If we think about the food of the Middle Ages, what do we imagine? Maybe pigs and cows, large fireplaces, and tankards with ale. But this picture is only a part of the story. Of course, the dishes in those times were far less varied than those of today. And peasants’ food was far less diverse than that of the upper-classes. But still, we can find some interest when looking into what people ate 1,000 years ago. Alex Moren explains.

John, Duke of Berry, enjoying a great meal in France. Painted by the  Limbourg Brothers , 15th century.

John, Duke of Berry, enjoying a great meal in France. Painted by the Limbourg Brothers, 15th century.

The Dark Ages or the Middle Ages (commonly seen to have been the 5thto the 15thcentury in Europe) are often seen as the time of darkness, hunger and pestilence. It was not a particularly refined time – it was an age of superstition. The period has inspired many legends and tales and still attracts children and adults alike. But just what did people eat during the Middle Ages in Europe?

 

Important Things To Remember: Seasons, Salt And Storage

Medieval life was ruled by the temperatures and the seasons. The food was plentiful in the early summer, with berries and early grains, and in autumn, when the harvest was finished. But even with a good harvest and lots of cattle, food was hard to keep. Cold cellars, deep dungeons and ice were the best ways to preserve something. Curing, smoking and salting the meat and fish was also a way to stock up before winter. People even salted butter so that it would keep longer. And because of that, some of the most precious items were salt and simple spices like garlic. Remember the old fairy tale about the princess who told her father the king that she loves him more than salt? A kingdom without salt could starve, so it was indeed very precious. Spices were rare, although during the Crusades there was greater awareness of cardamom, cinnamon, coriander and pepper. For most the taste of food was much simpler: food could be salty, a little tinged with vinegar or garlic, or sweetened with honey. 

But not only seasons determined what a person could eat; their position determined it, too. A diet of a peasant was very different from a diet of a monk. It may seem that it is better to be someone who grows your own food. But if we look at the life in the Middle Ages more closely, we can see that the “down to the earth life” was also the most dangerous one.

 

Peasants: Barely Any Rules All.

In our century, we often idealize rural life. But actually, being a medieval peasant meant to live a very hungry and dangerous life. In many countries, peasants were not really free. They were obligated to work for the higher classes - for the monasteries or nobles who owned the lands they resided on. And they still had to care for their own land as well. Besides, they had to pay taxes, and they remained even in drought and poor harvest.

The peasant had to depend mainly on what they could grow for food. Wheat was an expensive grain, and usually, it was sent to the nobles or the tax collectors. What was left for the villagers was barley and vegetables like turnip and cabbage.

Raising animals for meat, such as cows, goats or sheep required pastures. Hogs were also very expensive to have. Hunting was also forbidden, as forests belonged to the king or his followers (remember Robin Hood saving some peasants because they killed a royal deer?). Having a cow was a sign of wealth - with a cow, one could get milk, produce cheese and even sell them.

All of these things lead to a simple conclusion  - peasants ate very little and their diet was far from diverse. Usually, in the village, it was porridge, vegetable or chicken stew, fish for religious days (there were many!), and cheese and different kinds of preserved meat, if they were lucky enough. And they ate twice a day. 

So, peasants used to eat little. So, did rich people eat too much?

 

Rich: We Have Wheat and We Have Meat! 

When people had money, pastures and servants, they could have variety in their food, too! All the dishes we usually associate with medieval times, such as a pig being roasted on a stick, stuffed pheasants, pigeons and deer - could all be found on the tables of various nobles, sheriffs, and, of course, kings. They could afford spices as well, so the dishes included sauces and vinegar. No barley bread for the knights and barons - they ate wheat bread, and probably pastries as well. 

Though monks were considered servants of God, they could be considered rich as well. Monasteries used to have wide lands assigned to them. They had access to wheat, like nobles. They also grew their own herbs, had their own cattle, and even fisheries. The latter was especially important, as monks had to observe Lent and other religious holidays very strictly. The meat was often forbidden, only fish was allowed. However, in many countries, birds that swim in water, such as ducks, geese and swans, were considered fish, too! As a result, in many monasteries, the diet was not particularly strict. That’s why in the medieval legends, the fat, overeating monks are so common.

 

Last, But Not Least: Be Careful What You Drink! 

Water was filthy. There were no filtration systems, and water was often not boiled before use. Drinking water was often the main instrument of spreading diseases. That is why people preferred other beverages - diluted wine, mead, or other forms of alcohol, which were relatively safe. Everybody drank, even children.

 

A medieval knight would be shocked to see our regular meals. Now, we depend on potatoes as a staple food instead of turnips, and we have a much larger variety of grains. Wild meat is now rare, and we eat a lot of pork and beef instead. And water is safe in our time!

 

Who do you think eats healthier: the people of the twenty-first century or the tenth century? Let us know below.

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What comes to mind when the ‘Dark Ages’ is mentioned? Religious conflict? Anti-science sentiment among the illiterate and uneducated? Noble knights conquering on horseback amid plagues and unsanitary cities? In contrast, the Middle Ages were marked by the preservation of knowledge following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the pursuit of further innovation that birthed the Renaissance. Casey Titus explains four infamous myths about the Medieval Era. 

