In an earlier post, I discussed what medieval people did not eat, primarily because it was not available (for example, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, all New World foods). Here I will discuss what they ate instead.
The medieval diet, like the diet of ancient Greece and Rome, got most of its calories from bread. Christians pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," with "bread" a metaphor for all needed things, but when the Lord's Prayer was composed in the first century, bread meant bread.
Bread could be made from different sorts of grain, but wheat bread was preferred. Medieval wheat (like most modern wheat) was winter-wheat, planted in late fall and harvested in the summer. Barley, which was more common around the Mediterranean than was wheat, was planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Barley was also used to make beer. Medieval people would not recognize today's "lite" beers. Beer was supposed to have a lot of calories. The bread was what we would call whole-wheat, with the wheatgerm in, and the beer was thick and crunchy, almost like runny oatmeal.
Confusing to Americans, the British often call wheat "corn." This is because the word "corn" just means grain in general, although in the US it is used almost exclusively for maize. Maize (American corn) was not found in the Middle Ages, so all references in British sources to medieval "corn" mean wheat.
Other foods in small amounts accompanied the bread. Dried peas, beans, and lentils were a regular part of the meal. So were root vegetables, parsnips and turnips (carrots were only domesticated centuries later). You will notice that none of these foods need refrigeration. You will also notice that they are all remarkably bland, which is why spices were highly valued and highly expensive. So was salt.
Those parts of Europe that will support grapes produced wine. Wine was also necessary for the liturgy and had to be imported into places (like Scotland and Ireland) where grapes will not grow. For the peasantry, beer rather than wine provided most of the alcohol (it was all fairly low proof).
Milk, when they could get it, was mostly made into cheese. (Unlike modern cows, medieval cows only gave milk for a short time when they had just calved.) Eggs, when they could find the nests the free-range chickens had hidden, added protein. Nuts, berries, and mushrooms were gathered in the woods in season. In spring and summer lettuce and cabbage and other leafy vegetables rounded out the diet.
This vegetarian (if not vegan) diet was the normal diet for most of the population, most of the year, and also for monks, who deliberately ate a peasant diet in a search for purification and simplicity. A vegetarian diet is now promoted as healthful. But note that these "healthy" people were worn out by their 50s.
But then there were special foods. When a hen got too old to lay eggs, she could become dinner. So could the worn-out ox or cow. Aristocrats hunted for deer—and tried to restrict peasant poaching, because they wanted the deer for themselves. Aristocrats also went hawking for geese, ducks, and other wild birds. Peasants did not have trained hawks, but they sometimes spread a sticky substance on twigs to try to catch song birds—who we would not think had enough meat on them to be worth eating.
Fish were an important addition to the monastic diet, eaten on feast days because monks never (or almost never) ate red meat. Streams like the one pictured above produced trout.
But the most common source of meat was pork. Pigs were only semi-domesticated and ran wild much of the year. Around November, after they had gotten fat on acorns ("mast"), they were rounded up and slaughtered. Everyone ate as much fresh pork as they could hold for a day or two, then the rest was smoked and salted to last the winter. Modern ham would seem very insipid to a medieval person used to a ham that had to be soaked for a day or so before cooking, to get out all the extra salt.
Feasts (for the wealthy) were symbolically a denial that the diet was bland and limited. A good feast included a great many different dishes, fowl, red meat, fish, vegetables cooked in different ways, puddings, nuts, and so on. A feast started in early afternoon and went on as long as anyone could still eat.
Click here for more on medieval ideas of mealtimes.
© C. Dale Brittain 2014
For more on medieval food and other aspects of medieval history, see my ebook Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook platforms.