Medieval Feast



Medieval Feast in the news

Going back in time 

Community Press & Recorder - Jan 12 11:46 AM
Sixth-grade students at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School recently "took a trip" back in time to study medieval history. Students transformed their classroom to fit the period by painting a wall mural of a castle and moat and displaying coats of arms. The students dressed as kings and queens, lords and ladies and jesters, and organized and participated in a traditional medieval feast. ...
Feast celebrates medieval spirit in Norwich 
Norwich Bulletin - Jan 07 1:19 AM
NORWICH -- Eastern Connecticut has its fair share of chicken, spaghetti and lobster dinner fund-raisers, but Saturday's Twelfth Night medieval feast stood apart.

Medieval feast in Norwich tonight 
Norwich Bulletin - Jan 06 12:03 PM
NORWICH — The 22nd annual Twelfth Night feast will happen at 6:30 p.m. today at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Norwich. The event features a Medieval feast and entertainment, including singing, dancing and bagpiping. It is a fundraiser fro the church and is used to usher in the new year.

Look ahead 
Tucson Citizen - Jan 10 11:41 PM
Wenches, knights and turkey legs will be in abundance at the Arizona Renaissance Festival from Feb. 10-April 1 in Apache Junction. The medieval amusement park features a 12-stage theater, a 30-acre circus, an arts and crafts fair, a jousting tournament and a feast.

- Medeival Feast

Here is an article on Medieval Feast.

Peasants threshing siligo, a type of wheat. Tacuinum Sanitatis, 15th century.

Medieval cuisine refers to the variety Medival Feast of foods eaten by the various European cultures during Medeival Feast the Middle Ages. During the centuries of the Medeval Feast middle ages, diets and cooking changed across Europe, and many of these changes laid Mediveal Feast the foundations for contemporary regional and folk cuisines of Europe. Transportation and communication during Medieal Feast this period was slow and prevented the export of many foods, especially fresh fruit and Meideval Feast meat, that today are commonplace in all industrialized nations, and imported ingredients were the preserve of the wealthy. Therefore, the foods eaten by the wealthy nobility were often considerably more internationalized and prone to foreign influences than the foodstuffs of the lower strata of society, and nobles and upper gentry sought to emulate the royal table. As each level of society imitated the one above it, innovations from international trade and foreign wars gradually disseminated through the upper middle class of medieval towns.

In a time when famines were commonplace and social hierarchies often enforced with considerable brutality, food was an important marker of social status in a way that has no equivalent today. Other than practical economic unavailability of luxuries like imported spices, there were often decrees that outlawed the consumption of certain foods for individuals of certain social classes and sumptuary laws were used to limit the conspicuous consumption of the nouveau riche that weren't part of the nobility. Social norms also dictated that the food of the working classes should be less refined than that of the social elite, since it was believed that there was a divine or natural resemblance between one's labor and one's food, and so hard manual labor required coarser and cheaper food. Contemporary medicine similarly recommended expensive tonics, theriacs, and exotic spices to cure the maladies of noble blood, while recommending the more odorous and lower ranked garlic to the common man.

Ingredients in cooking that were common to most of Europe at the time were verjuice, wine and vinegar. This combined with the widespread usage of sugar (among those who could afford it) gave many dishes a distinctly sweet-sour flavor. The most popular types of meat were pork and chicken, while beef required a greater investment in land and grazing and therefore was less common than today. Cod and herring formed the mainstay for a large proportion of the northern populations, but a wide variety of other species of both saltwater and freshwater fish were also readily consumed. Almonds, both sweet and bitter, were in widespread usage, eaten whole as garnish, or more commonly ground up, and used as a thickener in soups, stews, and sauces. Particularly popular was almond milk, which was one the most common substitutes for animal milk during Lent and fasts.


  • 1 Dietary norms
    • 1.1 Galenic medicine
  • 2 Meals
  • 3 Cereals
  • 4 Fruit and vegetables
  • 5 Drink
    • 5.1 Wine
    • 5.2 Beer
    • 5.3 Distillates
  • 6 Meats
    • 6.1 Fish and seafood
  • 7 Herbs and spices
  • 8 Sweets and desserts
  • 9 Regional cuisines
    • 9.1 Britain
    • 9.2 Northern France
    • 9.3 Western Mediterranean
      • 9.3.1 Iberian Peninsula
      • 9.3.2 Southern France
    • 9.4 Byzantium
  • 10 See also
  • 11 References
  • 12 Notes
  • 13 External links

Dietary norms

Nuns dining in silence while listening to a Bible reading. Note the use of hand gestures for communicating. Scene from The Life of Blessed Saint Humility by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1341.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches and their calendars had great influence on eating habits; consumption of meat was forbidden for a full third of the year for most Christians, and all animal products such as eggs and dairy products (but not fish) were generally prohibited during Lent and fast. The church often acceded to demands for regional exceptions when non-animal alternatives were unavailable or simply unaffordable (e.g. the puffin being considered a fish for coastal fishermen in Norway). Exempt from fasting regulations were children, the old, pilgrims, workers and beggars, but not the poor as long as they had some sort of shelter. Additionally, it was customary for all citizens to fast prior to taking the eucharist, and these fasts were occasionally for a full day and required total abstinence.

