What did peasants eat?

peasants_breaking_bread

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about table manners in the fourteenth century. Participants at a feast were expected to behave in a certain way, but such good manners were not expected lower down the social scale. Equally, a peasant was not going to be eating the same food as his, or her, lord, nor were they going to be feasting, with the occasional exception of Christmas. What these people ate was of little interest to the chroniclers or those who recorded recipes, so the information available is sparse.

Bread was the basic foodstuff, eaten by everyone. What it was made of varied according to the wealth and location of the person eating it. The flour used by peasants was coarser and grittier than what would have been used at the manor house. The lord ate paynedemain, or demesne bread, made from flour which had been sieved many times. Peasants were more likely to eat maslin, which was made from mixed wheat and rye, or horse bread, made from peas, beans and any grain that was available. As well as being a food in its own right, bread was also used to thicken sauces and stews.

Everyone ate pottage. This was a broth containing meat and/or vegetables with herbs, cereals and pulses. What went into the pottage depended, again,  on who was eating it, or when it was being eaten. During Lent or on fast days it would not contain meat. Its constitution would either be thick or very thick. If the latter, it could be sliced. Pottages tended to feature vegetables more heavily than meat. Common vegetables were cabbages, leeks, lettuces, onions, garlic, turnips, carrots and peas.  All could be included in a pottage. Unlike today vegetables were available seasonally and not all year round. A pottage made in spring would not be the same as one made in autumn. Herbs would also be added for flavouring.

Fish was another important part of the diet. This usually meant salted or pickled herrings for the poor. Only the wealthy or those living on the coast had access to fresh fish. People who lived inland might obtain fresh fish by paying a fee to the lord in order to fish in his river, or by poaching.

Most peasants kept pigs for meat. These foraged all year and did not need fodder in the winter months. A pig could be killed and its meat pickled or cured so that the peasant had meat during the winter. Cattle, sheep and goats required fodder, so were unlikely to be kept for meat, although they would be kept for milk in order to make butter and cheese. Chickens were also too valuable for peasants to eat, since they produced eggs. Peasants could, however, catch wild birds for consumption.

Possibly the biggest difference between a peasant’s food and that of his lord was the lack of spices. Herbs can only do so much to add flavour to food, but spices can do more. Most spices had to be imported, so were beyond the purse of all but the wealthiest peasant.

As I wrote last week, ale was an important part of the diet and was drunk by all levels of society.

 

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43 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century

43 responses to “What did peasants eat?

  1. Pottage must have been quite nourishing. It sounds similar to the thick multi-veg soups/stews I eat in winter – except mine are flavoured with bought stock, rather than birds or rabbit, and thickened with potatoes, not bread.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting to read about what people ate in the old days before modern equipment and processed food. I think we need to get back to that. I think we’d all be healthier if we did that. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with that to, but I wouldn’t be too thrilled at having my teeth worn down and broken by badly milled flour in my bread 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Vartan Antashyan

      Really? So that’s why they were dying like flies and barely any peasant survived into his 50ies.

      Like

      • Vartan, thank you for your comment. You’re quite correct that people tended to die very young in the fourteenth century. It wasn’t just the peasants who rarely lived into their fifties, though, few members of the aristocracy made it out of their forties. Whilst their diet was healthy, access to food tended to be unreliable. There were famines early in the century due to bad weather and cattle diseases. There were also periods of inflation which meant that the poorest could not afford to buy such food as was available. Disease was another reason why people’s lives were so short. Illnesses that can be survived easily today, due to medical advances, were often fatal. Antibiotics have made such a difference to our life expectancy. In the fourteenth century a small cut could be fatal. In an age that was less conscious of health and safety than we are, people were more likely to die in fires (most buildings were made of timber), fall from a height while working or be cut. Then there was war. England saw two outbreaks of civil war in the first quarter of the century and spent most of the rest of the century fighting the French. In the second half of the century there was also the Black Death, which returned to England many times after the initial onslaught in 1348. The reason so few people lived into their fifties was that there were just so many things around to kill them.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Jocelyn

          And women died in childbirth. Being of the aristocracy didn’t protect them, as many noble girls were pushed into marriage at a young age, meaning their first pregnancy was in their early teens. Peasant women might have delayed marrying to get on a better financial setting- saving up to have household goods.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Jocelyn, thank you for your comment. Aristocratic women did often marry at a young age, sometimes when they were children, but they did not go to live with their husbands until they were old enough to bear children. It was unusual for them to be pregnant before they were fifteen.
            Peasants did wait to marry until they could afford it. The woman’s parents had to have enough for a dowry and the man had to have enough to set up a separate home.

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  3. No wonder that they use to steam dumpling for hours and hours – it must have been to make it edible – I know in hampshire they used to put lots of bacon rinds in the dumplings to add flavour.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: What did peasants eat? | A Writer’s Perspective | Christy Jackson Nicholas, Author and Artist

  5. Love these posts about daily habits!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I came quite late to the idea that the history of ordinary people is more interesting than that of kings. My ancestors would have been the ones eating their pottage without meat and hoping that they could poach a few fish without getting caught.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pottage and bread. I could do that! Thanks for another great post. I see that while I wasn’t getting emailed about your posts you were actually posting quite a bit. I wondered why you had gone silent, but of course you hadn’t at all. I hope to be able to backtrack and read your other posts soon, since I enjoy them so much! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. April, I want to let you know that I nominated your blog for an award. You can read about it here: https://timitownsend51.me/2017/01/30/blogger-recognition-award/

    I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your writing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. That’s very kind. Sadly, I won’t be able to do anything about it, as the blog isn’t really suited to acknowledging awards :-(. I think Denise will have the same problem.
      I considered a post that would only be up for a short time, but a post about blogging would just be odd. Blast.
      I am very grateful, but just at a loss about what to do about it.

      Like

  8. Pingback: Medieval Bread | A Writer's Perspective

  9. It’s always interesting to read about the daily habits of our ancestors!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you, April. This is my first time to your sight and this article about the foods of the peasants is enticing me to read more! This reminds me of today’s paleo diet – creatively eating what is grown locally. The peasants,in my opinion, needed to be quite creative with their meal planning!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I don’t know how they survived back then. You didn’t use the word ‘panini’ once!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Your reference to a lack of spices (and seasoning) for the peasants rings particularly true. Salt was still a form of currency in smaller hamlets if I remember my history, as was the saying “he’s not worth his salt.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gabe, WP has been hiding some comments from me, so I’ve only just seen this.

      I haven’t read anything to suggest that salt was a form of currency, but it’s always possible.

      Like

  13. I’m always fascinated by the information you uncover. I think I could have handled a peasant diet, minus the pickled herring.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow this was so interesting to read! I’m not sure i would have survived on this diet though…

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Fantastic post! I remember being amazed as an undergraduate just how few vegetables English peasants would have (variety wise), it always stuck with me!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I would be interested to try all these different types of breads, I imagine they would be quite different from our loaves of Warburtons! Interesting post, thanks April!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. The thought of cooking without spices hurts my brain! Interesting perspective, as always, April – I’m actually curious to try pottage, and may poke around the interwebz to see if I can find a recipe or two (while appreciating the irony of doing so). *grin*

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: Medieval Herbs | A Writer's Perspective

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