of God, they could be considered rich as well. Monasteries used to have wide lands assigned to them. They had access to wheat, like nobles. They also grew their own herbs, had their own cattle, and even fisheries. The latter was especially important, as monks had to observe Lent and other religious holidays very strictly. The meat was often forbidden, only fish was allowed. However, in many countries, birds that swim in water, such as ducks, geese and swans, were considered fish, too! As a result, in many monasteries, the diet was not particularly strict. That’s why in the medieval legends, the fat, overeating monks are so common.

 

Last, But Not Least: Be Careful What You Drink! 

Water was filthy. There were no filtration systems, and water was often not boiled before use. Drinking water was often the main instrument of spreading diseases. That is why people preferred other beverages - diluted wine, mead, or other forms of alcohol, which were relatively safe. Everybody drank, even children.

 

A medieval knight would be shocked to see our regular meals. Now, we depend on potatoes as a staple food instead of turnips, and we have a much larger variety of grains. Wild meat is now rare, and we eat a lot of pork and beef instead. And water is safe in our time!

 

Who do you think eats healthier: the people of the twenty-first century or the tenth century? Let us know below.

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