Tag Archives: Medieval Food

What can you learn at a medieval event?

Melford Hys Companie

Melford Hys Companie

Last weekend there was a medieval event not far from where I live. It was put on to celebrate the official launch of the Virtual Museum of the Grace Dieu. The Grace Dieu was a huge ship built for Henry V. It made only one voyage before it was hit by lightning and sank in the River Hamble, near Southampton. The medieval event took place in the River Hamble Country Park, close to where the ship sank.

Basket weavers

Basket weavers

There were two different groups of medieval re-enactors at the event. One group, the Medieval Free Company, represented a village where there was a leather worker, a fletcher, a woman who made herbal remedies, a scrivener and a basket weaver.  Their period is the Wars of the Roses.

The other group was Melford Hys Companie, a group of players. The players doubled up by demonstrating medieval crafts as well as acting. The crafts were woodturning, felting, spinning and basket weaving.



On the woodturning front I learned that greenwood was used to make household objects, such as bowls, rather than dry wood.  I’m sure the reason for this was explained, but I can’t remember it. I do remember that the wood warps as it dries, as you can see from the bowl on the end of the woodturner’s workbench.

One of the women in the group spins and I asked her some questions. I’ve never understood how spinning works and she was kind enough to explain it to me, whilst demonstrating. From her I learned that rich women did not spin. This was a bit of a blow, as I have a scene in my current work in progress where two very rich women sit down and spin together.

Another thing I learned was that, although medieval depictions of women spinning show them holding a spindle and a distaff at the same time, it’s perfectly possible to spin without a distaff.  After the demonstration, I was allowed to have a go and enjoyed it. Later in the day I realised that the basket full of fleece, carding implements and spare spindles was intended for children, but I was very grateful to have had the chance to try. I was so engrossed in what the spinner was doing that I forgot to take a photograph, but I was very inspired by my lesson and bought a spindle so that I can carry on practising.

Handspun thread

Handspun thread

To my great joy, pea pottage was on the menu for lunch for the players.  You can see the peas and carrot and rosemary in the pot. There’s also onion, garlic and a bit of bacon in there. They were aiming for something fairly substantial and  used marrowfat peas soaked overnight. Somebody had to sit and watch the pot all the time to make sure that the fire didn’t go out and that the pottage didn’t get too dry. It was quite windy, so there was a constant danger of the sparks setting fire to something.


Pea pottage

The pottage must have done the job, because it all disappeared and I saw the pot watcher doing the washing up in the pot after lunch. Another lesson learned – pots are expensive and can be dual purpose.

Two of the women were working on felting projects. One was for children. The other, most decidedly, was not.

Felted bubs

Felt bosoms for the actors

The bosoms are to enable the male actors to look the part when they have to play female roles.

I only saw part of the felting process, but a rough pattern was made from a piece of linen cloth and the fleece placed on both sides of it. The wool was made wet and soaped. It was placed on a board and the woman making the prop had to keep rubbing it so that the fibres stuck together and shrank. The finished object was quite a bit smaller than the pattern.

On the right of the photograph you can see the knife with which she shaved off pieces of soap into the mug of water.

In the other camp there was a scrivener, who explained about how ink was made with ground oak apples, coperas (ferrous sulphate) and gum. On his table you can see cuttlefish for drying the ink on the page; a triple baked loaf of bread for polishing parchment; and a wax tablet for a learner writer. You can also see a part of his bow, as all men were supposed to know how to shoot.

Scrivener's table

Scrivener’s Table

If you look carefully on his writing desk, you’ll see a printed pamphlet and he’s writing on paper. Paper was used in the fourteenth century, but printing had not been invented.

Leather worker

Leather worker’s tent

The leather worker made sheaths for swords and daggers, as well as belts, flasks and pouches. Whilst his leather and some of his goods were arranged tidily, you can see that he was rather careless with his armour.

There was also a fletcher in the Wars of the Roses village. He demonstrated how arrows could be made to fit individuals, but the majority of arrows which went to France with archers were not made to order. They were made in what were essentially factories, churning out arrows for the English armies. As the fletcher explained, you did not have to be a particularly good archer, or have made-to-measure arrows, to succeed in a battle. An enemy army provided quite a large target and any arrow fired in its general direction would probably hit something. He also said that, in his younger days, he could let off a further two arrows before his first had landed, which goes some way to explaining why Welsh and English archers were so successful and so feared.

