Myth busting medieval cuisine
We are all prone to falling prey to myths and misconceptions. The popular misconceptions surrounding medieval food and drink are particularly prevalent – the food was simple, unvaried, brown and eaten with the fingers. Oh, and you threw your bones over your shoulder. Imagine King John and the Barons sitting down to meal after the sealing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. The atmosphere would no doubt have been strained but the food certainly wouldn’t have been simple, unvaried, brown and eaten with the fingers. Eight hundred years later it is well past time to finally bust the myths surrounding medieval cuisine. Forever.
Myth 1 - All the food was simple and unvaried
Yes, the food eaten by the lower classes was simpler than that of the noble class, but even they used fresh herbs to boost flavour and variety. The noble class expected to be served a wide variety of dishes at every meal with each well-presented and often very elaborate. They were very fond of ‘subtleties’—spectacle and illusion food, such as roast peacock dressed in a cloak of its own feathers, a castle cleverly constructed from pies and a gushing fountain of wine.
Myth 2 - All the food was brown
Medieval people were very fond of colourful food. Sallets (salads) included many and varied colourful leaves, vegetables and flowers. The noble classes tucked into desserts and even meatballs that were vividly coloured with parsley or spinach juice (green), egg yolk or saffron (yellow), sandalwood (red) and turnsole (purple).
Myth 3 - The bread was full of bran
Bread was a major part of the diet of both rich and poor and the quality and weight of loaves were protected by law. Bread was made from the local grain – mostly wheat but also mixed with barley, rye and oats. Peasants ate wholemeal bread and nobles feasted on fine white bread. However, in times of famine, bread would be made out of any type of flour, including peas, beans and even acorns.
Myth 4 - Everyone ate heaps of meat
Well, not everyone. Peasants ate very little meat—their diet was wholly based on what they could grow or buy locally. Their meals mainly comprised bread, eggs and pottage (made with peas or beans, vegetables, grains and small amounts of bacon and fish)—the original wholefood diet! Scarce meat was reserved for feast days and celebrations. Craftsmen and the middle class had a similar diet with the addition of meat once or twice a week and fish more often. Nobles did eat a lot of meat, fish and birds—still showing off their wealth.
In the Middle Ages, the Church declared over half the days in the calendar as ‘fish days’ and the populace could not eat meat, eggs or dairy products. On these days cooks prepared fresh or preserved fish and used almond milk and other substitutes.
Myth 5 - We don’t really know what people ate in medieval times
Many cookbooks have survived from the Middle Ages including the first known English cookbook The Forme of Cury which was written in 1390 by the Chief Master Cooks of King Richard II. It is in good company with many other early cookbooks including Kitab al-Tabikh (10th century Arabic), Le Viander (12th century French) and Liber de Coquina (14th century Italian). We don’t have cookbooks for the common people—most people in the lower classes couldn’t read. Just like today, recipes were passed on by word of mouth. We do, however, have information from manuscripts and documents about what people grew, traded at market and ate.
Myth 6 - The food was heavily spiced to cover the smell and taste of rotten meat
Medieval food used different spices to those we use nowadays but not necessarily more. Most spices were imported and expensive and noble households added them to food to demonstrate their wealth and provide culinary interest—but not to mask food that had gone off. Food that could not be sold or cooked fresh was preserved by salting, drying or pickling. Common medieval flavourings included dried mustard, rosemary, sage, parsley, thyme, sorrel, rosewater and verjuice. Nobles were very fond of ginger, saffron, cinnamon and pepper.
Myth 7 - Everyone ate with their fingers
Most food was prepared in smaller pieces or cut up before serving so it could be eaten with a spoon or small, sharp knife. Just like today, bread, pastries and the like were eaten with the fingers. Forks were uncommon in England until the 17th century, although they were used in Italy from the 14th century. Trust the Italians.
Myth 8 - People had poor table manners and tossed bones over their shoulders
The ‘men in tights’ cinematic genre tends to promote this image but table manners were, in fact, very important. Even peasant children were taught to wash their hands before eating, use their spoon and knife and wipe their mouths. For the noble classes there were even entire books on table manners. Bones may have been thrown to the dogs, but the rushes covering the floors were regularly swept and replaced to deter mice and other pests.
Myth 9 - Everyone drank a lot of alcohol
It is true that people in the Middle Ages drank a lot of alcohol—but most of it was very weak. ‘Small ale’ contained very little alcohol and was drunk by adults and children at most meals because the brewing destroyed many water-borne diseases.
Come along to the Medieval Fest at the Museum of Australian Democracy and discover for yourself what medieval food really tasted like. It won’t be predominantly brown or simple—it will be delicious!