Tag Archives: Medieval Meals

October Pottage

October pottage

Autumn is a good time for harvesting food from the garden and it must have been the same for a fourteenth-century housewife. This year I’ve grown a lot beetroot and it’s time to dig them up before the slugs get used to eating them. Beetroot has featured in most of the recent pottage experiments because the crop has been good. Households in the fourteenth century must also have used more of what they had freely available.

Next to my rows of beetroot is a row of leeks. They’re still small, but I thinned them and added the ones I picked to the pot instead of onion.

The internet tells me that sage goes well with beetroot, so I picked some from the garden and threw that in as well. The other main ingredient of the pottage was barley.

I cut the beetroot into chunks and boiled it for half an hour on its own, then added the rest of the ingredients. The pottage simmered for another thirty minutes. The smell while it was doing this was wonderful.

Sadly, the problem with a dish made of things boiled with beetroot is that everything ends up red and it’s far from photogenic. I’m sorry about the photograph at the top of the post, but you should at least be able to see that it’s not a runny pottage.

The final result was tasty and filling. I enjoyed it and might make it 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.

Available now:

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The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – A Knight on Horseback Aquamanile

Aquamanile

Knight on Horseback Aquamanile, British Museum

I’ve mentioned table etiquette in a couple of posts, here and here, and I thought it was time to talk about other things that were used at a fourteenth-century meal besides knives and hands.

The latter were generally a lot cleaner than I might have led you to believe. People washed their hands before a meal, at least in large houses. Most of the household would wash their hands before coming to the table, but the head of the household would wash his hands in front of everyone else. There was a certain amount of ceremony and ritual attached to this, especially at feasts, when a servant would bring the water and drying cloth to him.

The mounted knight in the photograph above is an aquamanile. The figurine is hollow and clean water was poured in through the hole in his helmet. The horse is not a unicorn who’s lost most of its horn. The hole in its head is a spout through which water could be poured onto the hands of the head of the, in this case rather grand, head of the household. The mounted knight was a popular shape for an aquamanile to take, but there were other forms, usually animals. These were often lions, horses and unicorns. For those of lower rank, an aquamanile could be made out of pottery. I suspect that most households simply used jugs or bowls of water.

Aquamaniles were also used by the celebrants at mass, who washed their hands before the people as part of a ritual cleansing. Like the head of a household, they were presiding at a meal. It would be interesting to know which ritual came first.

Most aquamaniles, at least of those that survive, were made of brass. The knight is made of bronze. Since I had to look it up, I can tell you what the difference is. Bronze is a copper alloy that usually has tin as the main additive, while brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. There are records of gold and silver aquamaniles, but none has survived.

The knight has lost his lance, shield and legs, but he’s still amazing. He was made, in England, for someone with a  bit of money to throw around. He’s just over a foot tall and was probably made in the last quarter of the thirteenth century.

The British Museum has photographed him from every possible angle. Some of the angles are less than dignified, but they’re all illuminating.

 

Sources:

Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

 

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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

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The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Knives and Sheath

Hunting Knives

Knives and sheath, British Museum

I was very happy to see these knives in the British Museum, because I quite often write about knives and daggers in my novels and it was useful to do a bit of research into them.

These particular knives are French and date from the first decade of the fifteenth century. The longest knife is about 15 inches long.

All four of the knives in the picture fitted into the sheath. The larger knives were used for carving meat. Once carved, the slice of meat was presented on the flat of the blade.

It’s thought they were a wedding present, but that’s not a certainty. They’re certainly very expensive, though, as the handles are enamelled and the leather sheath is also decorated. Whilst not every knife handle was enamelled and not every sheath was made from leather, sheathes and scabbards would usually have been decorated. Decorations would not just have been carved, but painted and occasionally gilded. People of the fourteenth century liked bright colours.

Many more ordinary blades were decorated. This was often little more than a maker’s mark, but the blades could also be inlaid with designs. The blades themselves were usually made with iron mixed with imported steel. The handless were made from bone, wood, horn and metal. Of these, wood was the most common.

Only knives and spoons were used at meals and people carried their own knives with them for use at mealtimes, even when they were guests.  Towards the end of the fourteenth century hosts began to provide knives for important guests. Sharing a knife with someone at a meal was a sign of trust

There were, of course, rules of etiquette concerning the use of knives during meals. Knives brought to the table were supposed to be clean and sharp. They should not be wiped on the tablecloth and neither should anyone lick their knife. Rules such as these were usually written down in an attempt to change people’s behaviour. You can assume, therefore, that, if there’s a rule against it, lots of people were doing it.  You were not supposed to use your knife to trim your nails at the table. Using the knife to carry food to the mouth was forbidden: that’s what your fingers were for. You could use the knife to put food on your trencher, but it was fingers only from that point. If you wanted to salt your food, you had to use the flat of the blade to lift salt from the salt dish, not your fingers. Above all you were not to pick your teeth with the point of the blade.

People carried knives about with them. Chaucer’s reeve had a Sheffield knife tucked in the top of his hose. I have no idea how secure this was, unless the scabbard was attached to the laces which tied his hose to his braies. The people to whom the knives in the British Museum belonged doubtless had very secure ways of transporting them.

 

Sources:

Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

Knives and Scabbards – J. Cogwill, M. de Neergaard and N. Griffiths

 

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.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

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Winter Pottage

leeks

I know that it’s not quite winter, but I thought I’d make my winter pottage before I use up all my leeks. They’re the only winter vegetable I have in my garden.

As with the summer pottage I’m assuming that I have garlic and onions available. The leeks and sage are from my garden. I’m also using marrowfat peas. I grew peas in the summer and did let some stay in the pods to dry. There weren’t very many, though, because who can resist eating fresh peas from the pod? For the pottage I used marrowfat peas from the supermarket. I also added barley (again from the supermarket) to give the pottage a bit of body.

The peas were soaked overnight. A medieval housewife would have had to soak her barley as well, but mine just needed washing. I boiled some water with an onion and some garlic. I added the peas, barley and sage for half an hour, then added the leeks for ten minutes. All of this would have taken longer over an open fire.

Pottage

If you kept pigs in the fourteenth century you would be killing one about now. Most of the meat would be salted to last the winter, but you might add a bit to the pottage. It might not necessarily be a part of the pig that you’re familiar with. I’m a vegetarian, so it’s not something I’m going to try.

You might also have a carrot or two to add to the pot. Carrots don’t grow terribly well in the clay pit that passes for my garden, but they would have added some flavour.

Talking of flavour, it wasn’t too bad. I ate it all without feeling the need to add salt or pepper. I probably made it more interesting than it would have been in a fourteenth-century home by adding two things to give it bulk and texture – the peas and the barley. As always, I can only guess at the quantities that would have been available. It was probably less than I used, since I don’t have to make my ingredients stretch for another six or seven months until next year’s crops start to grow.

Chickens

What else can you eat at this time of year? Three out of our four chickens are laying at the moment. Medieval chickens were probably not such prolific producers of eggs as our modern hybrids, but a medieval housewife probably had more than four chickens. She probably had a cockerel as well. Spare eggs could be sold at market or swapped for food that the family didn’t grow.

 

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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.

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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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No Spitting, No Belching

banquet_de_charles_v_le_sage

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.

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