I was surprised by the different types of points I saw on the arrows. One looked like a fork and another like a knife. One had a very vicious-looking barb on it.



I had a very enjoyable day out with the re-enactors. It is one thing to read about how something is done, and another to see it being done. Best of all, I’ve got an inkling of an idea about a novel from it.


Filed under Hundred Years War



Sugar was an expensive foodstuff. Like cinnamon, cloves and saffron it was considered, and used, as a spice, but it did not travel quite as far as they did to reach England.

Sugar first came into Europe from Egypt and Syria. Crusaders brought it with them when they returned home. This was the beginning of Europe’s addiction to sugar. In the thirteenth century the Venetians and Genoese were able to set up cane plantations on Mediterranean islands, which enabled them to control the whole process of sugar production and distribution.

Once refined, sugar was formed into cone-shaped loaves. It is still sold in this way in some parts of Europe. Sugar loaves were white and brown. If the sugar was refined and pure, it was white. If it was unrefined, it was brown.

Sugar was used in sauces for what we would consider savoury food, but it was also used to make sweet confections to follow it.

Sugar was very versatile and soon came to be preferred to honey by those who could afford it. Honey could be produced anywhere in England by anyone who had a skep and the necessary skills to manage the bees. For those who had to buy their sweeteners, a pound of sugar would have cost a skilled labourer a day’s wages, four times more than a pound of honey.

In the fourteenth century some large towns in Europe had sweet shops selling expensive sweets made from melted and crystallised sugar. These were sold by weight. Again, they were something only the wealthy could afford.

Venice, as it did with spices, controlled the refining and distribution of sugar across Europe for centuries. Sugar only became affordable for the masses in the eighteenth century, when sugar cane started to be grown in the West Indies, using slave labour. In the sixteenth century it was possible to extract sugar from beetroot, but this was not done on a commercial scale until the nineteenth century.


Filed under Fourteenth Century




Having diverted into experiments with pottage, twice, it’s time to get back to spices. A couple of weeks ago we established that only the very wealthy could afford spices. Spices were expensive because they had to travel vast distances to reach England.

It was not just the spices themselves which were expensive, but also the equipment needed to grind them. Depending on how finely they had to be ground, this could be a pestle, made out of a hard metal, and a stone or a hand-mill.

In the mid-twelfth century, when there was a reform movement in the church, spices were held by some, including Bernard of Clairvaux, to be against nature and God, since they changed the natural flavour of food into something else. For most people this made no difference, since they couldn’t afford to buy spices.

It was only after the Black Death that the less well-off bought spices more often. By the second half of the fourteenth century, it was becoming easier to transport spices to Europe and those who survived the Black Death were slightly better off economically than their parents and grandparents had been.

By the 1390s those who could afford to eat meat most often were able to eat it very heavily spiced. The amount of spices used may reflect the time it took for them to arrive from Asia rather than a taste for spicy food. As we saw with pepper, a pound of ginger in England would not have as much flavour as it had when it left Asia, due to the length of the journey.

Much of the fish and meat eaten in the fourteenth century was salted or dried and spices were prized because they could disguise the tastes caused by these methods of preservation. Forget the idea that their function was to make tainted meat more palatable.  No matter how much care you took to wash it out, salted fish and meat tasted salty.

Most spices travelled by sea to Europe, where they were deposited in Venice for onward transport. At this time the trade in spices was in the hands of Arabs, Indians and Chinese until the spices reached Venice.  Spices were not imported directly into England from their point of origin, but had to be purchased from merchants who had purchased them from other merchants and so on back to Venice.

How expensive were spices? At the beginning of the fifteenth century a pound of cinnamon or ginger cost 3 to 5 days’ wages of a craftsman. A pound of cardamom was about 4 ½ days’ wages. A pound of cloves was 6 days’ wages. Prices were not stable and could vary considerably from one year to another.

Since they were so expensive,  no one wanted to waste them. In the 1390s an elderly Parisian wrote some guidance about household management for his young wife. His book contains recipes and instructions about how to ensure that money spent on spices is not wasted. If spices and bread were to be ground, he wrote, the spices should be ground first and then the bread, so that any spices left behind would be incorporated into the breadcrumbs.

