Jan 1 2013

On the Medieval Diet

So, first of all, I should make a few disclaimers. I am NOT a medieval historian (although I very nearly pursued a career as a medievalist). I am NOT a nutritionist. I am NOT an expert in medieval food. I am NOT even a professional chef. Anything I post is based on my research, but should not be taken as absolute. I will always do my best to provide the best information available to me, but I can – and probably will – make mistakes. I AM very good at languages. I AM quite geeky. I DO enjoy baking and cooking. Everything I post is really for my own benefit, to track my progress over the year.

Pages from the Forme of Cury, c. 14th c CE

A Medieval Cookbook. Photograph: University of Manchester John Rylands University Library

I suppose we should nail down when the Middle Ages were. The generally accepted timeframe is from the 5th century CE through the 15th century CE. The High Middle Ages began after 1000 CE. The Crusades (~1100 CE onwards) brought back massive cultural information and new foods. Many of the cookbooks available are from the High to Late Middle Ages; i.e., 1300-1600. 1600 is admittedly really pushing up against the Renaissance, but it’s an easy end date and works just fine for England, which was decidedly behind the rest of Europe. I am pushing beyond the invention of the printing press (1440) because England was generally behind the times and most of my recipes, at this point, will probably come from English language cookbooks.

Peasants in an Herb Garden - from bit.ly/UjzApy

Peasants in an Herb Garden

In all my research, the general consensus is this: there are really two distinct medieval diets. There is the one of the nobility – heavily laden with meats but extremely lacking in vegetables. The peasant class frequently ate a near-vegetarian diet of seasonal fruits and veggies supplemented by a large grain intake – although not by choice. Vegetables, particularly root vegetables (such as turnips), were considered “earthy” and of the people. There was not this big international trade in food that we have today – what you had locally or grew yourself were you options. Protein was generally from beans, legumes, and lentils. If you happened to live near water, you might get fish on a regular basis, otherwise, meat was a rare treat. Some meats were strictly off-limits to peasants (e.g. deer) and reserved for the nobility or sometimes exclusively for the king.

While part of my current plans are to focus on the English Medieval diet, it is entirely likely I will expand to other medieval cookbooks, particularly French, Italian, and Greek – since these are languages I know very well and cuisines with which I am quite comfortable.

Many of the recipes I create will initially be done as authentically as possible, then updated later, should I find I want to modernize them.


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