Food in Medieval Times: What People Ate in the Middle Ages

A group of peasants sharing a simple meal of bread and drink; Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, 14th century.

The staple diet of medieval man was bread, meat and fish. What was eaten and how it was served varied considerably depending on social station.

Nobles and royals ate their food from silverware and golden dishes while the lower classes used wood or horn dishes. The upper classes ate fine white bread, the lower classes coarse rye and barley breads. Everyone had their own knife and soups were drunk from a cup. As the kitchen in manor houses and castles might be situated at some distance from the Great Hall, food was often served cold. In this the lower classes had an advantage, their tables being only a few steps from the fire on which the meal was cooked.

Meat and Drink in Medieval Times

Pork was the most common meat served at great tables in the form of hams, sausages and black pudding. Prior to food preparation the underside of the pig’s tongue was inspected for white ulcers. Such ulcers were believed to be a sign their flesh would communicate leprosy to those who ate it. Kid was more appreciated than lamb. Unscrupulous butchers would attach the tail of a kid to a lamb in order to deceive the customer into paying a high price for a less expensive meat. Geese were so highly prized that flocks of them were driven to feed in the fields like a flock of sheep. Game birds such as the heron, crane and crow were considered delicacies. Also eaten were peacocks, hedgehogs and squirrels. Venison was reserved for kings and the rich.

The people of the middle ages drank ale, beer, mead or cider as well as different types of wine. Water was often unclean and undrinkable. Several sorts of beer were available. One strong beer was called godale, from the German meaning ‘good beer’. Another was loaded with spices – allspice, juniper, bread-crumbs, lavender and a number of other additions being thrown in. ‘Small beers’ were sweetened quite simply using honey or might be scented with ambergris or raspberries.

Fruits and Vegetables in Medieval Times

Foreign trade brought exports of apricots, plums, peaches, figs, pears and apples. Strawberries, raspberries and red currants could be found in the woods. Fresh fruit was eaten by the poor. The wealthy ate little fresh fruit and viewed such unprepared food with suspicion, preserving it in honey and serving it in pies. Owing to their aversion to raw foods, rich nobles lacked vitamin C and fibre which led to bad teeth, skin disease, scurvy and rickets.

Vegetables were not considered by the general populace as able to provide much in the way of nourishment. They were used almost exclusively by monastic communities under vows of extreme abstinence. Nevertheless there were many vegatables available including onions, parsnips, garlic, watercress, lettuce, cabbage, leeks, carrots, artichokes, beans, peas, lentils and asparagus. Cucumber, while available, was supposed to be unwholesome owing to the fact that the people of France ate a lot of it and were subject to periodic fevers.

Gourmet Meals in Medieval Times

Huge stepped buffets covered with rich drapes were assembled for use at banquets and feasts. Long peacock feathers and green branches tied with flowers might surround an ornate centre-piece. The centre-piece at one such feast was a silver hollow fortress that formed a cage in which several live birds were shut up, their tufts and feet being gilt. The first course of a meal might consist of a stag’s head cooked and replaced in its own skin, still bearing its superb antlers. There might also be silver crusted pies filled with deer, gosling, chicken and rabbit and flavored with saffron and cloves. Sturgeon could be cooked in parsley and vinegar and seasoned with ginger. There were also courses of cream, cheese slices and strawberies or plums stewed in rose-water.

While the upper class dined in splendor the lower class ate coarse bread, pottage, milk, cheese and unseasoned meat.

The Church frowned on late suppers, claiming they made men gluttonous. In great houses the evening selection would be limited accordingly.