Food and Drink in Medieval England
Introduction: Evidence and documentation
Regardless of the period being studied, facets of daily life are frequently among the most difficult subjects to pin down and examine. The same is true when studying medieval eating habits. In an age when writing materials were costly and literacy limited to an educated minority, a scarcity of documentation on what must have to contemporaries appeared trivial detail is only to be expected. Therefore, for much of what we claim to know of customs in the Roman, Viking and Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain, we rely on archaeological evidence and conjecture based on illustrations, literature and other material only peripherally related to gastronomic arts.
Manuscripts of more direct relevance to the study of cookery appear in the late 13th century. For England, undoubtedly the most significant would be the Forme of Cury, a late 14th century recipe collection; a great deal of dietary information can also be found in parts of the alliterative poem Piers Plowman. Castle records provide an insight into which foodstuffs a household purchased and in what quantities; dictionaries and phrasebooks provide lists of names for food, indicating items that stewards might have left out of their accounts, due to their being produced locally. Medical texts provide additional evidence, with their advice on the wholesomeness of different foods and maintaining a medieval physician's idea of a balanced and healthy diet.
Those rare texts, such as the Forme of Cury, which supply us with more or less direct information on medieval dishes, are peculiar reading. Recipes hardly ever indicate exact quantities of ingredients or suitable cooking times and temperatures; the information is apparently considered self-evident, or too difficult to explain in an understandable form. Bearing in mind the high degree of professionalism of medieval cooks on one hand, and cost of manuscripts and the low spread of literacy on the other, it is likely that the medieval cook book was dictated by the professional cook to a scribe, and intended to grace the aristocratic library rather than the kitchen. As Scully puts it, the manuscript was compiled by the medieval cook, not for him.
Nevertheless, even somewhat oblique recipe collections can be consulted to discover how a certain spice was used, or how widely a given dish was known. Several similar recipes in early cookery manuscripts across Europe suggest that there was at least a degree of cosmopolitanism in aristocratic kitchens of the time. Indeed, Menell remarks that geographical variation in medieval European eating habits is much less striking than hierarchical division. Though written sources deal primarily with idealised diets and feasts for the privileged, they supply us with an idea of the kinds and quantities of food that were available, and what procedures they were subjected to before human consumption. This knowledge also allows an educated guess as to what less privileged classes may have eaten.
Theories of food
Before going into the nitty-gritty of medieval meals and their constituents, it is perhaps prudent to address some questions and points which frequently arise in discussions of medieval cooking. This means tackling not only the much discussed question of spices, but also the sophisticated and oddly logical system of what were termed humours, used in the composition of a balanced and - by the standards of the system - healthy meal. While the system itself seems very alien to modern thinking, it would appear to explain or at least rationalise a great deal about medieval cuisine.
Catering to the humours
The theory of humours can be traced back to Greek philosophies, which argued that all the world was made up of four basic elements - fire, air, water and earth - and each element was characterised by two of four basic humours. These humours, listed as moist, dry, cold and warm, were present also in foodstuffs, and communicated themselves to the consumer, promoting behaviour characteristic to the dominant humour. On a very basic level, it was a case of becoming what you eat.
The ideal humour for humans was determined as slightly moist and slightly warm, and according to the medical texts of the day had to be carefully maintained by an appropriate diet. The cook was advised to know the humours of each type of food, and to carefully calculate what was put before his master for an optimal balance. Ingredients were to be chopped and blended as finely as possible to allow the humours to mix sufficiently; also, the method of preparation had to be chosen according to the metaphysical properties of the ingredient. After all, no cook wished to inadvertently compromise the health of his lord.