Medical science of the Middle Ages had a much greater influence on what was considered healthy and nutritious. One's lifestyle — including diet, exercise, appropriate social behavior, and approved medical remedies — was the way to good health, and all types of food were assigned certain properties that affected a person's health. All foodstuffs were also classified on scales ranging from hot to cold and moist to dry, categories which corresponded to the theory of four bodily humors, proposed by Galen, that dominated Western medical science from late Antiquity until the 17th century.

Galenic medicine

Medieval scholars considered human digestion to be a process that was very similar to cooking. The processing of food in the stomach was seen as a continuation of the preparation initiated by the cook. In order for the food to be properly "cooked" and for the nutrients to be properly absorbed by the body, it was important that stomach was filled in an appropriate manner. Easily digestible foods should be consumed first and then followed by gradually heavier dishes. If this regimen were not respected, it was believed that heavy foods would sink to the bottom of the stomach, thus blocking the digestion duct, so that food would digest very slowly and cause putrefaction of the body and draw bad humors into the stomach. It was also of vital importance that food of differing properties not be mixed.[1]

Before a meal, the stomach would preferably be opened with an apertif (from Latin: aperire, "to open") that consisted of something that was preferably of a hot nature; confections made from sugar- or honey-coated spices like ginger, caraway and seeds of anise, fennel or cumin, wine and sweetened fortified milk drinks. As the stomach had been opened to prepare it for the coming meal, it should also be closed with the help of a digestive, most commonly a dragée, which during the Middle Ages consisted of lumps of spiced sugar or hypocras, wine flavored with fragrant spices and a variety of sweetened and aged cheese.

A meal should ideally begin with easily digistable fruit, like apples. It would then be followed by vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, purslane, herbs, moist fruits, light meats like chicken or goat kid with potages and broths. Later on would come heavy meats like pork and beef and vegetables and nuts like pears and chestnuts, both considered difficult to digest. It was popular (and recommended by medical expertise) to finish the meal with aged cheese and various digestives.[2]


John, Duke of Berry enjoying a grand meal. The Duke is sitting with a cardinal at the high table, under a luxurious baldaquin, in front of the fireplace, tended to by several servants, including a carver. On the table to the left of the Duke is a golden salt cellar, or nef, in the shape of a ship; illustration from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, ca 1410.

There were typically two meals per day in medieval society: dinner (the medieval equivalent of the modern lunch) around noon and a lighter supper later at night. Moralists of the day frowned on the idea of breaking the overnight fast too early in the day, and members of the church and the cultivated gentry avoided it. Breakfast was, for practical reasons, still eaten by a large proportion of working men and having an early morning meal was tolerated for young children, women, the elderly and the sick. Because the medieval church preached against gluttony at least as often as other vices and weaknesses of the flesh in general, most men tended to be ashamed of breakfast and would not admit to succumbing to such a weak practicality. Lavish dinner banquets and late night reresopers with considerable amounts of alcohol were considered immoral. Especially the latter was associated with vices like gambling, crude language, drinking, and lewd flirtation. Minor meals and snacks were common (though also disliked by the church), and working men commonly received an allowance from their employers in order to purchase food to be eaten during breaks.[3]

Food was mostly eaten with spoons or with one's bare hands. Knives were used at the table, but most people were expected to bring their own, and only favored guests were given their own knife at a dinner table. The latter were usually shared with at least one other dinner guest unless one was of very high rank or well-acquainted with the host. Before the meal and after each course shallow basins filled with water and linen towels were offered to guests so they could wash their hands, and great emphasis was put on cleanliness. Shared drinking cups were common even at lavish banquets for all but those who sat at the high table, as was the standard etiquette of breaking bread and carving meat for one's fellow diners. The collective and hierarchical nature of medieval society was reinforced in these rules of etiquette where the lower ranked were expected to help those in a higher position, the younger the older, and men women. Overall, banquet and fine dining was a predominantly male affair. It was, for example, uncommon for anyone but the most honored of guests to bring his wife, or for that matter her ladies-in-waiting. Since social codes made it difficult for women to uphold the stereotype of being neat, delicate and immaculate while enjoying a sumptuous feast, the wife of the host often dined in private along with her entourage. She could then join dinner only after the potentially messy and practical business of eating was finished.[4]

Forks for eating were not in widespread usage in Europe until the Modern era and early on it was limited to Italy, most likely because the most common staple food was pasta. Still, it was not until the 14th century that the fork had become common among Italians of all social classes. The change in attitudes can be illustrated by the reactions to the table manners of the Byzantine princess Theodora Doukaina in the 11th century. She was the future wife of the Doge of Venice, Domenico Selvo, and caused considerable dismay among upstanding Venetians. The foreign consort's insistence on having her food cut up by her eunuch servants and then eating the pieces with a golden fork shocked and upset the diners so much that the Bishop of Ostia later saw her abstemiousness as pride and referred to her as "...the Venetian Doge's wife, whose body, after her excessive delicacy, entirely rotted away."[5]


A baker caught trying to cheat customers was punished by being dragged around the community on a sleigh with the offending loaf of bread tied around his neck.