Which spices were used and where did they come from? Cinnamon came from Ceylon. Cloves were from Indonesia. A well as flavouring food and wine, they were used by apothecaries. They have a long history of being useful for people with toothache. Cubebs came from Java. Ginger originated in China.  It came to England in a dried form or preserved in sugar. As well as flavouring food, it was used in wine. Nutmeg came from a single island in Indonesia. In the seventeenth century the Dutch almost wiped out the inhabitants of the island because they were desperate to control the production, and sales, of nutmeg. Mace is the outer skin of nutmeg.  Saffron originally came from Asia, but it was grown in Catalonia from the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century saffron was grown in England, in Cornwall and Essex, where it’s mostly associated with Walden, later renamed Saffron Walden. Saffron was used for colouring and flavouring food and for dying fabric and in medicines. It was, and is, fabulously expensive. At the beginning of the fifteenth century it cost between 8 and 11 times more than pepper.





Filed under Fourteenth Century

Pottage – Again

Barley and pea pottage

Barley and pea pottage

Last week I wrote about my first experiment with pottage. Now that I have ripe peas in the garden I wanted to make pottage with them. The intention was to make two – a thicker one and a thinner one. As with last week’s pottage, I would not use salt or pepper, but only a stock with herbs for seasoning. This time I left the celery out of the stock, as I wasn’t sure that the celery from the supermarket was very much like the celery available in the fourteenth century.

For the thicker fresh pea pottage I had to find something to thicken it. In the fourteenth century this would have been a grain or bread. In poorer households it was more likely to have been grain, as using it for pottage rather than for bread was a way of making it go further.

Fresh peas

Fresh peas

I used pearl barley as the thickener. A couple of years ago I accidentally and unwillingly grew barley in the garden when seeds from the barley straw I put round the strawberries germinated. I dug up the barley sprouts, but, on the principle that I could have grown barley if I hadn’t considered it a weed, barley was what I used. The pearl barley from the supermarket is a lot more refined than anything eaten in the Middle Ages, so the taste and texture would be different. This meant that I didn’t have to soak it to soften it, which would have been necessary for a fourteenth-century housewife. She would also have had to make grain stretch from one year’s harvest to the next, so she probably would not have used the same generous quantity for one person as I did.

Pearl barley

Pearl barley

Around this time of year I usually make a few pea risottos, so I was expecting the pottage to taste a bit like that, but without the oil and salt. To some extent it did, although the barley was chewier than rice.

The recipe:

I rinsed the pearl barley and boiled it on its own for 10 minutes, then I let it simmer for 30 minutes. While the barley was simmering, I chopped the onion and garlic and boiled them. I drained the barley and added it to the stock. Finally I added the peas and herbs and let them simmer for a couple of minutes.

There weren’t as many peas as I had hoped, but there must have been days when the fourteenth-century housewife had to make her fresh vegetables go further than expected.

It was definitely filling. That was down to the barley. It was not terribly tasty, but I think that might have been because there were too few peas to hold their own against the barley and the onion. I also think it’s the boiled onion which causes the odd aftertaste.  Drinking a mug of ale would probably have helped with that. This is not a version of pottage that I would particularly want to eat again.

pea pottage

Pea pottage

Yesterday I finally had enough peas to make a thin pottage with them. I boiled the onion and garlic for 20 minutes, then added the peas, chives and marjoram. They simmered for a very short time. I had expected that this pottage would be the least interesting, but it was very tasty. It wasn’t terribly filling, but it was enough to stave off hunger pangs for the afternoon. I think it would be most useful as a summer dish on a day when little work was required to be done in the fields.

Trying to make something that resembles a medieval pottage has raised many questions.

The process of cooking it on my gas hob was, of course, much faster than it would have been on an open fire in the fourteenth century. This raised two questions. The first was whether or not this would make any difference to the taste. The second was to wonder how an army on the move would have coped. In my novel Beloved Besieged an army crosses Aquitaine. There are too many men to stay in inns, so they would have slept in tents or in the open air, making camp each night. It would have taken a long time to cook for an army of thousands of men over open fires. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out anything on this subject. The Black Prince’s armies were renowned for covering great distances in a day, which would have meant even less cooking time.

Quantities is another problem. My helpings were fairly large, as I was not afraid of the barley running out, nor was I trying to make dried herbs last until spring. Would a poor person in the fourteenth century have been able to eat the same amount? I don’t know.

What I have learned is that pottage did not have to be bland, even without salt and pepper.


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Uncategorized




Following comments from two or three people on recent posts, I made pottage this week as an experiment.  I wrote about pottage here. It was the basic meal in the fourteenth century and everyone ate it, rich or poor. More or less anything could be thrown into the pot to make it, but it’s summer at the moment and I decided to use peas from the garden as the main vegetable.

