Category Archives: Medieval Food

Medieval Rubbish

One day this week I was sitting in the car in a car park waiting for my passenger to return and I noticed the bins. We have a lot of bins in the UK because we make a lot of waste. We’re a wasteful society. This wasn’t true seven hundred years ago. There was waste then, but of a different kind and not in the same quantity, even allowing for a much smaller population. We have plastics and paper and glass bottles and electrical goods and food, but plastics were unknown in the fourteenth century, as were electrical goods. There were a few glass bottles, but there was always food.

Even if you adulterated that English culinary masterpiece, the pie, by adding bits that no one wanted to eat, there were still bits of animals that couldn’t be eaten or used in other ways and these had to be disposed of somehow. People were perfectly happy to eat the internal organs of animals and, as far as I know, still are happy to eat hearts, livers and kidneys. I expect tripe is still eaten, although I don’t think it was something that ever appeared on my plate as a child. The blood, fat and skin of animals were all useful and even the brains of some animals could be boiled and eaten as brawn. I do remember eating that as a child. Bones could be boiled to make a stock, but they had to be thrown away once all the tasty bits had been extracted. As far as I know, there was no use for animal hooves.

There was waste in the production of other foods, such as flour. Grains had to be flailed to separate them from their husks before they could be ground. The chaff blew away and, presumably, rotted back into the ground from which it had come, providing it with some nutrients. The same thing applied to vegetables with pods and nutshells, although I have learned that hazelnut shells, left by the local squirrels in my garden, take a long time to decompose.

Last week we looked at the production of vellum, which had a waste product in the form of urine, or whatever had been used to remove the hairs from the animal skin. There were also items that failed in production, such as tiles that broke in the kiln, or leather shoes that came apart when they were turned.

Mostly, though, there was little waste. If a piece of carpentry went wrong, what was left of the wood could often be used for something else and ultimately used for fuel. An imperfectly formed metal object could be melted down and made into something else.

For the most part, clothes were worn until they could be worn no more, and pots and pans were used until they broke. There came a point, then, when things did become waste and had to be thrown away. Floor rushes had a limited life, as did the straw or hay that some people used in their bedding. What happened to them?

If there was a river nearby, some of the waste ended up there. You had to know what you were doing if you decided to drink from, or swim in, a river. On the coast some rubbish would go into the sea. In some places, like London, rubbish was used to aid the reclamation of land from tidal rivers or the sea.

If you were in a town with a moat or a ditch, quite a bit of waste would end up there, although it would be forbidden by the town authorities. In some places, pits were dug specifically for rubbish and gradually filled in. These are some of the sites that have become the focus for archaeologists.

Since a lot of waste was organic (wool, leather, linen, silk, wood), most of it has simply rotted away. Metal and glass objects are what have generally survived. Even a low-waste society managed to leave some of its rubbish behind.

Sources:
The Medieval Household by Geoff Egan

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Lent

Saxon Rood

Since we’ve just entered Lent, I thought we’d have a look at what happened during this period in the Middle Ages. When we think about Lent as it was experienced seven hundred years ago, we tend to focus on the fasting aspect. Meat, milk (cream and butter), and eggs were banned, which, as I’ve said in other posts, probably wasn’t much of a change for most people who struggled to get meat much of the time. What we rarely think about is what Lent meant to a medieval person. Today many people think that Lent is just about giving up chocolate or television or something else that’s reasonably important to them, but people in the Middle Ages knew that giving up things was to help them to reflect on the meaning of Lent.

So, what was, and is, Lent? It’s the forty days before Easter and is a very sombre time in the church calendar. It leads to the despair of the Crucifixion and, ultimately, to the joy of Easter Day. Like Easter, it doesn’t have fixed dates. It takes as its model the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and is a time of sacrifice and deprivation. It lasts from Ash Wednesday until the end of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday.

Before Ash Wednesday, there is Shrove Tuesday. In the Middle Ages this wasn’t a single day but a longer period known as Shrovetide, when people confessed their sins so that they could begin the Lenten fast having repented, received absolution and done penance. This is the meaning of the word ‘shrive’ from which ‘shrove’ is derived. Even in a small village it would probably have taken the priest longer than one day to hear everyone’s confession. Shrove Tuesday was the last day on which meat, milk and eggs could be consumed and in some countries it turned into a bit of a party – Carnival. That’s not the case in England, where it was a fairly serious day until the Reformation. That’s when the tradition of making pancakes to use the last of the eggs and the butter began.