The phrase Our daily bread is largely figurative to most Europeans today, but was a very concrete reality during the Middle Ages. Food intake among all social classes consisted mainly of cereals, usually in the form of bread and, to a lesser extent, pasta. Estimates of bread consumption in various regions have turned out to be very similar; around 1–1.5 kg (2–3 lb) of bread per person per day. The most common grains were rye, barley, buckwheat, millet and oat. Rice remained a fairly expensive import for most of the Middle Ages and was grown in northern Italy only towards the end of the period. Wheat was common all over Europe and was considered to be the most nutritious of all grains, but was far more expensive since it carried with it a higher social prestige. The finely sifted white flour that modern Europeans are most familiar with was reserved for the bread of the upper classes, while those of lower status ate bread that became coarser, darker and of a higher bran content the lower one was on the social ladder. In times of grain shortages or outright famine, grains could be supplemented with cheaper and less desirable substitutes like chestnuts, dried legumes, acorns, ferns and a wide variety of more or less nutritious vegetable matter.

One of the most common constituents of a medieval meal, either as part of a banquet or as a small snack were sops, pieces of bread with which a liquid like wine, soup, broth or sauce could be soaked up and eaten. Another common sight at the medieval dinner table was the frumenty, a thick wheat porridge often boiled in a meat broth and seasoned with spices. Porridges were also made of every type of grain and could be served as desserts or sick dishes if boiled in milk (or almond milk) and sweetened with sugar. Pies[6] filled with meats, eggs, vegetables or fruit were common throughout Europe as were turnovers, fritters, donuts and many similar pastries. By the Late Middle Ages biscuits, and especially wafers, eaten for dessert had become high-prestige foods and came in many varieties. Grain, either as bread crumbs or flour, was also the most common thickener of soups and stews along, or in combination, with almond milk.

A baker with his assistant. As seen in the illustration, the standard shape of loaves was always round.

The importance of bread as a daily staple meant that bakers played a crucial role in any medieval community. Among the first town guilds to be organized were, naturally, the bakers', and laws and regulations were passed to keep the bread prices stable. The English Assize of Bread and Ale of 1266 listed extensive tables where the size, weight and price of a loaf of bread was set in relation to wheat prices. The tables were later supplemented by adding the cost of everything from firewood and salt to a dog and even the baker's own wife. Since bread was such a central part of the medieval diet, swindling by those who were trusted with supplying the precious commodity to the community was considered a serious offense. Bakers who were caught tampering with weights or diluting their doughs with less expensive ingredients could receive severe penalties.[7]

Bread was put to use for more than just eating: though often of wood or metal (mostly pewter), trenchers that served as dinner plates in affluent households were made out of old bread made from unsifted flour far into the early modern era, and bread was used to wipe off knives when passing them to the next diner or before fishing out salt from the shared salt cellars. Even the seemingly carefree handling of hot metal serving plates could be achieved with slices of bread neatly tucked into the hands of servants, but still away from the unforgiving gaze of fussy, high-ranking diners.[8]

Fruit and vegetables

Harvesting cabbage. Tacuinum Sanitatis, 15th century.

While grains were the primary constituent of almost every meal, various vegetables such as cabbage, beet, onion, garlic and carrot were also common foodstuffs. However, though many of these plants were eaten on an almost daily basis by peasants and workers, they were generally considered less prestigious than all forms of meat. The cookbooks that appeared in the late Middle Ages only contain a small percentage of recipes using vegetables other than side dishes and the occasional potages. The primary forms of preparation were in soups or stews. The orange carrot that is the most common today did not appear until the 17th century. Various legumes, like chickpeas, fava beans and peas were also common and important sources of protein.

Fruit was popular and was served fresh (even if the medical science of the time discouraged it), dried, or preserved. Since sugar and honey were expensive, it was common to include many types of fruit in dishes that called for sweeteners of some sort. The fruits of choice in the south were lemons, citrons, bitter oranges (the sweet type was not introduced until several hundred years later), pomegranates, quinces and, of course, grapes. Further north apples, pears, plums and strawberries were more common. Figs and dates were eaten all over Europe, but remained more exclusive in the northern regions where they had to be imported.

Common and often basic ingredients in many modern European cuisines like potatoes, kidney beans, cacao, tomatoes, chili peppers and maize were not available to Europeans until the late 15th century with the discovery of the Americas, and even then it often took a long time for the new foodstuffs to be accepted by society at large.


A friar sneaking a drink of wine.

Water is often seen today as a common and neutral choice to drink with a meal. In the Middle Ages concerns over purity, medical recommendations and its low prestige value made it a less favorable option and alcoholic beverages were always preferred. They were considered to be more nutritious and beneficial to digestion than water with the invaluable bonus of being far less prone to putrefaction due to the alcohol content. Wine was consumed on a daily basis in most of France and all over the Western Mediterranean where grapes were cultivated. Further north it remained the preferred drink of the bourgeoisie and the nobility who could afford it, and far less common among peasants and workers. The drink of commoners in the northern parts of the continent was primarily beer or ale; due to problems with preservation of this beverage for any long period (especially before the introduction of hops) it was mostly consumed fresh; it was therefore cloudier and perhaps of a lower alcohol content than the typical modern equivalent. Plain milk was not consumed by adults except the poor or sick, being reserved for the very young or elderly, and then usually as buttermilk or whey. Fresh milk was overall less common than other dairy products because of the lack of technology to keep it from spoiling.[9]