Quaint and misguided as it may seem to modern thinking, the theory of humours can explain several features distinctive to medieval cooking. The rationale of mincing and pureeing has already been mentioned; Scully unhesitatingly attributes several other features, such as the frequent combination of vinegar and honey to this philosophy. Vinegar was a valued condiment (no doubt in part because even vinegary wine was too expensive to be wasted), but as it was by nature cold and extremely dry, it had to be tempered with honey, considered warm and moist in almost the exact same degree. Game meat was considered slightly dry, and therefore often prepared with lard, predictably considered moist; fish and waterfowl, on the other hand, were frequently cooked in wine so that their cold and moist tendencies might be rendered more palatable by the warm and dry properties of the wine.
According to Scully, this reasoning permeates medieval gastronomy to the degree that even religious fasting can be seen as an attempt to avoid humours unsuited to the pious. In fact, the system seems so smooth and comprehensive that the question arises whether it originally came about as a guide for a particular style of cooking, or merely a rationalisation of it. Whatever the case, if this system is accepted as a general governing principle, it would seem that the head of a medieval kitchen was as much an alchemist as a cook. Certainly it implies an entirely new degree of deliberation and professionalism in a style of cookery that - in reference to the frequent use of puree - has often been written off as "so much mush".
The question of spices
Over time, theories have abounded on the extensive use of spices in medieval dishes. The earliest, and sometimes still repeated theory attributes spicing to an attempt to cover up the taste of tainted meat; and indeed, in a time before refrigerators, keeping food fresh was a matter neither trivial nor simple. Today this theory is ruled incomplete at the least. Though fresh meat may have been a luxury to the poor, those who could afford spices to cover the taste of food gone off would certainly have had the wherewithal to skirt the entire problem by simply purchasing fresher meat, had that been the issue. Also, Mennell notes that spicing habits began to shift towards the more moderate renaissance tastes long before there was a marked improvement in methods of preservation.
More probable theories have latched on to the tendency towards ostentation in medieval feast foods. As spices were imported and therefore expensive, it has been suggested that their generous use served as a status symbol, an implication of the host's wealth. This theory can be tackled on grounds much the same as the previous; if the purpose of the meal is to impress, why spice it into inedibility? Scully points out that most recipes lack exact quantities for spices, and there are no grounds to assume that spices were used in particularly liberal quantities. In fact, some of the recipes that do have measurements count out the precise number of peppers to be used - a rather heavy argument against the idea that spices were used arbitrarily. Secondly, Black notes that importing spices was a time-consuming process, and that a certain degree of staleness in the merchandise is almost inevitable.
Finally, part of the solution may also lie in the medieval approach to spices, and food in general. Spices were frequently considered pseudomedicinal, especially when used in wines; on the other hand, the theory of humours greatly emphasises the importance of balancing elements in any given dish. It is not inconceivable that spices were considered part of this balancing act.
The variety of raw ingredients available to the medieval cook was largely similar to the selection we are presented with today. With the exception of items later brought over from the Americas (maize, chocolate, turkey), and some which were known but considered poisonous or merely suspicious (potato, tomato, banana), and a few which for other reasons reached Europe in later ages (coffee, tea, vanilla, broccoli), most the selection available to the medieval cook was largely similar to today's palette. The most important limitation on variety was imposed by what could be produced locally; through the medieval and renaissance period, import was a costly and time-consuming business, and often priced its bounty out of reach for common folk.
Bread was the staple of everyone's diet, though the grain it was made from varied locally, and also according to wealth. The finest white bread was made from wheat flour siftet two or three times; this was found mainly at the tables of the aristocracy. The bread of common people was made with what ever grain was available locally; this could be a combination of wheat and rye flour, which produces a popular bread called maslin, or barley and oats in the colder and wetter north. Weed seeds frequently found their way into the flour, and in years when the harvest had been poor, peas, beans or acorns might be added to the cheapest bread to conserve precious flour. Large households baked their own bread; in villages this was usually done in a communal oven or left to a professional baker.
