Tag Archives: Medieval Meals

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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