Juices, as well as wines, of a multitude of fruits and berries had been known at least since Roman antiquity and were still consumed in the Middle Ages; perry, cotignac from medlars or quince, wine from pomegranate, mulberries, blackberries and cider, which was especially popular in the north where both apples and pears were plentiful. Medieval drinks that have survived to this day include prunellé from wild plums (modern-day slivovitz), mulberry gin and blackberry wine. Many variants of mead have been found in medieval recipes, with or without alcoholic content. However, the honey-based drink became less common as a table beverage towards the end of the period and eventually wound up primarily as a sick-potion. Kumis, the fermented milk of mares or camels, was known in Europe but as with mead, was mostly something prescribed by physicians.[10]


A matron demonstrates how to properly treat and conserve wine.

Wine had the highest social prestige of all drinks and was also regarded as the healthiest choice. According to the dietetics based on Galenic theory it was considered to be hot and dry (hence the modern use of "dry" in describing the flavour of wine), but these qualities were moderated when wine was mixed with water before drinking, as it frequently was. Unlike water or beer, which were considered cold and moist, consumption of wine in moderation (especially red wine) was, among other things, believed to aid digestion, generate good blood and brighten the mood. The quality of wine differed considerably according to vintage, the type of grape and more importantly, on the number of grape pressings. The first pressing was made into the finest and most expensive wines which were reserved for the upper classes. The second and third pressings were subsequently of lower quality and alcohol content. Common folk usually had to settle for a cheap white or rosé from a second or even third pressing, meaning that it could be consumed in quite generous amounts without leading to heavy intoxication. For the poorest (or hard-line religious ascetics), watered-down vinegar would often be the only available choice.

The aging of high quality red wines required more specialized knowledge as well as expensive storage and equipment, and resulted in an even more expensive and exclusive end product. Judging from the advice given in many medieval documents on how to salvage wine that bore the tell-tale signs of going bad, preservation must have been a widespread problem. Even if vinegar was a common ingredient in many dishes, there was only so much of it that could be used at one time. In the 14th century cookbook Le Viandier there are several methods for salvaging spoiling wine; making sure that the wine barrels are always topped up or adding a mixture of dried and boiled white grapeseeds with the ash of dried and burnt lee of white wine were both effective bactericides, even if the chemical processes were not understood at the time. Spiced or mulled wine was not only popular among the affluent, but also considered especially healthy by physicians. Wine was believed to act as a kind of vaporizer and a conduit of other foodstuffs to every part of the body, and the addition of fragrant and exotic spices would make it even more wholesome. Spiced wines were usually made by mixing an ordinary (red) wine with an assortment of spices such as ginger, cardamom, pepper, grains of paradise, nutmeg, cloves and sugar. These would be contained in small bags which were either steeped in wine or had liquid poured over them to produce hypocras and claré, and by the 14th century bagged spice mixes could be bought ready-made from spice merchants.[11]


While wine was the most common table beverage in much of Europe, this was not the case in the northern regions where grapes were not cultivated. Those who could afford it purchased imported wine, but even among royalty and nobility in these areas, it was common to drink beer or ale, particularly towards the end of the Middle Ages. In England, the Lowlands, northern Germany and Scandinavia beer was consumed on a daily basis by most of the population. However, the heavy influence from Arab and Mediterranean culture on medical science (particularly due to the Reconquista and the influx of Arabic texts) meant that beer was often heavily disfavored. For medieval Europeans, it was a humble brew compared with more southernly foodstuffs like olive oil and wine. Even comparatively exotic products like camel's milk and gazelle meat could receive more positive attention in many medical treatises. Beer was ususally no more than an acceptable alternative and was assigned various negative qualities. In 1256, the Sienese physician Aldobrandino described beer in the following way:

But from whichever it is made, whether from oats, barley or weat, it harms the head and the stomach, it causes bad breath and ruins the teeth, it fills the stomach with bad fumes, and as a result anyone who drinks it along with wine becomes drunk quickly; but it does have the property of facilitating urination and makes one's flesh white and smooth.

The intoxication induced by beer was believed to last longer than that of wine, but it was also, almost grudgingly, admitted that it did not create the "false thirst" associated with wine. Though less prominent than in the north, it was known and consumed in both northern France and the Italian mainland. Perhaps as a consquence of the Norman conquest and the movement of nobles from France to England and back, one French variant described in the 14th century cookbook Le Menagier de Paris called godale (most likely a direct borrowing from the English "good ale") was made from barley and spelt, but with without hops. In England there was also the the variants poset ale, made from hot milk and cold ale, and brakot or braggot, a spiced ale prepared much like hypocras.[12]


The art of distillation was practiced by the Chinese, who prepared a form of rice whiskey in porcelain stills as early as the 9th century BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans also knew of the technique, but it was not practiced on a major scale until some time around the 12th century, when Arabic innovations in the field combined with water-cooled glass alembics were introduced. Distillation was believed by medieval scholars to produce the essence of the liquid being purified, and the term aqua vitae ("water of life") was used as a generic term for all kinds of distillates into the 17th century. The early use of various distillates, alcoholic or not, was varied, but it was primarily culinary or medicinal; grape syrup mixed with sugar and spices was prescribed for a variety of ailments and rose water was used as a perfume, a cooking ingredient and for hand washing. Alcoholic distillates were also occasionally used to create dazzling, fire-breathing subtleties by soaking a piece of cotton in spirits. It would then be placed in the mouth of the stuffed, cooked and occasionally redressed animals, and lit just before presenting the creation.

