Friday, May 18, 2012

Food for Thought - Medieval Feasts

by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

By the last fading years of the English Medieval period, just before the Tudor onslaught– the huge gap between rich and poor which had existed since 1066, had started to wane with the emergence of a new Middle Class, the expansion of trade, the regrowth of the population and the development of new businesses. But the initial narrowing of the poverty gap, with the virtual end of the so-called Feudal system, really came about as a result of the Black Death (1348- 1353 and onwards) when labour became harder to purchase and the working man discovered his real value. Another of those somewhat uncomfortable situations where great disaster brings great benefit in its wake!

Where food was concerned, however, the gap was still distinctive and no one was going to get excited about being invited to dinner at the local crofter’s cottage. But a medieval feast – now that was a different matter.

For the majority, dinner was traditionally eaten at midday or some time earlier. Especially for those who rose at first light and took no breakfast, then dinner could be taken as early as 9 in the morning. Breakfast was not entirely unknown of course – breaking the fast of a long English evening and a long cold night was sensible, but it was unlikely to involve much more than bread and ale, or possibly porridge. Farm labourers took food with them as they tramped out to the fields, something cold wrapped in their shirts or hats. This was, for instance, the origin of the Cornish pasty. Many took a little ale and bread after early morning Mass, but many others took nothing at all.

There were two qualities of bread – cheat for the poor and manchet for those who could pay for better. Manchet was baked with white flour and was considered more refined. Bread rolls were the most common, (as loaves were more likely to be made of sugar at that time!) bought ready made from the bakers where a baker’s dozen really did mean 13. Cheat, on the other hand, was made with dark flour, either rye or a mixture of oats and barley, less refined in taste but more filling. Those with only rudimentary kitchens in their own homes often utilised communal ovens in cook houses or the village square.

Supper was likely eaten shortly before sun down but the hour would depend on the working habits of the family. For the poor this would likely comprise bread and cheese, a vegetable pottage or what had been left over from dinner. For the wealthy, supper could be anything from a light snack to a full scale feast. Eating well was a proof of status, and in any case, a rich man was likely to have a huge household to feed.

Thanks to the imagination of many and a few old films, there still appears to be a misunderstanding of medieval table habits. In fact, they were likely to be far more strictly tidy than our own modern more casual practises. The use of clean linen, including a very large starched napkin placed across the left shoulder, was essential. Since the fork had not yet been introduced into general English usage in the late 15th century, cutlery meant spoon and knife only. The knife was often each man’s own property brought to the table. The use of fingers was therefore necessary, but this did not mean bad manners. Hands were wiped on the napkin, washed before and after meals, and only used where the spoon and the knife were insufficient. Grace would be pronounced first by the head of the family (or the chaplain in a large household), the first course would be laid, and there was supposed to be consideration for others at the table where communal bowls and platters were concerned. Someone taking more than his share would be frowned upon. The position of the salt cellar could be an important part of accepted etiquette, and generally behaving with discreet decorum was important. A child was taught table manners. His elders would be judged by theirs.

Light ale was the most common drink, also for children. It was weak by our standards but many beers were stronger. Wine was most likely to be imported from Flanders, France, Italy or Spain, although some was produced in England. The famous Malmsy was a sweetish Greek wine. Burgundy was highly favoured and there were various qualities, with Beaune perhaps the best. There was Claret, Cabernet from Brittany, Vernaccia and Trebbiano (Italian), Sack (sherry from Jerez) and many, many more. If spiced and possibly gingered, and then maybe heated, the wine became Hippocras and was supposedly medicinal. Certainly very pleasant on a chilly evening by the fire. Very sweet wines from the Levant were favoured by some ladies. Verjuice, made from unfermented and often unripe English grapes, was used in cooking. Mead was often bought from the monasteries where honey from the locally kept bee hives was used, and sold, by the monks. So there was certainly no lack of good lubrication to help the digestion. Water was, after all, completely undrinkable. It was dangerously polluted in almost all areas of the country, and was used mainly for washing though also in cooking where it was hopefully sufficiently boiled for safety. Dysentery was, however, common.

Fruit and vegetables were not particularly favoured, especially by the rich. Fresh fruit was considered extremely bad for you, and too much of any fruit could prove fatal! Death from a surfeit of berries was sometimes a doctor’s diagnosis. Fruit was used in cooking, but more commonly for brewing. Cider and Perry were popular in country areas. Vegetables were given to farm animals, but also eaten by the poor. A vegetable pottage (slow cooked stew) or a cabbage soup was both filling and easily produced. But for the rich it was protein all the way. Meat, fish and dairy was favoured. Fish was not always popular but the Church insisted on no meat being eaten on Fridays, religious fasts and many saints’ days. Abstention from these strictures could be bought or pleaded, but the rules were fairly strict and, it seems, usually upheld. Although a great variety of fish and seafood was available, the boredom of a fishy diet could be alleviated by the addition of duck, beaver and other water or sea birds, usefully classified as fish by the helpful and hopeful clergy.

Meat was the staple diet of those who could afford it. Roasting was the favoured cooking method, slowly turned on a spit over a roaring open fire. Boiling in stews and soups was also common, as was frying, and smoked bacon was much utilised. Since there was no method of refrigeration available, meat and fish were preserved out of season by smoking and drying. Rich dishes of meat stuffed with onions, herbs and raisins were popular, and apples were more often used in stuffings than as fresh fruit. Those unable to afford such regular luxuries would still eat meat as often as was possible, but would frequently be reduced to eating simple stews of beans, barley, oatmeal, lentils and peas.

