The Fifteenth Century
by P.W. Hammond
Food in the middle ages was in essence much the same as food today. As well as vegetables, fruit and bread, mediaeval man and woman ate meat, (there were few, if any, vegetarians), that is beef, pork, mutton, lamb and chicken and the most amazing variety of other birds such as game birds, heron, peacock and small birds such as larks Much fish, both fresh and salt water varieties, were eaten too. The drink was normally ale, or wine for those that could afford it. There were differences in what they ate, naturally, but the differences are to a great extent the way in which, at least in the richer part of society, it was prepared and combined. The food of the wealthy utilised all of the usual ingredients but combined them in ways unfamiliar to us both in flavour and in colour.
The basic food was bread, mostly made from wheat but sometimes from rye or barley or even a mixture of wheat and rye. These latter loaves were eaten by the poor. Wheat bread was made in several qualities, depending on how much bran was removed from the flour before baking. No bread was very white; even manchet, the top quality loaf eaten by the rich, was a pale cream colour since the wheat germ was left in. The size of the loaf was strictly controlled by the Assise of Bread and Ale and policed by the local authority. A loaf was supposed to sell for a penny. The size varied according to the price of grain and the quality of the flour used so that a penny manchet loaf, which might weigh about two pounds, would be smaller than a tourte loaf made from unsieved and very brown flour. Smaller loaves, down to some costing a farthing, were also made for poorer people.
The other basic food (and drink) was ale, that is unhopped beer made only from malted barley. The price of the ale was controlled, the cost being fixed by the price of the barley and it was sometimes possible in a city to buy two gallons of ale for one penny. The quality was tested by the aleconners (or inspectors) who also checked the measures from which the ale was sold. Ale was an important food as well as a drink since it contained valuable calories and some vitamins.
Another food which can be described as basic is fish, for many people as dried or salted cod (which was imported in very large quantities, much of it from Iceland) and fresh and smoked or salted herring. Fish was very important because only fish was supposed to be eaten on Wednesday (in the early middle ages), Friday and Saturday, in Lent and before major religious festivals. Understandably it was usually not eaten on other days.
Food of different groups
The poor and lower classes
It is difficult to be sure what poorer people ate since the records do not give us a lot of help. It seems likely that few were actually starving, particularly in the country where poaching rabbits and illicitly picking fruit and berries was always a possibility. The really poor in the country or the town probably ate bread made from bean flour and wheat sievings, vegetables cooked without meat, and drank water. The basic diet of the better-off peasant was probably grain, that is oats and barley, mostly in the form of bread and ale. They would have had some meat, perhaps in the form of bacon, hedgerow fruits, eggs and vegetables in the form of beans, onions and leeks. These would largely be cooked into soup and stews which uses less fuel that roasting. Into the soup herbs such as parsley might be added. Peas and beans were an important part of the diet. These would probably be grown in the peasant’s garden as would cherries, apples, pears and plums. Poaching was not unknown and fish and even deer were taken sometimes by poachers.
We do have a few clues as to what the poorer man ate in the form of descriptions in contemporary poems. Piers Plowman in the poem of that name, not a wealthy man, is described as having in his house two green (that is fresh) cheeses, some curds and cream, an oat cake and two loaves of bran and beans, also leeks and cabbage. He complained that he had no money to buy pullets or eggs so the vegetarian diet was not his by choice. Shepherds in the Chester Mystery Cycle certainly ate bacon, butter and smoked ham. Indeed they seem to have had a large and varied diet but this may be because they were being fed as part of their wages. Food as part of wages was not uncommon, particularly on manors where peasants were required to provide help. During the ploughing or on the days they helped to get in the harvest the lord always fed the workers in some way, providing bread and ale during the day or giving them a meal afterwards.