Another dietary cornerstone was formed by pottages. A typical pottage consisted of a broth or stock to which vegetables (most commonly cabbage, leeks onions and garlic), cereals or meat might be added; eggs might also go into the pot to thicken the brew and make a richer base. Practically every household had a kitchen garden, which produced not only herbs for spicing, but also peas, beans, leeks, onions, and various roots such as carrots and turnips. However, in spite of the ready availability of fresh fruit and vegetables, with the exception of grapes, cherries and wild berries, garden products were rarely eaten uncooked, as they were believed unhealthy in an unprocessed state. Interestingly, on the rare occasions that salad was made, flowers such as lilacs and primroses were often added to it.
Livestock was kept by all who could afford to; not only for meat, but also for milk, eggs and wool. Sheep were the most common of English livestock, due to their versatility and low demands regarding grazing; cattle, on the other hand, held the advantage of producing both meat and milk in quantities significantly larger than sheep or goats. Due to the problems of supplying sufficient winter feed, most livestock (with the exception of breeding animals) tended to be slaughtered at intervals over the winter. Pigs, however, were less fussy eaters and could also forage for food in winter. This made pork the meat of choice for the poor. Commoners ate bacon and salted joints, while Norman lords favoured mutton and beef for their roasts. Game animals provided the most prized meat, but they were reserved almost exclusively for lords and the king. Hares and rabbits, however, became lawful prey for the commoner in the early 13th century (Black 98-106).
Fish was necessarily involved in the medieval diet, because the church roundly banned the eating of meat on fast days. This same ban also forbid animal milk and products made from it. To avoid this handicap, medieval cooks came up with alternatives; pea-paste and almond milk appear to have been so commonly used, that hardly any of the known recipe collections relates how they were made. (Scully 15)
While medieval cooks relied on local produce for the bulk of their meals, they were in no way above using imported luxuries. Almonds were the most common of these, and use in large quantities to make up for the prohibition on milk on fast days; almond milk could also be made into butter, which was much easier to preserve than the ordinary cow's milk variety. Almost as popular was sugar, first encountered by Crusaders in the East and imported in the form of loaves. In the kitchen, the loaf was broken up as needed and ground into grains or even powder; combined with almonds, powdered sugar produced a popular ingredient for deserts. Medieval cooks had no scruples about using and overusing sugar; to the contrary, medical thinking of the time actually considered it healthy. In England, though, honey remained the sweetener of choice well into the renaissance, and sugar settled into the same quasimedicinal status as spices.
Salt was produced natively in mines or less prestigiously from evaporated sea water; in addition to home-grown herbs -parsley, sage, bay, sorrel, basil, cress, dill, mint and hyssop, to name a few - it was among the most common of spices, and in high demand as a preservative. Medieval tastes, however, demanded much more variety than that. The overwhelming presence of non-native spices in the recipes we have is a testimony to the success of contemporary spice merchants; cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cardamoms, cloves, grains of paradise and saffron feature prominently in a vast majority of dishes. (Scully 30-31)
In addition to spices and almonds, luxury imports included citrus fruits - mainly oranges and lemons - in both fresh and pickled form. Also available were currants, figs, raisins, dates and prunes. Due to shipping costs, these were priced out of reach for everyone but the rich; in privileged circles, however, dried fruits were in great demand and indeed a typical feast food. (Black 107-108)
Wine, ale and other drinks
Whether one wants to attribute the fact to the philosophy of humours or bacteriological savvy, medieval people rarely drank water if offered a choice. Predictably cold and moist in terms of humours, water was considered detrimental to the humours a balanced diet was supposed to promote. Also, while the connection between water spoilage and using streams for waste disposal was not understood, the problem itself was. Whether to avoid bad humours or tainted drink, water was largely scorned. Even for cooking it was recommended that water be drawn from a spring. Milk was likewise disdained as a drink most suitable for children, sick people, and the elderly.
For those who could afford it, wine was the drink of choice. The knowledgeable praised its warm and dry qualities, and recommended it over beer and ale, which were however ranked as preferable to water. The wine found at English tables was imported from France; initially from the Rhone area, but as tensions grew with the onset of the Hundred Years War, trade shifted to favour the Bordeaux area. At the table wine was frequently served watered, mulled or spiced. In comparison to their modern counterparts, medieval wines fare badly; their quality was far inferior, largely due to poor preservation methods. However, their alcohol content - only 5%, approximately on par with today's beer - was sufficient to ensure that wine was among the safer, though not necessarily tastier drinks (Scully).