Aqua vitae in its alcoholic forms was highly praised by medieval physicians. In 1309 Arnaldus of Villanova wrote that "It prolongs good health, dissipates superfluous humours, reanimates the heart and maintains youth." In the Late Middle Ages, the production of moonshine started to pick up, especially in the German-speaking regions. By the 13th century, Hausbrand (literally "home-burnt" from gebrannter wein, brandwein; "burnt (distilled) wine") was commonplace and is the origin of brandy. Towards the end of the Late Middle Ages, the consumption of spirits became so ingrained even among the general population that restrictions on sales and production began to appear in the late 15th century. In 1496 the city of Nuremberg issued restrictions on the selling of aquavit on Sundays and official holidays.[13] During times of dearth, the distilling was particularly frowned upon, as it required large amounts of grain for low volumes.


Pig about to be slaughtered.

While all forms of wild game were popular among those who could obtain it, the majority of meat came from domesticated animals. Beef was not as common as today because raising cattle was fairly labor-intensive, requiring pastures and feed, and oxen and cows were much more valuable as draught animals and for producing milk. The flesh of animals slaughtered when they were no longer able to serve was not particularly appetizing and therefore less valued. Far more common was pork, which required less attention and cheaper feed. Domestic pigs often ran freely even in towns and could be fed on just about any organic kitchen waste. Among the meats that today are not considered appropriate for food, hedgehog and squirrel were often mentioned in recipe collections.

A wide range of birds were eaten, including swans, peafowl, quail, partridge, storks, cranes, larks and just about any wild bird that could be hunted successfully. Swans and peafowl were often domesticated, but were only eaten by the social elite and were more praised for their fine appearance (often used to create stunning subtleties) than the quality of their meat. As today, geese and ducks had been domesticated but were not as popular as the chicken, the fowl equivalent of the pig. Interestingly enough, barnacle geese were by legend considered to spawn not by laying eggs like other birds, but by growing in barnacles and were hence considered acceptable food for fast and Lent.[14]

The amount of meat consumed varied considerably and there is generally a lack of precise sources from all regions and periods. Some materials can give a rough estimate of what could be considered normal some segments of society. Account books from convents and towns in what is modern-day Germany suggested that the daily rations of meats could be extremely high for some groups, even when compared with modern day consumption. A study of 14th century records from Berlin, Strassbourg and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder by German historians suggests that even city dwellers of relatively low status consumed from 0.5-1 kg (1–2 pounds) of meat a day throughout the year.[15]

Fish and seafood

Fishing lamprey in a stream. Tacuinum Sanitatis, 15th century.

Although ranked lower in prestige than other animal meats, and often seen as merely an alternative to meat on fast days dictated by the church, seafood was still the mainstay of many coastal populations. Especially important was the fishing and trade in herring and cod in the Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. The herring was of enormous significance to the economy of much of Northern Europe, and it was one of the most common commodities traded by the Hanseatic League. Kippers made from herring caught in the North Sea could be found in markets as far away as Constantinople. While large quantities of fish were eaten fresh, a large proportion was salted, dried, and, to a lesser extent, smoked. Stockfish, cod that was split down the middle, fixed to pole and dried, was very common, though preparation could be time consuming, and meant beating the dried fish with a mallet and soaking it in water. A wide range of mollusks including oysters, mussels and scallops were eaten by coastal and river dwelling Mediterranean and British populations, and freshwater crayfish were generally seen as a desirable alternative to meat during fish days. Compared to meat, fish was much more expensive for the inland population, especially in Central Europe, and therefore not an option for most. Fresh water fish such as pike, carp, bream, perch, lamprey, and trout were common. Though actually marine mammals, whales and porpoises were considered to be fish in the Middle Ages and were allowed on fast days. Through rather original reasoning, based on that they spent most of their time in the water, the tails of beavers, but not the rest of the body, were considered to be fish.[14]

Herbs and spices

Harvesting pepper. Illustration from a French edition of The Adventures of Marco Polo.

Spices were among the most luxurious products available in the Middle Ages, the most common being black pepper, cinnamon (and the cheaper alternative cassia), cumin, ginger and cloves. They all had to be imported from plantations in Asia and Africa, which made them extremely expensive. It has been estimated that around 1,000 tons of pepper and 1,000 tons of the other common spices were imported into Western Europe each year during the late Middle Ages. The value of these goods was the equivalent of a yearly supply of grain for 1.5 million people.[16] While pepper was the most common spice, the most exclusive was saffron, and was used as much for its vivid yellow-red color as for its flavor. Spices that have now fallen into some obscurity include grains of paradise, a relation of cardamom which almost entirely replaced pepper in late medieval north French cooking, long pepper, mace, spikenard, galangal and cubeb. Sugar, unlike today, was considered to be a type of spice due to its high cost and humoral qualities.

