Food & Diet in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Food in the Middle Ages was expensive and hard to preserve. Its preparation and preservation changed little over the time period (5th-16th centuries). The early modern time period which proceeded was essential to European history.
This is when European diet and cooking began to change and shape what would make up the foundations for modern day European cookery. However, it is still important to study food in the Middle Ages as it is so different from what we know today.
There was no uniform caloric structure followed in the Middle Ages. Caloric intake depended on region, time, class and other factors. Most diets were high in carbohydrates, and most budgets were spent on cereals, breads and beer.
Meat was highly sought out by all classes, but most lower class citizens could not afford meat or were not allowed to eat meat as sanctioned by the church. The share of meat in the diet in the Middle Ages increased after the Black Plague, and towards the end of the Middle Ages counted for about one fifth of the Medieval diet.
A general estimate of the caloric intake for males during the Middle Ages is an average of 3,000 calories.
The estimate of the average intake of calories for Medieval women is 2,200 calories. However, this is only an average estimate of the population. There are also more specific numbers for those with more demanding jobs or the rich.
-Average calorie intake
Physically demanding jobs (ex. sailor): 3,500 calories or more per day
Aristocrats: 4,000-5,000 calories a day
Monks: 6,000 calories per day on “normal” days
4,500 calories per day when fasting
Because of the high consumption of food intake by the higher classes, obesity was a problem. Monks were especially known to be obese and suffer from obesity-related health problems such as arthritis.
The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches and their calendars had a great influence on the diets of the Middle Ages. Most notably the intake of meat was prohibited several times throughout the year. Most animal products were also forbidden during Lent.
Most Christian Churches deemed that fasting and feasting should alternate. Fridays were often fast days. Fasting also occurred on Lent and Advent. The only animal product allowed during these times was fish.
The purpose of fasting was to degrade the body and refresh the soul. It was also to remind Christians of the humanity of Christ and teach abstinence and self-restraint. The most extreme fast days only allowed one meal.
Ways were found to avoid the restrictions placed on diet, mostly those that prohibited meat. “Fish” was broadened to include other aquatic life such as geese, puffins, whales and beavers. Interestingly, there was no prohibition of drinking or eating desserts.
This also provided an occasion for circumventing the rules that forbade meat. Western churches were lenient with these rules, but Byzantine churches were intolerant of those who tried to refine the dietary restrictions. Laymen were not fond of the restrictive diets, either.
After the 13th century the trend among the clergy and laymen alike became a more strict interpretation of fasting and meat prohibition. Fish was a substitute for meat and almond milk became a stand-in for animal milk. Almond milk in blown out eggshells were also made into imitation eggs.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe there were usually two meals a day. The first meal was a mid-day dinner, and the second meal was a smaller evening supper. This style remained constant throughout the time period. Depending on region and social standing, sometimes smaller meals throughout the day were also common.
Though frowned upon by the church, working men usually received small allowances for these meals, called nuncheons. However, those who did not have to perform physically demanding labor usually went without them.
Breakfast was not a normal meal in the Middle Ages. Moralists and members of the church did not believe in breaking the overnight fast right at the time of waking. Breakfast was eaten by men who performed manual labor for practical reasons. Children, women, the elderly and the sick were also allowed breakfast.
Men were ashamed of breakfast. Because of the emphasis on the deadly sin of gluttony in the Bible, eating breakfast made them feel weak. Feasts involving alcohol, gambling and crude language were also considered immoral.
Meals in the Middle Ages were shared by everyone in the household, from Master to servant. It was considered extremely rude to eat a meal alone or with private company. Towards the end of the time period, however, heads of house sometimes sought out meals in private. Their meals were probably not eaten totally alone, but with a select number of servants or other elite company.
Aristocratic meals went differently. Cleanliness was of highest importance, so before and after the meal, as well as between courses, guests were offered towels in small bowls so they could clean themselves. The wife of the host often dined separately from the rest of the party as women were not usually able to uphold the standard of cleanliness needed to dine with the men. Eating was messy and fine dining was usually an all-male activity. It was standard to share cups and break bread and cut meat for one’s fellow diners.
Cooking always involved an open flame. Ovens were sometimes used, but they only existed in bakeries and large households. Often, a town had a communal oven that could be used by everyone. There were also portable ovens that were used to sell food on the street. However, most cooking was done in stewpots since it was the least wasteful use of cooking juices and firewood.
The most common dishes cooked in stewpots were stews and potages. These dishes most likely had a high fat content when a sufficient amount of meat could be afforded. This was not considered a problem in the Middle Ages by most laymen. Being plump was a sign of acceptance and desirability as it was also a sign of wealth. Only those that were sick, poor, or devout ascetics were thin.