Town dwellers had a greater choice than country dwellers, provided they could afford to take advantage of what was available. Elaborate arrangements were made to supply large towns, and whole manors were devoted to supplying cattle, wheat, market garden produce and dairy products to towns. Food was imported from abroad too. Staples such as salt and dried cod and herring came in vast amounts; at one point in 1461 three ships docked in Bristol from which not less than one million stockfish (dried cod) were landed. Large amounts of fresh fish, both sea fish and fresh water fish, were also available. These were in great variety, such as cod, turbot, bass and mullet amongst the sea fish and roach, barbell and dace from fresh water. Naturally fresh fish was more easily available in ports or near the coast but could be transported over large distances packed in wet grass or rushes.
The sale of food had to be done in the market place specified and was strictly regulated in quantity and quality. Uncontrolled selling, that is not in a proper market, was strictly forbidden. The prices too were controlled, much as were the prices of bread and ale. Attempts were also made to control the environmental problems caused by many traders selling perishable goods producing by products such as entrails from cattle. Adulteration of food was fairly common too and effort was made to ensure that the food bought was of the quality expected.
It would thus be easy for the town equivalent of the well off peasant to feed him or her self. Food could be bought raw in shops to cook oneself, either from specialist shops such as meat from a butcher or from shops selling a range of goods such as meat, cheese and butter. It was also possible to buy ready prepared food in cook shops including roast meat such as beef and lamb and roast birds such as capons. Pies of various kinds could be bought in shops and fruit such as strawberries and cherries. The cook shops would also cook food supplied by the customer who could supply a capon and have it baked in a pastry for a small payment. Many small houses in towns probably had no adequate kitchen and must have mostly bought their food in this way. It would also be convenient when unexpected guests arrived. Sometimes cook shops would deliver food to a house which would be even more convenient. Food could also be bought in ale houses as well as ale, wine and spirits.
The Gentry and upper classes
It is plain that given a moderate income it was possible in the middle ages to eat reasonably well in towns and country. This being so it might be expected that the well off could eat even better. This was indeed the case. Obviously they could eat more in quantity too and judging from the account books that survive they certainly did. Throughout the year a household would buy meat in the form of carcasses or consume animals bred and killed on the estate. They would also buy fish, both fresh and salt as well as sometimes eat fish from their own stew ponds. Many estates, particularly religious ones, had their own ponds in which fish were bred for eating. If close enough to the coast oysters and mussels would also be eaten. As with all classes salt fish was bought and eaten in very large quantities. Obviously salt fish has a great advantage in that it can be bought and stored ready for use on fast days but storing it too long had disadvantages. One book advises that if it had been kept for a time it should be beaten with a hammer (special hammers were available) for a full hour and then soaked in warm water for a further two hours or more. Even then it was better to eat it soaked in butter.
Most estates were fairly self sufficient in staples, such as grain, that is, wheat and barley, although vegetables, such as onions, garlic and peas, were sometimes bought. From the wheat would be made white and brown breads. The barley might be made into bread but was mostly made into ale. All households of any size made their own ale and did so very frequently partly because a lot was drunk and partly because it went off quickly without any preservative such as hops included. Ales of different strengths were made, the stronger ale drunk by the higher classes and guests in the household. Those at the top table would also (mainly) drink wine.
One major difference between poorer and better off households was in the purchase by the latter of spices to flavour their food. These were bought in quantity and great variety. Spices familiar nowadays such as pepper were bought but also such as ginger, cinnamon, saffron, cloves and mace. Also classed as spices although not such to our eyes were sugar, raisins (sometimes as ‘raisins of Corinth’), dates, almonds and figs. Richer households might also purchase ‘blaunchpoudre’ which was ginger ground with sugar, alkanet, turnsole and saunders. These latter three were food dyes used in cooking because as well as spicing their food rich households also coloured it. Honey as well as sugar was used to sweeten food. Some, if not all of the honey, might came from home hives but it was also bought. Rice too was bought and was largely used as a whitening and thickening agent and sometimes as flour. The almonds were used in a similar way as ‘almond milk’ and large amounts were used. The royal household alone used over 48.000 lbs of almonds in the years 1286 and 1287.