Common herbs such as sage, mustard, and especially parsley were grown and used in cooking all over Europe, as were caraway, mint, dill and fennel. Anise could be used to flavor fish and chicken dishes and its seeds were served as sugar-coated comfits. Locally grown herbs were more affordable, and also used in upper-class food, but were then usually less prominent or included merely as coloring.

A common modern-day misconception is that medieval cooks used copious amounts of spices, particularly pepper, to disguise the taste of spoiled meat. A medieval feast was as much a culinary event as it was a display of the host's vast resources and generosity. Most European nobles had a wide selection of fresh or preserved meats of domestic animals, game, fowl, fish and seafood to choose from when arranging a banquet. To waste ruinously expensive imported spices on rotten meat would have made no sense either gastronomically or economically and no evidence for this type of usage of spices has been found. The medieval host would hardly have ruined his reputation by serving foul-tasting, spiced flesh at a banquet intended to reflect high social status.[17]

Sweets and desserts

The term "dessert" comes from the Old French desservir, "to clear a table", literally "to un-serve". It would typically consist of dragées and mulled wine accompanied by aged cheese, and by the Late Middle Ages could also inclue fresh fruit covered in sugar, honey or syrup and boiled-down fruit pastes. There was a wide variety of fritters, crêpes with sugar, sweet custards and darioles, almond milk and eggs in a pastry shell that could also include fruit and even bone-morrow or fish.[18] German-speaking areas had a particular fondness for krapfen, fried pastries and dough with various sweet and savory fillings. Marzipan in many forms was well-known in Italy and southern France by the 1340s and is assumed to be of Arab origin.[19] Anglo-Norman cookbooks are full of recipes for sweet and savory custards, potages, sauces and tarts with strawberries, cherries, apples and plums. The English chefs also seemed to have had a penchant for using flower petals of roses and elderberry. An early form of quiche can be found as a Torte de Bry with a cheese and egg yolk filling in Forme of Cury from the 14th century.[20]

A wide assortment of waffles, wafers eaten with cheese and hypocras or a sweet malmsey in northern France as issue de table ("departure from the table"). The ever-present candied ginger, coriander, aniseed and other spices were referred to as épices de chambre ("parlor spices") and were taken as digestible at the end of a meal to "close" the stomach.[21] As their Muslim counterparts in Spain, the Arab conquerors of Sicily introduced a huge variety of new sweets and desserts that eventually found their way to the rest of Europe. Just like Montpellier, Sicily was once famous for its comfits, nougat candy (torrone, or turrón in Spanish) and almond clusters (confetti). From the south, the Arabs also brought the art of ice cream making that produced delightful sherbets and a few marvelous examples of sweet cakes and pastries. Cassata alla Siciliana (from Arabic qas'ah, the term for the terra cotta bowl with which it was shaped) is made from marzipan, sponge cake and sweetened ricotta and cannoli alla Siciliana, originally cappelli di tuchi ("Turkish hats"), fried and chilled pastry tubes with a sweet cheese filling.[22]

Regional cuisines


The feast of William the Conqueror, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, late 11th century.

There is relatively little known about the eating habits of the Anglo-Saxons of the Early and High Middle Ages before the Norman conquest in 1066. Ale was the drink of choice of both commoners and nobles, and the known dishes included various stews, simple broths, and soups. The level of refinement was low, and international influence fairly insignificant. This all changed in the 11th century after the Norman invasion. With the invaders came a new and less provincial gentry, and new eating habits, especially for the nobility. While traditional British cooking today is not regarded with high esteem internationally, the Medieval Anglo-Norman cooks were considerably more refined and more cosmopolitan. It has previously been believed that the Anglo-Norman cuisine was mostly similar to that of France, but recent study has shown that many recipes had unique English traits. This was based partly on the different available foodstuffs on the British Isles, but more due to influence from Arab cuisine through the Norman conquest of Sicily. The Arab invaders in the 9th century had cultivated their lifestyle culturally and economically to such a degree that the Norman invaders inherited and adapted many of their habits, including cooking styles. Norman participation in the crusades also brought them into contact with Middle Eastern and Byzantine cooking.[23]

The subtlety, the fanciful and highly decorative surprise dish used to separate one course from another, was brought to new levels of complexity and refinement by the English chefs. Among the specialties were pommes dorée ("gilded apples"), meatballs of mutton or chicken colored with saffron or a glaze of egg yolk. The Anglo-Norman variant, pommes d'orange, were flavored and coloured with the juice of bitter oranges.[24]

Northern France

Green grapes being picked to make verjuice, 1474.

Northern French cuisine had many similarities to the Anglo-Norman French across the channel, but also had its own specialties. Typical of the Northern French kitchen were the potages and broths, and French chefs excelled in the preparation of meat, fish, roasts, and the sauces that were considered appropriate to each dish. The use of dough and pasta, which was fairly popular in Britain at the time, was almost completely absent from recipe collections with the exception of a few pies. Nor were there any forms of dumplings or the fritters that were so popular in Central Europe. A common Northern French habit was to name dishes after famous and often exotic places and people.

