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Daily Life: Meals and Celebrations

A historical study by Anastasia Sulipka


5 January 2024 - 12th Night | TMA


Anastasia Sulipka contributes her essay on food in the Middle Ages, considering daily life of the noble and peasant classes and the food they ate everyday and during special holidays, such as Christmas.



Medieval Food: Daily Meals from both Nobility and the Peasantry in the Middle Ages. 


Illustration of Richard II dining with the Dukes of York, Gloucester, and Ireland, in Jean de Wavrin's Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre (Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 265v), British Library.




Medieval food in people's daily lives can be divided into two categories: the everyday food that people of more noble, wealthy, and aristocratic families could eat and the food of the poorer classes. The food of nobilities could be very extravagant since they had access to anything they wanted to eat as long as they had the money to buy it and or the money to import it. Some typical food was venison, rabbit, beef, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, white bread, strawberries, lemons, grapes, and pomegranates. Every ingredient listed below in the peasant class list was also available to the noble classes. The noble diet also included spices like caraway, cardamom, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, cumin cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. They also ate a lot of poultry, including quail, cranes, pigeons, pheasants, swans, peafowls, storks, peacocks, and songbirds. The peasantry typically ate brown bread, pottage, pies, cabbage, spinach, fennel, beans, lentils, garlic, onions, mushroom, pumpkin, turnips, parsley, cheese, fish, pork, and carrots.

 

For the nobility, much of their food consisted of fresh food, like fresh vegetables, fruits, meat, and dairy products. They could afford to have fresh fruits and rare vegetables imported whenever they wished, and most nobility had hunting grounds where they would hunt for fresh game like deer, foxes, and boars, all wild and, once killed, eaten relatively quickly. Also, if nobles ever had foreign visitors, many would bring exotic animals, which could be killed and later eaten if not put into a Menagerie. Exotic animals could also be purchased and imported for consumption. The peasantry ate little fresh food in their diet. Much of it was preserved and pickled, salted, and smoked since they did not have the luxury to hunt for their meat, could not rely on markets and shops to be open, or have access to fresh vegetables if they were out of season since they could not import anything or if they weren't in a position to grow anything.




Le Livre des conquêtes et faits d’Alexandre, Paris, musée du Petit-Palais, folio 86; See  https://www.medievalists.net/2014/12/medieval-food-taste/



 

Most of the food you ate during medieval times was determined by where you lived, especially for the peasantry classes. For example, a farmer and his family would have more access to the animals they raised and their by-products, like cheese, milk, eggs, and any produce and grains they grew. If you lived next to the ocean, the diet included a lot of saltwater fish like cod and herring and seafood like an eel. Or if you lived next to an inland lake, you could eat freshwater fish and even turtles. However, this was not an issue for the more noble classes as they could eat whatever kind of food they wanted since they could get it from anywhere and have it transported to them.

 

Something common amongst the noble and aristocratic people was feasts and banquets. Feasts and banquets could be hosted for many events, including birthdays, special holidays like Easter and Christmas, in honor of a knight taking an oath, and so many more. These feasts and banquets were an excellent opportunity for people of higher class to showcase their wealth in the Middle Ages by having a bounty of exquisite and expensive food. A non-exclusive list of some food served to guests is similar to what was stated above in the list of common foods nobility eat, alongside delicacies like peacock, porpoise, and whale. Food was dyed and shaped into magnificent sculptures and colors during these feats. For example, to add color to jellies and custards, they would add ingredients to create a vibrant color, like sandalwood for red, saffron for yellow, or boiled blood for black. Another thing served at banquets was a sugar sculpture called sotiltees or subtleties, where these sculptures were shaped into castles, philosophers, ships, or scenes from fables or tales.

 

In terms of beverages, both classes drank beer or ale; however, they were the primary beverages of the peasant classes. Noble classes primarily drank wine since they could purchase it; children and the elderly mostly consumed milk. Interestingly, water was not a common beverage because of medical concerns about its purity, so doctors recommended the beverages listed above instead of water. However, it was still consumed regularly, as can be seen by the historical accounts of the Jewish people being prosecuted for poisoning the water, therefore "causing" the black death; thus, evidence that many people must have still been drinking water regardless of doctors’ recommendations since it was available and cheaper than ale, milk, or wine. Additionally, in Asian and Muslim counties, tea and coffee were a daily beverage.




 A detail of The Forme of Cury at the British Library;




A lot of this information is found in cookbooks and storage accounts, and from cookbooks, there was a lot of overlap between the food eaten by the nobles and the food eaten by the peasants. For example, a peasant might have cooked beans for dinner, but so could a nobleman. The only difference here is that it would be a more elevated version. In cookbooks such as Liber de coquina or The Forme of Cury, spices were added to elevate a dish; therefore, even the poorest foods could be upgraded to a rich food status by seasoning it with spices. Another overlap was that the peasant classes consumed poor food as main courses, but they could be transformed into spiced side dishes with other ingredients for the noble class. For example, carrots and onions could be a main course for a peasant, but a nobleman could have seasoned carrots with an onion and a stuffed duck with a spiced sauce, bread, and wine. Additionally, from multiple cookbooks, noble classes consumed dessert after their meals. Desserts included fresh fruits covered in syrup, sugar, or honey, but many cookbooks describe tarts of strawberries, plums, apples, cherries, or flavorful custards. The Forme of Cury describes a Tort de Bry with a cheese and egg yolk filling. The nobility could access foreign desserts like Sicilian nougat candies, Arabian ice creams, and sorbets.

 

The daily food in the medieval ages depended on where you lived and one’s class. I am happy to live in modern times, where I can spice my food with whatever spices I want, and I have access to delicious wines even though I am not part of a noble class.




Works Consulted

Bovey, Alixe. "British Library." The British Library - The British Library, 30 Apr. 2015, www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/the-medieval-diet


Montanari, Massimo. "Rich Food, Poor Food.” In Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table, translated by  Beth Archer Brombert. Columbia University Press, 2012, pp. 149–57. (See JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/mont16786.16.)


"New research reveals what was on the menu for medieval peasants." University of Bristol, www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2019/may/medieval-peasant-diet.html


"Sweets Throughout Middle Age Europe and the Middle East." Bucknell University College of Engineering, www.eg.bucknell.edu/~lwittie/sca/food/dessert.html.


Woolgar, C. M., et al. Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition. Oxford UP on Demand, 2006.

 


Resources for teachers:


The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery Compiled, about A.D. 1390, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8102/pg8102-images.html





Food in Medieval Times (Food through History) by Melitta Weiss Adamson - Kindle Edition



The Medieval Cookbook (New ed.) /anglais by Black Maggie






How to cite this essay:

Sulipka, Anastasia. "Medieval Food: Daily Meals and Celebrations across Social Classes in the Middle Ages." In Daily Life: Meals and Celebrations, a historical study by Anastasia Sulipka, ed. TMA Staff. Teaching the Middle Ages, January 5, 2024.


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