While the common man may occasionally have been able to afford a touch of wine, his usual drink was beer or ale. The distinction between the two was marked by the inclusion or exclusion of hops in the brew. Though the English originally preferred hops-free ale, continental influences steadily increased the consumption of beer, much to the dismay of certain contemporaries who decried beer as "a drink suitable for Dutchmen". Mead, favoured in Scandinavian and German societies, was known but not popular. Cider and perry were also made from apples and pears respectively; Mennell states that this industry probably consumed much of the crop. The resulting product was consumed both fermented and unfermented, and once bottling came about in the late 15th century, sugar was sometimes added before sealing the bottle to make the drink frothy.
Distillation as a process was understood in antiquity, but did not come into active use in drink-making until the 14th century. Legend has it that cognac was invented by an attempt to cut down shipping costs for wine by removing some of the water; true or not, the new product quickly found a market unadulterated. Even better fared experiments managing to produce more or less pure alcohol; aqua vitae and aqua ardens (alcohol distilled once or repeatedly) quickly became popular as drinks, a medicinal bases and as a means of producing singularly flamboyant centre pieces. Records indicate cotton soaked in aqua ardens being used on several occasions to produce a fire breathing roasts ranging from boars to swans. (Scully 159-165)
While the components of medieval cooking were largely the same as are available today, significant differences existed in the facilities and equipment available for processing it. Perhaps the most marked difference is the great amount of attention that had to be paid to cooking and preservation processes - where today's cooks can rely on thermostat controlled ovens and freezer chests to maintain desired temperatures or prevent spoilage, their medieval counterparts were restricted to the less finely regulated facilities of cooking over an open fire, and treating food with aggressive and invariably taste-altering preservatives.
The workings of a kitchen
The heart of any kitchen was its hearth. In peasant homes this could be as simple as a cooking pit ringed with stones, and perhaps an overhead beam or swinging bar to hang pots or a cauldron from. In the absence of these options, pots could be set to warm on the stones; small birds and such might be wrapped in wet clay and buried in the hottest ashes to cook. A mortar, earthenware cooking pots, a dish or two for setting cheese and butter, and a few ladles and skillets usually constituted the whole of a peasant's kitchenware. (Black 109-110)
Manorial and castle kitchens were more complicated affairs. Due to the smoke unavoidably produced by open fires, and the hubbub arising from an effort to produce multiple dishes on time for a feast, kitchens were often situated apart from living quarters. Kitchen furnishings generally included hearths with overhanging chimneys - a feature designed to improve ventilation and thereby help keep fire temperatures steady, rather than for the comfort of the kitchen staff. A good hearth also featured firedogs for spit-roasting, and adjustable hooks which allowed cauldrons and pots to be hung at a desired level above the fire, or swung aside from it's direct heat. These options could be vital to ensuring the proper cooking temperature for a given dish.
In deference to the effort that went into producing the plethora of courses served at a major feast, large household kitchens frequently featured several hearths - but no less important were other fixtures of a functional kitchen. Large tables provided space for all the necessary cutting and mixing of ingredients; stone sinks draining into a common cesspool provided facilities for washing ingredients and utensils alike. Mortars were crucial for crushing spices and blending ingredients, and an assortment of ladles, skillets, knives, spoons and basting-brushes were at hand for the treatment of food in various stages of preparation. Water might be piped in, or carried by hand. Fuel was all-import to maintain a steady fire, and where special stability of temperature was required, coals could be substituted for wood. Rather than tending to everything personally, the cook's job was to supervise and direct the work of assorted scullions, apprentices and hired help.