A specialty among finer French chefs was the preparation of so-called parti-colored dishes. These mimicked the late medieval fashion of wearing clothing with two colors contrasting one another on either side of the garment, a fashion that survived in the costumes of court jesters. The common Western European "white dish" (blanc manger) had a northern French variant where one side was colored bright red or blue. Another recipe in Du fait de cuisine from 1420 described an entremet consisting of a roasted boar's head with one half colored green and the other golden yellow.[23]

Western Mediterranean

Roman influence on the entire Mediterranean region was so considerable that to this day, the basic food in most of the region is still wheat bread, olives, olive oil, wine, cheese, and the occasional piece of meat or fish. The territories from the Atlantic to the Italian Peninsula, and especially the Catalan and Occitan-speaking areas were closely interrelated culturally and politically. The Muslim conquest of Sicily and southern Spain was highly influential on the cuisine by introducing new plants like lemons, pomegranates, eggplants and spices such as saffron. The coloring of food and many other cooking techniques were passed on by the Arab invaders to their European possessions and were gradually spread to regions further north.

Iberian Peninsula

The Iberian Peninsula has a highly varied geography with a central Meseta, a vast, flat plateau, surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges and cut off from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees. This meant that several distinct cultures co-existed on the peninsula with several unique cuisines. Since Ancient times it had been a colony of several Mediterranean cultures. The Phoenicians introduced the cultivation of olives and the Greeks brought the Malvasia grape, founding a wine industry that would become renowned in the Middle Ages. But it was the Roman Empire, of which the peninsula was the westernmost outpost, that had the biggest impact on Iberian cuisine. After the collapse of Roman rule, Visigothic invaders conquered most of the modern day Spain and Portugal in the 5th century until. The Visigoths took on many Roman customs, like the focus on vegetables, and used Latin for official purposes. But it was the invasions of North African Muslims and the establishment of Al-Andalus that gave Iberian cuisine its unique nature. The Muslims brought with them the highly refined cuisine influenced by Arab courts in the Middle East. The center of this Arab civilization was Baghdad, at the time one of the largest cities in the world. The new rulers introduced many new customs and foodstuffs; goblets made of glass rather than metal, savory meat dishes cooked with fruit, spices and herbs like cinnamon, mastic, caraway, sesame and mint and the use of ground almonds or rice as thickeners and a fondness for adding tangy liquids like verjuice, tamarind and the juice of bitter oranges to produce a distinctly sweet-sour taste. The impact can clearly be seen in the multitude of Arab loanwords in Spanish; naranja "orange" (originally "norange" in English), azúcar ("sugar"), alcachofa ("artichoke"), azafrán ("saffron") and espinaca ("spinach"), many of which eventually spread to other languages in Europe. The Spanish Muslims established the sequences of dishes which was to permeate the entire continent and which is still forms the basis for many modern European meals; soup followed by meat dishes and finished off with sweets. It also believed that escabeche, a vinegar-based dish, could very well be of Arab-Persian origin, though this has been contested.[25]

One of the earliest medieval cookbooks in a language other than Latin was Libre de Sent Soví, "The Book of Saint Sophia", written in Catalan around 1324. A majority of its recipes call for bitter oranges, rose water and cider to achieve the popular tangy flavor of late medieval cuisine. It contains many fish recipes, but surprisingly enough, no mention of shellfish, which must have been one of the major food sources in the Catalan coastal regions. The highly influential Libre del Coch was published in a printed edition in 1520, but is assumed to have been written no later than 1490. The typical medieval white dish (manjar blanco) seems to have appeared first in Catalonia in the 8th century and eventually evolved into a type of sweet pudding. While poorly represented in cookbooks, the most common food for the general population, other than the regular staples of bread, wine, garlic, onion and olive oil, included eggs, lamb, beef, kid and bacon.[26]

The Jewish population of Al-Andalus, the Sephardic Jews, developed their cuisine in close contact with Christians and Muslims. Influences went in both directions and lasted even after the expulsions and forced conversions of the Jewish population that followed the Reconquista. Among the specialties was adafina (from Arabic al dafina "the buried treasure"), a meat dish that was prepared by burying it in hot coals on the day before the Shabbat. Jewish fish pie dishes have survived in Spanish cuisine as empanadas de pescado.[27]

Southern France

The cuisine of southern France, corresponding roughly to the extent of Occitania, had far more in common with Italian and Catalan cooking than with northern French cuisine. Ingredients that distinguished southern cooking included chickpeas, pomegranates and lemons, all of which were grown locally. While pomegranate seeds were occasionally used to decorate dishes in France and England, including pomegranate juice as a flavoring was unique to the Occitan areas. The use of butter and lard was rare, salted meat for frying was common, and the preferred methods of cooking tended to be dry roasting, frying, or baking. For the latter, a trapa, a portable oven that was filled with food and buried in hot ashes, was often used. Dishes still common today, like escabeche, a vinegar-based dish, and aillade (aioli), a garlic sauce, were well-established in the Late Middle Ages. Evidence of influence from Muslim Spain can be found in recipes for matafeam, a Christian version of the originally Hispano-Jewish Shabbat stew adafina, but with pork rather than lamb. Only one minor recipe collection from southern France has survived, written in Latin with occasional words in Occitan, but some very concrete details have been extrapolated from Vatican archives from 1305–78 when Avignon was the seat of the Avignon Papacy. Though the lifestyles of the papal courts could often be very luxurious, the Vatican account books of the daily alms given to the poor describe some of what lower class food in the region was like. The food that was handed out to the needing consisted manly of bread, legumes, and some wine. The alms could occasionally be supplemented with cheese, fish, olive oil and meat of low quality.[23]