The other thing they were supposed to abstain from during Lent was sex. Who knows now how strictly that particular injunction was observed? Since most people, even married couples, had no privacy, I suspect that it was … for the most part. No one could get married in Lent and it’s still something that many churches aren’t keen on. These days, though, it’s more for practical reasons than spiritual ones. Lent is an austere time and churches can’t be decorated as some couples might wish.

This many centuries later, it’s really hard to know what people thought about Lent, but they wouldn’t have thought it was just about what they couldn’t eat, or couldn’t do. The church was the centre of everyone’s life and everyone grew up going to church on Sundays and feast days. The parish priest was always there and there was probably a monastery or convent not far away. Mendicant friars might have visited the parish and preached. Parishioners heard sermons and, even if their priest didn’t have access to a Bible, they learned enough about the cycle of the church year to understand the meaning of Lent. They would have understood that it was a time of reflection and preparation. Fasting was only something that would aid this; it was not the most important aspect of Lent.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Huntsmen

Diana chasseresse

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it’s easy to underestimate how important hunting was for people in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t just a sport, although there was a huge element of that for the aristocracy. It was also a means of providing food for the table. If you wanted to eat venison (although only a few were permitted to do so), boars, rabbits and birds, you had to go out and hunt them. There was also the practical aspect of ridding the countryside of dangerous animals, such as wolves and bears, as well as animals that would harm domestic beasts, such as foxes.

If you were a noble, you hunted with a great deal of ritual and a large team of support staff. You needed men to train and work with the dogs. A particular style of hunting required archers and beaters. Another type required falconers. As with everything else in the Middle Ages, hunting was labour-intensive.

The favourite prey of medieval hunters was the hart. The same thing applied to hunting them as it did to eating them; only a few people could do it. As a prey, he was considered to be intelligent, wily and noble. It showed intelligence and skill on the part of the aristocratic hunter to bring one down. In reality, it showed his intelligence in choosing his master huntsman and the men beneath him.

Depending on the type of hunt, different men, dogs and horses were required. Most of the huntsmen employed by the aristocratic hunter hunted on foot. It was the job of the employees to locate and assess the prey and, if it was a noble prey, such as a hart, a boar or a deer, the nobleman would get on his horse and take part.

The huntsmen were specialised, as each type of hunt and each prey required different skills.

The fewterer was one of the men in charge of the greyhounds, the principal hunting dogs. On the hunt, a fewterer had charge of two or three greyhounds. He had to keep them under control until the hart went past, then he released the hounds to follow it.

The berners had general care of the dogs. They were responsible for the kennels and for feeding the dogs. It was their job to reward them after the kill.

As today, beaters were often used to drive the prey into the path of the aristocratic hunter. Usually they were peasants and providing such a service was often one of their feudal obligations in return for the land they farmed.

Technically, the lardener wasn’t a huntsman, as he played no part in the hunt himself. His services were indispensable, however, for he salted the deer carcase ready for transporting to the place where it would be stored, prepared and eaten.

Archers were involved in a style of hunting called bow and stable. In this instance, stable means station or stand. It was most often used when obtaining food, in the form of venison, was the main aim of the hunt. The women in the picture at the top of the post are practising a form of it. The deer were driven by horsemen towards a funnel of beaters and archers: the stable. The aim was to enable the archers to shoot as many deer as possible. Don’t be misled by the picture, though. Women did not hunt in this way. The picture shows Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, and her maidens.

Women’s involvement in most hunts was limited. They might meet the men going on a hunt for breakfast before they set off and they might catch up with them around the time of the kill, but their own hunting was done with birds. This meant that the women did not have to be involved in the kill or even see it close to.

Men also hunted with birds, which went almost everywhere with them. Hawks were expensive if they could not be caught locally, and training them was a slow and skilled process. Even after training, there was always the risk that a hawk would simply fly away when released for the hunt. As a result, good falconers were highly prized.  Falconers looked after the long-winged birds of prey, such as the peregrine falcon, while the austringer cared for the goshawks and other short-winged birds.

A necessary characteristic of all the huntsmen, regardless of their speciality, was physical bravery.  Many of the animals they chased were capable of killing them.

Sources:

The Hawk and the Hound: The Art of Medieval Hunting by John Cummins

The Master of Game by Edward of Norwich

Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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May Pottage

May Pottage

This post completes the year of pottage. I had planned to stop here anyway, but I can’t get dried peas in the supermarket any longer and, having discovered that I’m allergic to raw peas (probably), I don’t want to grow my own. Most of the fun in growing peas is opening a pod in the garden and eating the contents still warm from the sun.  It’s not worth a swollen face, though. Without dried peas to add flavour during the winter months, pottage would be very bland.