In addition to the kitchen itself, a household of any size had several other food processing centres - or at the very least a pantry for storage. A bakery was important for more than just bread; every nobleman worth his salt employed a pastry chef, responsible for pies, pasties, tarts and other dough-based delicacies. Fillings for these treats were produced in the kitchen under the cook's supervision, then sent to the bakery to be encased in pastry and baked; the result was then returned to the cook for any necessary finishing touches and rushed off to waiting guests. Butcheries, wine cellars and dairies might also feature among a larger household's gastronomically oriented areas; ultimately, however, all authority in matters of cookery belonged to the cook. (Scully 86-89)
The problem of preservation
In days before refrigeration, preserving foodstuffs was ever a problem. Supply of a particular foodstuff was frequently dictated by the seasons, and earthen cellars and pantries were often insufficient to cope. Kitchen gardens avoided part of this problem, as did bringing meat to the market "on the hoof"; however, meat in particular was subject to decay once slaughtered. So, assorted methods of preservation came into play.
The main modes of food preservation were smoking, salting and pickling; smoking for meat and fish, salting for both the previous and also dairy products, and pickling for vegetable based preserves. Each of these methods strongly affected the flavour of the food, and hence the steps that had to be taken later to restore it to palatability; cookery manuscripts often included instructions on how to remove preservative salt from meat or butter, suggesting a high demand for such information. Scholars have often suggested that the perceived excess of spicing in medieval cooking derives from an effort to vary a diet based on uniformly salty or vinegary preserves. Mennell points out the flaw in yet another variation of the taste-masking theory; there is, he says, simply no evidence that spicing habits varied according to the freshness of the ingredients.
In addition to solid food, beverages were also subject to the problem of spoilage. Milk was not to be trusted unless it came more or less directly from a cow; water was equally dubious, unless taken from a fast-flowing spring. Alcohol was relatively safe in bacteriological terms, but its taste invariably suffered over extended periods of storage. Fine vintage wines were an oxymoron until bottling came about in the late 15th century, as wine rarely kept long enough to age. Various methods for treating "sick wine" testify to the difficulty of maintaining the quality of unbottled wine.
The social factor
No aspect of human behaviour ever exists in isolation - and so it follows that any discussion of medieval eating habits would be incomplete without at least a glimpse of the context surrounding them. The philosophy of humours has already been discussed, and would appear to flesh out and explain some aspects of our subject. However, there are other influences equally and in ways even more important to be considered. Throughout the medieval period there were few institutions as powerful as the Christian church on one hand, and public opinion on the other. This last section attempts to address the influence these two factors exercised on medieval dining.
Food and Christianity: fish days, flesh days
Christian influence permeated the vast majority of daily life in medieval Europe, and English kitchens were no exception to the rule. A powerful example of this is supplied by the regular rhythm of fish days and flesh days - that is, days when red meat was allowed or to be avoided. In the mind of Church elders, this dietary practice was designed to enhance faith and religious piety; while Mennell attributes the concept more to sociological theories of abstinence and the civilisation of appetite, to Scully's thinking they are equally obviously tied up in the philosophy of humours. As flesh and animal produce in general were perceived to be warm, they served to promote a choleric temperament, ideal for fostering excess and lechery. Lean days, Scully argues, served to curb this tendency by favouring more temperate humours present in fish and garden products.
By the most ardent strictures, lean day prohibitions ruled out not only red meats and poultry, but also dairy products, eggs and lard. How strictly these rules were adhered to may have varied from house to house; on more liberal estates constraints might have been relaxed enough to overlook a little cream, or to explain waterfowl into a type of fish. Ideally, however, Lenten fare was designed to promote moderation, and characterised by the use of fish, cereals and vegetables rather than the roasts, pastries and rich cream normally favoured by Norman lords. It was here that the medieval cook could truly show his ingenuity; complete lean menus preserved in contemporary manuscripts prove that religious demands were no match for a truly devoted gastronome.