The use of spices in cooking was considered important – not to disguise the taste of rotten meat which is another of the many myths regarding medieval affairs which still persists – but to add flavour and to pronounce wealth and status. Spices were, on the whole, enormously expensive. Therefore the more spice added to your guests’ platters, the more they knew and respected your importance. So a fair dose of cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, caraway seeds, cloves and even the monstrously expensive saffron might be liberally spread across your dinner.

Dishes could be either simple or complicated. Roast boar crusted in mustard – pickled lampreys – buttered crabs on a bed of smoked eels – calves’ testicles filled with onion, minced lambs’ kidneys and nutmeg – capon studded with cloves and served on salad greens, clams and beans – a galantine of three dark meats in aspic – baked pike in burned cream – larks bound in leeks in a red wine sauce - boiled tripe and sweated onions – stewed rabbit in a pastry pie. Well it goes on and on – both the amazing and the horrifying.

For feasts in grand houses, three courses were normally served (there could be more) but each course was comprised of many separate dishes. Depending on how lavish the host wished to appear, twenty or more different platters might be set across the table for each course. And even more confusing to us, each of these courses could include both sweets and savouries. Custards, spit-roast apples, creamed almonds with marzipan berries, jellies, tarts and fruity dumplings in syrup could be served right amongst the roast meats, stews, meat pies and fish.

The third and last course, however, often contained only wafers and a huge sugar sculpture, known as a subtlety. This could be amazing and a chef could boost his reputation by producing something to make the guests gasp. For Christmas celebrations a whole nativity scene might be carved from sugar loaves. Swans, peacocks, angels, crowns, palaces and many other gorgeously elegant and fragile creations made of nothing but sugar, would be carried out to the table by the chef and his assistants, greeted by clapping and cheers. All in all, not a particularly healthy diet but not, perhaps, as pernicious as English eating habits became over the following centuries.

And of course in those days the great chandelier swinging from the huge medieval beams was true to its name and held only candles, their light dancing across the platters and gilding meat juices golden, highlighting the tips of pastry crust, flickering over the gleaming jellies and blurring those magnificent subtleties until the swan truly seemed to be swimming in its pool of reflections. The candlelight, and the surging light of flame from the hearth, would also shimmer across the satins, the damasks, taffetas and jewellery of the guests. Those were the days of dressing suitably for the occasion.

The poor rarely tasted sugar, which was dreadfully expensive. They did not lack sweetening however, as honey was plentiful. But a humble meal did not aspire to contain sweet meats or custards, and a modest sufficiency to control hunger was frequently all that could be expected. During these final years of the medieval period, particularly during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, the country prospered and the poor were rarely so poor. But only the extravagant rich aspired to a three course feast, or needed to announce their reputations with the massive expense of hosting one. Aldermen, city mayors, guild dignitaries, prosperous traders and weddings parties where one side needed to impress the other – all these spread their tables heavily until the table legs groaned. Some guests ate to do justice to such a feast (King Edward IV is reputed to have become an overweight glutton in his later years) but many of these sumptuous dishes were afterwards relegated to the kitchens, and were then shared out to the scullions, to local
alms houses and charities, and to the beggars at the doors.

The new foods discovered by the Spanish in the New World (1492/3) had not yet been introduced into the European diet, so there were no potatoes or tomatoes or the many other originally American delights we now take for granted. But what was lacking was made up for by the enormous energy and ingenuity of the cooks and their imaginative adherence to inventing new recipes and enriching old ones.

There are many fascinations to discover during this long gone age of 500 years past, but my new historical novel, SUMERFORD’S AUTUMN, (Available Amazon Kindle) is not much concerned with the parties of the nobility, though some of this is mentioned. Set in 1497 it is more concerned with the poor, the disadvantaged, and those suffering the displeasure of the new Tudor king. Sumerford Castle is grand but damp, and the earl and his family are neither as rich nor as comfortable as they seem. Rather than descriptions of feasts, there are descriptions of imprisonment, torture in the Tower, treachery, piracy and misfortune. But the research on this time period which I have been following with a passion for many years, covers all aspects of this remarkable era.


  1. A very interesting insight into the types of food eaten by the rich and poor.
    Perhaps you could add some recipes used at this time for us to try and replicate.
    We could then host a medieval banquet evening for friends and family. Just a thought.
    Robbie Crawford

    1. America's Test Kitchen decided to host a Victorian feast--and make it with the same tools used in the late 1800's. It took 2 years of preparation, trial and error, research, and installing the ovens, stoves, etc. in a Victorian mansion before they were actually able to make and serve the feast. Good luck with your Medieval banquet. :) Please invite me!

  2. I must say I'm glad I don't live in those times, Vegetable pottage doesn't sound overly appatising! Of course if I were rich I wouldn't have to eat it, but I'm sure I'd have been poor....

  3. An absorbing, fascinating and exceedingly well-written overview of the differing culinary propensities of the social classes of mediaeval England. A great insight into how wealth is readily linked to over-indulgence and excess and helped produce those fascinating caricatures of the well-heeled plump folk throughout history, and the beginnings of our modern day addiction to sugary delights…

  4. Barbara Gaskell DenvilMay 20, 2012 at 1:33 PM

    That's a brilliant idea, Robbie. Thanks for the idea and the comment

  5. Barbara Gaskell DenvilMay 21, 2012 at 6:32 PM

    Thanks so much for commenting everyone - I'll invite everyone of you to my medieval feast when I get the castle to hold it in!

  6. I've always found it odd that people have thought they used spices to cover the taste of rotten meat. They wouldn't have eaten rotten meat no more than we would now. Take away all the advancements of the modern world and we are the same. I admire those from the medieval world and the inner strength they had to of had to live without our modern conveniences.


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