The idea was to make pottage and taste it to see how bland or otherwise it was for people who could not afford spices or meat. I only used things that can be grown locally and would have been available in the fourteenth century – at certain times of the year, at least.

I have failed to grow onions and garlic, but a friend only a few streets away, has great success with them, so I used shop-bought ones with a (fairly) clear conscience. I have grown celery in the past, but I don’t have any in the garden at the moment, so the supermarket helped out there as well. I used these ingredients for the basic stock. A fourteenth-century cook might have added some bones to the stock if she had them, but I’m a vegetarian, so I didn’t.

marrowfat peas

Marrowfat peas

The peas in my garden aren’t quite ready, so I bought marrowfat peas and used them for my first pottage. These are peas which have been left to dry out in their pods in the fields, so I think they would be very like the dried peas that would have been used in the fourteenth century. I soaked them overnight. The instructions on the packet said to add bicarbonate of soda, but this would not have been an option for the fourteenth-century housewife, so I left it out.

Marrowfat peas are used to make ‘mushy peas’, so I know that they would make a fairly thick pottage without needing any other thickening agent.

The herbs were from my garden. I used sage, marjoram and chives – rather a lot of them.



Here’s the recipe:

I boiled an onion, two sticks of celery and some garlic in some water while I prepared the herbs. I drained the peas and added them to the saucepan, making sure that the water covered them.  They simmered for almost an hour before I added the herbs. By then the peas were soft and breaking up. I had expected them to break up more. When the peas had been on for about an hour and a quarter I poured the pottage into a bowl and ate it.

It might look unappetising in the picture at the top of the post, but it was very tasty and I did not miss the pepper and salt I usually add to my food. There was an odd aftertaste, though, which was probably due to being rather heavy-handed with the herbs. I don’t think it was due to omitting the bicarbonate of soda. A bit of internet research told me that it makes no difference to the taste. It was satisfyingly filling, but I did have a large helping.

I plan to have two more goes at pottage when fresh peas are available next week.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

Salt and Pepper

salt and pepper 4

Following on from last week’s post about things that could be used in the fourteenth century to add flavour to food, and a short discussion on Twitter, today’s post is about pepper and salt. They are the most popular condiments used to season food in England these days, but was that the case in the fourteenth century?

Unless someone had a salt pan or brine well on their land, both salt and pepper had to be purchased. They were not things which could be obtained locally and had to be bought at markets.


Salt was a necessity for making bread and for preserving meat. This meant that everyone, except for a few people living in towns, had to purchase it in quantity.

In England salt mostly came from salt marshes along the coast. The marshes were turned into salt pans from which water would evaporate. What remained after evaporation was raked out so that it could dry completely, leaving salt. Despite England having a very long coastline, there were not enough salt marshes to serve the whole population and salt had to be imported from France and Italy.

There were also brine wells in Cheshire, which provided salt to the Midlands and to the north of England.

As well as enhancing its flavour, salt was also used for preserving food. In poorer households animals were killed at the beginning of winter. Some meat would be eaten straightaway, but what was left would be salted so that it would last until the beginning of Lent. Fish were salted or smoked for transportation inland. Most of the fish eaten, especially during Lent, was salted.


Pepper was the cheapest and most used spice and those two things are probably related. Pepper was grown on the western coasts of the south of India and Sri Lanka. It had to travel a great distance to reach England and was, therefore, very expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford it.  It cost 20 to 22 pennies to buy a pound of pepper. A skilled labourer earned about 4 pennies a day and had far more important things to spend his money on than pepper.

The journey from India would have been over land and sea and would have taken time. It’s probable that the pepper had lost a lot of its flavour by the time it reached an English kitchen.

It was not unknown for pepper to be dampened to increase its weight when it was sold. Not only did this mean that the purchaser had less pepper than he thought, but it was also likely to go off very quickly.

Pepper, like herbs, could be used to disguise the sourness of ale on the turn. Fortunately, I can’t quite imagine what that must have tasted like.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

Medieval Herbs



There have been a couple of recent discussions on the post about food eaten by the peasants to the effect that, although it would be possible to exist on pottage and bread, the pottage, in particular, must have tasted rather bland. My response was that the peasants would have had herbs available which would have added some flavour. Wealthier peasants might even have been able to afford spices. When I was gathering herbs from my own garden a few days later, I wondered just how many herbs were available to the medieval peasant and whether they were sufficient to make something as tasty as herb dumplings.