From the list of spices it is evident that many exotic foods were imported, some of them coming from very far away. Other foods imported included oranges which came into the Port of London (and other ports) by the tens of thousands, lemons and pomegranates. Wines were imported too, of course, from Bordeaux and also from other parts of France and from Greece, Italy, Germany and Spain. There was a flourishing import trade in the middle ages.
Examples of food used in meals
From household accounts it is possible to get some idea of what was eaten at particular meals on ordinary days. Thus from the earl of Northumberland’s accounts it can be seen that he and his countess each received at breakfast on a day on which meat was eaten a manchet loaf, that is a best quality loaf and one loaf of bread in trenchers. In the Northumberland household trencher bread, thick slices of which were used to eat from (instead of plates), was made from the coarse meal coming from the mill after the removal of the best flour. This would have been of poorer quality than the trencher bread made from maslin, mixed rye and barley, used in the le Strange household in Hunstanton Norfolk in 1428. The loaves of trencher bread were larger than those for household bread, at least in the Northumberland household. In addition to bread the earl and countess received a quart of beer, a quart of wine, half a chine of mutton or a chine of boiled beef. The exact size of a 'chine' of meat varied with the type of meat but would hardly be less than two to three pounds. On fish days in place of the meat the earl and his countess had a dish of butter with a piece of salt fish or a 'Dysch of Butter'd Eggs'.
Other members of the household received similar meals, in smaller quantities, omitting the wine and with the bread changing to household bread rather than manchet. This latter change came with 'my Ladys Gentylwomen' who also sometimes received 'three muton Bonys boyled' rather than a piece of meat. Some of the servants who waited on the earl and countess and their family or their chief household officers were on some occasions not given a regular issue of food but received the 'revercion' of the food given to the others. Thus the two sons of the earl were served by five people at supper in the 'scambling' days of Lent (when informal meals were served) and these five were to eat the reversion, that is what was left after the two boys had eaten. Since it appears that most of the bread and drink would be eaten up they were given two loaves of bread and two gallons of beer to go with the remnants. Most of the lower orders in the Northumberland household who were given their meals received bread, beer, and meat or fish, but at the bottom of the scale, in the porters’ lodge and stable, they received only bread and beer. At least the bread appears to have been 'household' bread and not bread made from mixed corn, rye, barley and beans which servants were given at Bolton Priory. This change with social level was common. The food provided at other meals was not a lot more elaborate than the basic food given here although there were more dishes.
The enormous amount of food consumed in a large household may be seen from calculations performed by Maurice Keen for that of the earl of Northumberland. According to Keen's figures in one year it used nearly 17,000 bushels of wheat, 27,500 gallons of ale, 1600 gallons of wine, nearly 21,000 pounds of currants, 124 beef cattle, 667 sheep and 14,000 herrings. Divided by the number of those eating it these quantities are not that large, an average of about one and a half quarts of ale per day for example, but the procurement of such large amounts of goods would still take a considerable amount of planning to see that all was bought and ready when needed.
A great deal more was eaten on special occasions in wealthy households and one example is an actual feast described by the Menagier of Paris. The Menagier (the Householder or Goodman of Paris) was possibly a fairly wealthy member of the judiciary who wrote a book to help his young wife with her duties. In the arrangements and menu for a wedding feast on a Tuesday in May of one Jean du Chesne he describes a fairly modest affair. Du Chesne was apparently someone of similar status to the Menagier. The Menagier not only gives the menus for the dinner and supper, he also sets out the ingredients which would be needed, together with the shops or markets where they were to be bought, the quantity required and the price. As well as all these he describes all of the other things which would be needed. The venue was the hotel of the Bishop of Beauvais which was hired out to M. du Chesne. This was often done when the owner was not in residence. The tables, trestles and benches came from the same source. The feast was of twenty covers. A cover in this sense meant a mess or group, in this case a mess of two, taking their food from the same dishes. There were thus forty persons at the feast. The food followed what was the usual pattern of meat, potage and roasts, followed by entremets, (see below), desserts, hippocras and wafers (it was often fruit and cheese in the summer) and the 'sally forth' which consisted of spiced wine and spiced sweetmeats, intended to aid the digestion. This was served after the guests had washed their hands and heard grace.