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    King Richard II of England (1367-1400) holding an orb and scepter for his coronation nearly a century before Christopher Columbus made his famous sail across the ocean blue. 

King Richard II of England (1367-1400) holding an orb and scepter for his coronation nearly a century before Christopher Columbus made his famous sail across the ocean blue. 

Myth 1#: Medieval Woman had no rights

As opposed to the image of an oppressed, powerless peasant woman in the Middle Ages, women wielded considerable power outside of domestic duties. In the church, women could hold high positions as abbesses of convents or the female head of a community of nuns. This position possessed great responsibility and superior authority over the monks. Women also exercised political power, most prominently as queens and substitutes for the male monarchs during their periods of absence, illness, or due to their youth. Some queens were remarked in history as powerful and influential. In one historical example, Isabella of France or the “She-Wolf of France,” joined forces with her lover, exiled Marcher Lord, Roger Mortimer, to end the reign of her husband, Edward II, and took the English throne for herself. While an overwhelming majority of women did not hold such positions of power, taking up the role of wives and nuns instead, those that were widowed had legal independence. It is worth noting that both young aristocratic men and women had little say in their choice of spouse. By all historical accounts, women in the Medieval Era were resilient, skillful, and practical people.

 

Myth #2: Medieval people had terrible hygiene and a low life expectancy

The disastrous effects of the Black Death (1346-1353) prompted people during the Dark Ages to explore the link between health, hygiene, and disease. It was during this time the crusaders brought soap from the Far East to Europe along the Silk Road. People generally bathed in cold water with the exception of the wealthy who bathed in hot water. Before entering the Great Hall in Medieval Castles, guests and nobility alike were expected to wash their hands. Teeth were brushed with the use of a cloth or mixtures of herbs and even ashes of burnt rosemary. Bad teeth could be pulled out – the only remedy – without the use of anesthetic or painkillers.

In 1388, the English Parliament issued the following statement in an effort to improve hygiene in Medieval London: “Item, that so much dung and filth of the garbage and entrails be case and put into ditches, rivers, and other waters… so that the air there is grown greatly corrupt and infected, and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen… it is accorded and assented, that the proclamation be made as well in the city of London, as in other cities, boroughs, and towns through the realm of England, where it shall be needful that all they who do cast and lay all such annoyances, dung, garbages, entrails, and other ordure, in dithes, rivers, waters, and other places aforesaid, shall cause them utterly to be removed, avoided, and carried away, every one upon pain to lose and forfeit to our Lord the King the sum of 20 pounds…”

 

Myth #3: People believed the earth was flat

The full common myth follows: Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the new world disproved the Church’s teachings of a flat earth. This was a belief defended vigorously by people living in the Medieval Era on punishment of imprisonment or worse – similar to Galileo’s case while championing heliocentrism (that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun) in the 1610s, over a century after the end of the Dark Ages. In reality, that popular myth was coined in 1828 by author Washington Irving who wrote a biography of Columbus, depicting him as a “radical thinker” who turned his back on a backwards Old World in favor of the rationalism promised to the New World without historical and factual backing, in favor of popularity and publicity. During some kings’ coronations, a golden sphere was held in the king’s left hand to symbolize the earth (see the above image of King Richard II of England). In a collection of German sermons dated to the thirteenth century, its  peasant audience was told that the earth was “round like an apple.”

 

Myth #4: The “Dark Ages” had no technological and scientific breakthroughs which is why progress was stalled for centuries

With the Western Roman Empire’s collapse in 476AD, funding for engineering and large-scale infrastructure depleted. Many of the skills necessary to create monumental buildings and complex technology withered away to history. Then over time, the decline of long-distance trade between Europe and Asia resulted in self-sufficient production to solely meet local needs. This method was used in communities so efficiently that it led to its continental spread across Europe and the invention of the horse-collar, mouldboard plough, water mills, and power mills. The blast furnace and development of cast iron were two innovations that advanced metal technology in Medieval times that even exceeded that of the Romans!

Moreover, innovations in wind and water-power during the Second half of the Middle Ages (1000 – 1500 AD) revolutionized agrarian Europe, turning the continent into a rich, populous, and expanding Christian power. In the thirteenth century, the first mechanical clocks were installed across Europe. This clock was the most complex form of mechanism at the time, taking eight years to complete its full cycle of calculations. Universities were on the rise in Medieval Europe, providing a large market for books, while experiments with block printing led to the best known Medieval invention: the printing press.

 

A closer look into Medieval Europe debunks our perceived image of the infamous “Dark Ages”. In between two revolutionary eras of breakthroughs, innovation, and artistic expression lies a thousand-year period of struggles, self-sufficiency, and a bridge into future human progress.

 

What do you think of progress during the Dark Ages? Let us know below…

References

Frater, Jamie. "Top 10 Myths About The Middle Ages." Listverse.com. N.p., 7 Jan. 2009. Web. 6 June 2017.

Gabriele, Matthew. "Five Myths about the Middle Ages." The Washington Post. N.p., 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 6 June 2017.

O'Neill, Tim. "How the Middle Ages Really Were." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 June 2017.