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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