The feast itself was not as elaborate as the number of diners and courses makes it sound, far less than feasts of the wealthier classes. There was only one soup (of ground capon thickened with almond milk and served with pomegranates and red comfits), and the roast dish consisted of kid (better than lamb according to the Menagier), duckling and spring chickens, all served on the same dish. The entremets were crayfish set in jelly, loach fish and young rabbits and pigs. The dessert was frumenty (or furmenty, a kind of wheat porridge with eggs and milk) with, in this case venison. A supper of ten covers, presumably after the wedding, with slightly more elaborate dishes, included a pasty of two young hares and two peacocks and another dish of minced kid with the heads halved and glazed.
The organisation and purchases that lay behind these meals are also described. Thus how many chickens and pigs to buy were specified, how much and what kind of spices, (no less than one pound of ginger, half a pound of cinnamon, and much sweet stuff, candied orange peel, rose (scented) sugar and white comfits), the weight of almonds (ten pounds) and the number of oranges (50 of them) as well as the buying of sauce, in this case 'cameline' sauce which usually contained cinnamon. Some 300 eggs were called for. Very large numbers of eggs were used at these affairs, being used in tarts and custards: some 11,000 were ordered in one royal banquet in 1387. In this marriage feast the eggs went partly with the six green (fresh) cheeses since the Menagier noted that each cheese should make six tartlets and three eggs were allowed per cheese. There were needed ten dozen flat white loaves and thirty six coarse brown loaves 'six inches wide and four inches high' for trenchers. A quarter of veal was specified to make the blankmanger. This would make a less rich stock than a quarter of beef, and thus be more suitable for those of this lower rank.
The number of candles needed was two pounds weight, six torches of three pounds weight and also six flambeaux. The latter cost a certain amount to buy and could be sold back to the dealer at a little less, to take into account the amount used. This was probably not a point that would worry the ranks above the Goodman. Some of the necessities, the sauces and the hippocras were bought ready made. Three quarts of the latter were needed. There was coal to buy, branches of greenery to decorate the hall, violets and green herbs to strew on the floor. Someone had to make the wedding garlands, and find the saltcellars for the high table, the four dozen 'hanaps' (ornate goblets), the four covered gilt goblets, the six ewers, the four dozen silver spoons, the four silver quart pots, the two comfit dishes and finally the two alms dishes (for holding the food given to the poor). These must have been borrowed in at least some cases, (probably not hired, since they are not mentioned in the list of wedding expenses), and it seems unlikely that a rich bourgeois would have 48 spoons when the king of France at this time only had 66 himself. Staff were also needed to attend to the guests. Some of them must have been provided from those in the household of the bride's father but others, including the cook and his two helpers were hired for the occasion. Equipment needed in the kitchen was also hired. This included two large copper pots, two boilers, four strainers, a mortar and a pestle, a large earthenware pot for pottage, four wooden basins and spoons, an iron pan, an iron spoon and two trivets. Two 'knife bearers' (portechappes) were hired to cut up the bread to make trenchers and salt cellars. Only those at the top end of the table had a 'salt', the others made do with a trencher with a piece cut out. The two knife bearers also carried the bread and salt to the table. Stewards seated the guests and told them when to rise, and a sewer and two servants served and took away the food, throwing the remnants into baskets and buckets (for the liquids) provided originally by the 'portechappes'. Esquires looked after the wine, pouring it to be given out, and looked after the spoons, giving them out and collecting them in again. Thus in all this was an elaborate affair, taking much planning and hard work and typical of a mediaeval feast and the food eaten among the better off part of society.
Sources: this description of medieval food was taken chiefly from Food and Feast in Medieval England by P W Hammond, 1993, 2nd edition 2005.