We’re very much in the thin time of the year in May. There’s nothing in my garden to be eaten except herbs. I have lots of blood sorrel, parsley, chives and sage. They’re all very tasty, but I wouldn’t want to have to live on them. There are also dandelion leaves, if you let them grow, which I don’t.

So, what did my fourteenth-century housewife cook in May? Towards the end of the month, peas might be available. Lettuce is coming up. Spinach is another possibility, although mine is only a couple of inches tall. In some parts of the country you might be able to pick beetroot by now, but mine has only just germinated. If I grew them, radishes would be worth eating, but I wouldn’t want to make a pottage with them.

In the end I decided to use spring greens, as I did last month. Someone pointed out recently that I haven’t used mushrooms in a pottage, so I put some in this one. They wouldn’t be at their best at this time of year in the fourteenth century, but they would have been available. I have managed to grow a few mushrooms, but I suspect the medieval housewife would have gathered them from the wild. I bought mine from the supermarket.

I cut up the spring greens and put them in a large pot with a bit of water. Then I added parsley and chives from the garden to give it a bit more taste. Once the spring greens had wilted, I added the quartered mushrooms. It probably would have been better if I’d sliced them.

I have to confess that this pottage was not a great success. The mushrooms were fine, but the spring greens were very chewy. It was edible, but it would not have provided much nourishment.

It’s been an interesting experiment over the last twelve months. Although a lot of what I ate was tasty, I think it would be very monotonous for a modern person not used to being restricted to what was available at a particular time of the year. My fourteenth-century housewife would not have dreamt that food could be available out of season, but might still have felt that she couldn’t face another cabbage by this time of the year.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Dovecotes

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Dovecote Tower, Barnard Castle

A few months ago I mentioned dovecotes in the Anatomy of a Castle series. At that time I had seen the remains of one dovecote, but didn’t have any photographs. In the space of a couple of weeks in April I photographed two. One was part of a castle and one wasn’t. Both were incorporated into towers.

Dovecote Tower at Barnard Castle in County Durham is shown in the photograph at the top of the post. The holes are nesting boxes.

A similar arrangement is found in the Round Tower in Southampton. The dovecote was partially demolished to make way for a wall a century or so after it was built, so there’ not much of it left. As you can see, the cleaner doesn’t get down there very often.

Round Tower, Southampton

Round Tower, Southampton

I’m not sure who the dovecote in Southampton belonged to. It’s close to the friary, so it might have belonged to the friars.

The dovecote at Barnard Castle was built in the early twelfth century, the one in Southampton dates from a century later.

Pigeons, as well as doves, were housed in the dovecotes. Both were used for food. They were a good source of fresh meat during the winter. Their eggs could also be eaten. Pigeons and doves don’t lay many eggs a year, especially when compared to chickens, but a large flock would produce a few that weren’t used for breeding.

As we’ve seen, bird dung was often used for medicinal purposes. It was also used during the tanning process. I don’t have a date for that, though, so it might have been later than the fourteenth century. Feathers could be used to fill pillows and mattresses.

Collecting live birds, eggs, dung and feathers would have involved the use of ladders or scaffolding within the tower. There wouldn’t have been much light for the person doing the collecting, as I’m assuming this was carried out during the night while the pigeons and doves slept.  I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be in there when they were awake.

Sources:

Barnard Castle by Katy Kenyon

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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April Pottage

April Pottage

April is a bit of a sparse month with regard to vegetables. There’s nothing in my garden that would form the centrepiece of a pottage, so I bought a head of spring greens from the greengrocer. As the names suggests, they’re in season and the cabbage that a medieval housewife would have had available at this time of year was more open than the tight heads that we have now, so they resembled spring greens.

What my garden does have, as you can see from the photograph below, is a few herbs.  From left to right there are chives, parsley, savory, blood sorrel and lemon balm. Thanks to my single parsley plant going mad producing seeds after last year’s hot summer, there’s a lot of parsley, so I picked some of that as well as some chives to take the place of onions as flavouring.

Herbs (2)

I thought the medieval housewife might have run out of barley by now, so I just used the leaves I had. As usual, there’s no pepper or salt and no stock. The leaves were wilted in the pot, as I didn’t want the pottage to have any liquid.

I did eat some bread with it to give it a bit of body, but the pottage itself was very tasty. I can’t say that it was particularly filling. Lent’s over, though, and the medieval family is able to eat eggs, cheese and meat, if they can get any.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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March Pottage

pease pottage

I’ve come up in the world a bit for my Lenten pottage. It’s got sugar, salt and oil in it. That’s because I’m following a recipe. I did baulk, though, at the saffron for which it also calls. Even today it’s too expensive for anything other than a special occasion.