Montpellier, located on in Languedoc only a few miles from the coast, was a major center for trade, education in medicine, and was famous for its espices de chamber or "parlor confections", a term for sweets such as candied aniseed and ginger. The confectionery from the town was so renowned that the market value was twice as high as that of similar products from other towns. Montpellier was also well-known for its spices and the wines with which they were flavored, like the ubiquitous hypocras.[28]


Main article: Byzantine cuisine

The culinary traditions of Roman times lived on in the Byzantine empire. Inherited from Greek traditions was the usage of olives and olive oil, wheat bread, and garós, the Greek term for garum, a sauce made out of fermented fish that was so popular as that it more or less replaced salt as the common food flavoring. The Byzantine kitchen was also influenced by Arab cuisine from which it imported the use of eggplants and oranges. Seafood was very popular and included tuna, lobster, mussels, oysters, murena, and carp. Towards the Late Middle Ages the habit of eating roe and caviar was also imported from the Black Sea region in the 11th century. Dairy products were consumed in the form of cheese (particularly feta), and nuts and fruits such as dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, and apples. The choice of meats were lamb, and several wild animals like gazelles, wild asses, and suckling young in general. Meat was often salted, smoked or dried. Wine was popular, like elsewhere around the Mediterranean, and it was drink of choice among the higher social classes, where sweet wines like Muscat or Malmsey were popular. Among the lower classes, the common drink tended to be vinegar mixed with water. Like all Christian societies the Byzantines had to abide by the dietary restrictions of the church, which meant avoiding meats (and preferably general excesses) on Wednesdays and Fridays and during fast and Lent.

The Byzantine empire also became quite famous for its desserts, which included biscuits, rice pudding, quince marmalade, rose sugar and many types of soft drinks. The most common sweetener was honey, with sugar extracted from sugar cane being reserved for those who could afford it.

The food of the lower classes was mostly vegetarian and limited to olives, fruit, onions, and the occasional piece of cheese, or stews made from cabbage and salted pork. The standard meal of a shoemaker was described in a Byzantine poem, one of the Ptochoprodromika, as consisting of some cooked foods and an omelette followed by hot salted pork with an unspecified garlic dish.[29]

See also

  • frumenty
  • Guillaume Tirel
  • Le Viandier
  • sop
  • subtlety


  • Adamson, Melitta Weiss (2004) Food in Medieval Times ISBN 0-313-32147-7
  • The Fontana Economic History of Europe: The Middle Ages (1972); J.C Russel Population in Europe 500-1500 ISBN 0-00-632841-5
  • Henisch, Bridget Ann (1976), Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society ISBN 0-271-01230-7
  • Nordberg, Michael (1984), Den dynamiska medeltiden ISBN 91-550-2786-5
  • Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe: A Book of Essays (2002), edited by Melitta Weiss Adamson ISBN 0-415-92994-6
  • Scully, Terence (1995) The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages ISBN 0-85115-611-8


  1. ^ Scully 135-136
  2. ^ Scully 126-135
  3. ^ Henisch chapter 2
  4. ^ Adamson pg. 161–164,
  5. ^ Henisch pg. 185–186
  6. ^ Early pies had bottom crusts that were not intended to be eaten. The modern equivalent of a pie, with a completely edible crust, was not conceived until the 14th century.
  7. ^ Scully pg. 35–38
  8. ^ Adamson pg. 161–164
  9. ^ Adamson pg. 48–51
  10. ^ Scully pg. 154-157
  11. ^ Scully pg. 138–146
  12. ^ Scully pg. 151-154
  13. ^ Scully pg. 157-165
  14. ^ a b Adamson chapter 1
  15. ^ Nordberg pg. 40
  16. ^ Adamson pg. 65; by comparison, the estimated population of Britain in 1340, right before the Black Death was only 5 million and a mere 3 million by 1450 (Fontana pg. 36)
  17. ^ Scully pg. 84-86
  18. ^ Scully 135-136
  19. ^ Adamson pg. 89
  20. ^ Adamson pg. 97
  21. ^ Adamson pg. 110
  22. ^ Regional Cuisines pg. 120-121
  23. ^ a b c Adamson chapter 3
  24. ^ Regional Cuisines chapter 2
  25. ^ Regional Cuisines pg. 125-132
  26. ^ Regional Cuisines pg. 138-141
  27. ^ Regional Cuisines pg. 136-138
  28. ^ Regional Cuisines chapter 3, The South
  29. ^ Regional Cuisines chapter 1

External links

Food Portal
  • Le Viandier de Taillevent - An online translation of the 14th century cookbook by James Prescott
  • How to Cook Medieval - A guide on how to make medieval cuisine with modern ingredients
  • The Forme of Cury - A late 14th century English cookbook, available from Project Gutenberg

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