Competent cooks easily produced pea paste to replace butter; almond milk was substituted for animal milk, and nut or olive oils replaced lard in frying and baking. The kosher fish might be divided into several sections, each section prepared in a different way and sauced appropriately, and then recombined into the original whole before serving; roast game could be set aside for something as exotic as porpoise. Particularly clever cooks concocted fish tarts which by some alchemy mimicked the taste of cheese. Was this inventive variety considered cheating? Certainly not by the authors of contemporary cookery manuscripts. Rather they saw it as a kind of honesty; that even with limited ingredients a cook should do his best to compose a balanced, interesting and gastronomically satisfying meal.
Feasts: customs, practices, rituals
Of all medieval cuisine, perhaps the highest form was the feast. These gatherings, evaluated as much by the number of mouths fed and dishes serves as by the quality of the guests, were huge undertakings for any kitchen staff. At a feast it was not enough to simply feed the guests; a large part of the point was to dazzle the participants with the quality of the meal, and by association the host offering it. Courses were designed for variety and the intervals filled with entertainment; feasts were also a good time to beg the host for favours, as the event was designed to display not only the wealth but also the generosity of its patron.
Planning a feast was no trivial affair. Any moderately sized household consisted of several social groups; each of these meant different considerations to be taken into account when planning a menu. Furthermore, in addition to the menus planned for various secular groups, an entirely separate one was required for members of the clergy. Once completed, menus were divided into courses, generally consisting of several poultry, meat or fish dishes and a few sweet ones. The number of courses, says Black, was usually two or three; each course was followed by a subtlety, a special dish, presented to the high table.
It is in these special dishes that medieval cooking finds its most artful, imaginative and occasionally bizarre expression. Pastry or carved sugar sculptures reflecting a theme relevant to the occasion were among the simplest variety of subtleties; another favourite was a swan or peacock, stuffed, cooked and then decorated with its original feathers, a golden crown or comb and a garland or gold chain. Even more outlandish dishes included the Cocatrice - the front half of a piglet and back half of a chicken disguised as a single fantastic beast - or Helmeted Cock, which consisted of a chicken mounted on a pig, both roasted whole. Like many similar dishes, they were designed to amuse as well as impress. Less fantastical but no less impressive roasts might be gilded with gold leaf, or brought to the table breathing fire by the means of a little spirit-soaked cotton. Not all of these dishes were designed to be edible; their main purpose was to provide a spectacle.
Seating at a feast was usually arranged in twos; each participant shared a plate and possibly also a cup with their neighbour. A coarse brown bread called trencher was used to line plates - whether they were made of silver, tin, or earthenware - or even replace them completely. Following the meal trenchers were customarily given to the poor, or thrown to the hounds which frequently lounged about a feasting hall. Eating was accomplished with knives, spoons and fingers, as forks were latecomers to European tables and regarded with suspicion until the end of the medieval era.
However, for all their festiveness, feasts were not entirely relaxed affairs. In a society where power was gained through succession, poisoning offered any variety of opportunities for advancement; such practices were ever a point of concern at feasts. In light of this, tasters were employed to sample each dish before they were offered to the lord or his esteemed guests.
As seen above, the art exercised by medieval cooks was anything but limited. Their tastes in spicing may not always coincided with modern ideals - which tend to favour basic flavours rather than the combination of several - and few western cooks today would grasp the need for preparing a boar's head. However, certain basic similarities remain. Like us, our ancestors had a fondness for sweets, a craving for variety and the desire to produce food that was both satisfying, tasty and wholesome. Their methods in pursuing this last goal may sometimes be suspect - certainly modern dieticians frown on sugar, and they would doubtless also frown on the medieval tendency to waste valuable nutrients by cooking and overcooking anything vegetable-shaped. However, on the most basic of levels both medieval and modern cookery share at least one thing. In both, food is given meanings that go far beyond the mere necessity for bodily sustenance.
Sources and related reading:
Black, Maggie. A taste of history: 10,000 years of food
in Britain. London, English Heritage, 1994.
Matterer, James L. How to Cook Medieval. Online. Accessed
May 28th 2001. www.godecookery.com/how2cook/how2cook.htm