What Did People Eat in Medieval Times? A Video Series and New Cookbook Explain

A couple days ago, Open Culture’s Ayun Halliday brought us the delightfully amusing medieval comics of artist Tyler Gunther. With references to Game of Thrones and a piece of women’s headgear called “Planetary Realness,” the single-panel gags use seemingly-period-correct imagery to play with our presentist biases. The “Medieval Peasant Food Pyramid,” for example, shows a diet based on copious amounts of ale, bread, and cheese, with goose pie once a year and nary a fruit or vegetable in sight.

Stereotypes of medieval European nutrition seem comparatively benign, derived as much from fantasy entertainment as from misunderstandings of history. But while it’s true people in Europe hundreds of years ago died young and in huge numbers from plague, famine, war, and, yes, bad food, they also survived long enough to pass on genes and build cities and towns that still exist today. They didn’t do so strictly on a diet of beer and bread.

If we want to know what people really ate in, say, 12th century England, we’ll find that their diets varied widely from region to region, depending on what cooks could grow, forage, or purchase from other locals. Everyone, in other words, was a localvore. Each region had its recipes for breads and cheeses, and each its own dishes made with its own animals, herbs, spices, and roughage. And we’ll find that major historical events could radically alter diets, as foods—and arable land—became scarcer or more plentiful.

Such were the findings of non-profit volunteer history group Iron Shepherds, who used primary texts, images, and cooking methods to reconstruct ten 12th-century recipes from their native “home county of Cumbria, in the North of England,” reports Atlas Obscura. “[W]hile the country became embroiled in a bloody civil war” over succession during a time known as The Anarchy, Cumbria became a part of Scotland, and lived in relative stability, "home to cultures ranging from the invading Flemish and Frenchman to Celts and even Norse Vikings.”

Needless to say, this diversity of cultures contributed to a diversity of tastes, and a colorful range of dishes with names like frumenty, plumentum, and tardpolene. “Cumbria’s peasants, it turns out, ate much as we strive to today—though for vastly different reasons….." The peasants’ "diets consisted of plant-based, low-sugar meals of locally-sourced, if not home-grown ingredients.” Involuntary fasting might have been a feature for many peasants, but so too was “voluntary, intermittent fasting…. In the name of religious self-discipline.”

What about the upper classes? How might, say, a landed knight eat, once he finished roaming his demesne and rested safe at home with his staff and entourage? In the video at the top, Modern History TV’s Jason Kingsley and food historian Chris Carr discuss the dietary practices of the privileged in medieval times. Again, here we find more surprisingly forward-thinking preventative nutrition, though limited by the medicine of the time. Cooks would consult with the knight’s personal physician, who himself would monitor his patient’s vitals—going so far as to taste the knight’s urine, a way of detecting what we now know as diabetes. Too sweet? Cut out the sugar.

Iron Shepherd’s Medieval Meals cookbook has proven so popular that it’s currently sold out, but you can see many more episodes of Modern History TV’s medieval series devoted to food at their channel on YouTube, including the videos above on the diets of peasants, nobles, and knight’s vassals. There are also vlogs on “Hearty Food vs. Posh Food,” “Good Eating,” and—in answer to that age-old question—“What did medieval peasants use instead of plastic wrap” to store their leftovers? Come for the food, stay for the lively videos on weaponry, hoods, and hay making.

via Atlas Obscura

Related Content:

Watch a 4000-Year Old Babylonian Recipe for Stew, Found on a Cuneiform Tablet, Get Cooked by Researchers from Yale & Harvard

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dating Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

An Archive of 3,000 Vintage Cookbooks Lets You Travel Back Through Culinary Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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