Herbs were grown and used in cooking in the fourteenth century. It’s not known how much of a peasant’s garden would have been given over to them, however, so we can only guess at their ability to flavour their food. Pottage could often sit in a pot for days, so even strongly flavoured herbs would have lost their potency by the time the meal was eaten.

Herb omelettes were popular then as now. Most people were able to keep a few hens for their eggs. Sorrel, my current favourite flavouring for an omelette, was very popular, as its taste is very pungent. It’s also very easy to grow.

In much the same way as I don’t expect to eat all the herbs in my garden, so a medieval household grew herbs for a variety of purposes. I grow borage and lavender to attract bees in the hope that they’ll pollinate other plants. Lemon balm and peppermint make refreshing teas.  Some of the herbs in a medieval garden were used to flavour ale. Others were grown for medicinal purposes. Fennel and dill were cures for flatulence. Hyssop was used to relieve coughs. An oil made by mixing sage, parsley and olive oil was used for joint pains. Betony was used for headaches.

Many herbal remedies were based on trial and error and passed down from one generation to the next. Others were recorded in herbals and came down from ancient medical schools.

Some herbal medicines were very effective, others little more than placebos. Herbal medicines became even more effective when they were made with alcohol, which was first distilled successfully in 1351.

I assumed that there probably weren’t very many herbs available to the fourteenth-century household, but I was wrong. The following is a list of plants that could be grown in England in the Middle Ages: chives, chervil, mugwort, borage, caraway, chamomile, garlic, chicory, coriander, cumin, fennel, woad, lavender, lovage, lemon balm, pennyroyal, sorrel, rue, sage, comfrey, spearmint, catmint, basil, marjoram, wood germander, thyme, valerian, vervain.

If a medieval peasant grew only a few of these, their food could have been tastier than we often imagine.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

What did peasants eat?


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.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

No Spitting, No Belching


In many of my novels the characters sit down to eat a meal, usually at a feast of some kind. Whilst the food eaten on such occasions is interesting, and there will probably be a post at some point about it, it’s at people’s behaviour during meals that I want to look.

There are medieval ‘etiquette’ manuals describing how people were supposed to behave at table, which is a good indication that many people did not act in what was considered an acceptable way. The recommendations and prohibitions in these manuals relate mainly to personal cleanliness, which might be a surprise to those who believe that people in the fourteenth century never washed or cleaned themselves or cared much about table manners.

The requirements make sense when looked at in the context of how meals took place in great houses. Meals were formal affairs for the wealthy, and white table clothes were spread over trestle tables. Those eating sat on benches. After the meal, the tables and benches were taken down, leaving the hall free for any other activities which might be taking place there.

Before the meal everyone washed their hands. The lord washed his in a bowl held by a servant and dried them in a cloth carried over the servant’s shoulder.  Those of lower status washed their hands before entering the hall. Before they ate, they prayed.

In some households poison was a real fear and food and wine were both tasted before the lord ate or drank, often by several people.

The lord, his family and any important guests sat at a table on a platform at one end of the hall. They sat only on one side facing the hall so that they, and what they were eating, were visible to everyone else in the hall. The rest of the household sat on both sides of the tables which ran down either side of the hall, or, in really great households, in other rooms. They sat in order of precedence, the most senior sitting closest to the lord on his right-hand side.  Those sufficiently senior would eat the same food as the lord. Everyone else would eat something less interesting.

Food came to the table in dishes for two or four people, if it was something in a sauce, or on a platter, if it was meat. People shared these dishes and, sometimes, cups. They either ate straight from the dish or platter that had been placed on the table, or put the food onto their own trencher (a slice of coarse bread).

Food was eaten from the points of knives (slices of meat), or picked up with the fingers (food in sauces). Spoons were occasionally used, but it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the fork began to be used by the upper classes and another century before it gained acceptance by everyone else.

The list of prohibited behaviours is fairly lengthy and few of them would be tolerated today.  Most of them relate to matters of cleanliness, which is not surprising, given the way in which the food was eaten. Fingernails should not be dirty. The mouth should be empty before drinking from a shared cup. This one makes me shudder – teeth should not be picked with a knife. No one should blow on their food to cool it. No one should scratch their head during the meal. No one should gnaw on bones. There should be no spitting or belching.

Clearly, there was sufficient flouting of the rules to warrant writing them down and I wonder whether such behaviour was commonplace among those seated out of the lord’s, or his wife’s, sight.


Filed under Fourteenth Century