The recipe comes from The Medieval Cookbook and is a very basic pea pottage. It’s March, so my medieval housewife is using things from her stores. Since it’s also Lent and no meat is allowed, the meal is completely vegetarian.

The two main ingredients are dried peas and onions. I soaked the peas overnight and boiled them in fresh water for half an hour before I added the onions.  They boiled together for an hour, then I removed them from the heat and mashed them. They could also be sieved. I added small amounts of oil, sugar and salt, then simmered for another ten minutes. In the Middle Ages, the thicker a pottage was the better it was considered to be, and none of my pottages so far have been very thick. This one was.

When I poured it into the bowl it looked like mushy peas, which is basically what it was, except for the onion. I doubt many people realise they’re getting a medieval dish when they have mushy peas with their fish and chips.

Not only was it very tasty, but it was also very filling. It’s not the most attractive pottage I’ve made, but it’s one I’d make again.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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February Pottage

March

This month’s pottage is another one that’s pleasing to the eye. Fortunately, my taste buds were also rather happy.

In February there would probably still be plenty of food from last year’s harvest, if it had been stored correctly. As far as my pottage is concerned, that’s the barley, carrots and garlic. I picked the leeks and parsley from the garden a couple of hours before I ate them.

A medieval housewife would have had to soak her barley overnight, but modern technology has spared me that. It still has to boil for an hour and fifteen minutes, though. As you can see from the photograph, I used too much barley. I’m still not used to how much bulk it gains in the pot.

After twenty minutes or so I added the carrots, garlic and parsley. The parsley hasn’t been deterred by the snow we had a couple of weeks ago, but I think a few frosty nights have thwarted its plans to take over the herb garden. Its growth spurt is over until the warmer weather.

The leeks were added with twenty minutes to go, so they still had a bit of crunch in them when I ate them. As usual there was no pepper or salt. All the flavour came from the vegetables themselves and it was tasty.

Sadly I didn’t have a young child to sit and stir the pot for me, and some of the barely stuck to the bottom because I hadn’t put enough water in. A medieval housewife would never have allowed that to happen. Cooking pots were far too precious to allow them to be damaged like that.

A medieval housewife might have had some salted pork left and some of that might have gone into the pot. There were other things that were available that I haven’t mentioned, such as mushrooms. I’m sure people in the Middle Ages had more knowledge than most of us today about which ones it was safe to eat.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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January Pottage

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The ingredients for this month’s pottage were easy enough to choose. The only vegetables growing in my garden at the moment are leeks. They’re not very big, which I think is due to the very hot summer we had. In my cupboard I had some barley and there’s some sage and bewildered parsley in the garden. The early part of winter was so mild that the parsley thought it was spring and has been growing everywhere. The sorrel has also been fooled into producing leaves early. These things aren’t usually available in January, but I thought a fourteenth-century housewife wouldn’t waste them, so they went into the pot.

When I went to the cupboard the evening before I was going to make the pottage I realised that I didn’t have much barley. Fortunately I still had some marrowfat peas. I soaked the peas overnight and boiled them for three quarters of an hour before I added the barley and the garlic. The peas gave it a bit more taste. About twenty minutes after the barley I added the leeks and the leaves. They boiled together for about fifteen minutes.

It was tasty and satisfying meal. I made the pottage fairly thick, as the liquid can often be disappointing.

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Christmas Pottage

Christmas Pottage

Christmas was a feast, so I doubt that pottage would necessarily have been part of the main meal, but this is a series about pottage and that’s what I made. Many people celebrated the feast in the hall of the lord of the manor and that probably means that they ate the lord’s meat.

I’m a vegetarian, so meat isn’t an option for me, but I wanted this month’s pottage to be a bit of a celebration. Since whatever the people sitting in their lord’s hall ate was probably made with meat stock, I allowed myself vegetable stock in my pottage.

Sonya from Losing the Plot sent me some soup mix from Northern Ireland which is rather pottage-like in its makeup. It contains pearl barley, red split lentils, green split peas and yellow split peas. Medieval Gardens tells me that lentils weren’t commonly available in the Middle Ages and I thought that would make them something suitable for the Christmas feast.

I soaked the dry ingredients overnight, rinsed them and boiled them for 10 minutes. After that they simmered for 40 minutes. I rinsed them again and added them to some vegetable stock together with some leeks from the garden and some carrots. That cooked for another ten minutes.  It was very tasty and had the advantage over some previous pottages of looking nice in the bowl.

For poorer people who didn’t get to eat at their lord’s table, ham probably featured in their more humble Christmas feast. It’s a tradition that continued at least into my childhood. One of the smells I associate with Christmas is a ham boiling in the pressure cooker on Christmas Eve.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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