Thursday 20 June 2019

Mediaeval food, feast and famine by Carolyn Hughes

In my novels of 14th century England, like many other writers, I try to include a good deal of description of medieval daily life. Clothing, housing, furniture and furnishings, artefacts and tools, working practices, medical practices and, of course, food, can all help to place characters in context, differentiate the life styles of people of diverse stations, and bring a sense of authenticity to the historical world one is creating.

In this post, I thought it might be interesting to review what I have learned so far about the food that medieval people ate, using a few descriptions from my own novels as evidence.

Daily bread

I have read that breakfast was a meal that few folk ate, but maybe that applied mostly to the better-off, who might rise late and weren’t required to expend much energy during their day. For them, waiting until dinnertime – at around midday or so – might not seem much of a hardship. But, for the peasant who spent his or her entire day in the fields, rising at dawn and setting off to work soon after, waiting four or five hours for a first bite to eat would surely make for an inefficient, ineffective and disgruntled worker. I feel sure that most labouring people, and tradesmen, would have broken their fast before they went to work, albeit if all they had was just a hunk of dry bread and a cup of weak ale.

Eleanor wrapped two thick cloaks about her shoulders as she sat down to eat her unappetising breakfast – the breakfast Hawisa always insisted that she ate. In truth, a small bowl of Hawisa’s flavourless but warming gruel would have been more welcome than the hard coarse bread, dry cheese and mug of cold ale set before her.”

Peasants breaking bread. Public Domain via

Dinner was the main meal of the day. In religious houses, the time for the meal was originally “nones”, the ninth hour after sunrise, which, depending on the time of year, might be the middle of the afternoon (i.e. the equivalent of 3pm). But, again, working people couldn’t wait so long, so “noon”, and dinner, generally happened around midday (12pm).

For most people, this would be the (possibly only) hot meal of the day. For working people (assuming they ate at home), it would usually entail a pottage of some sort – essentially a stew or thickened soup – with vegetables, a little meat if available, and maybe some “extras” gathered (possibly illegally) from the fields and woods. It would be eaten with a lot of bread and ale.

Peasants might not eat meat every day but, if they had the space to rear hens and a pig or two, then they might have the occasional chicken, and more certainly pork, including the bacon they smoked by hanging a flitch where it would receive the fumes from the fire. My reading suggests that, while beef was eaten, lamb was less often on the menu, even of the wealthy, perhaps because sheep were raised principally for their wool. Eggs and fish would be available, the latter perhaps most commonly for coastal-dwelling peasants, for fish in the manor’s rivers in principle belonged to the lord and was not available to his tenants, unless they risked poaching it. 

Pork butcher. Public Domain via 

Wealthier people might well also have some pottage, though the finest pottages might contain almond milk, or spices such as ginger and saffron. But they would perhaps also have some roasted meat, or a meaty stew – a brewet – which might also be rich and spicy. I imagine it was rare for peasant folk to have access to spices…

Apart from the vegetables in the pottage or stew, I have the impression that, if you were able to afford meat and good bread, separate vegetable dishes were not especially popular.

The quality of your bread was undoubtedly dependent on what you could afford. Wheat bread was the finest, white bread, with the bran removed, being the preserve of the wealthiest. Maslin was a mix of wheat and rye, perhaps much like our wholemeal bread. Much coarser and darker was bread made from barley, perhaps mixed with rye or flour made from dried peas, or at its worst mixed with chaff and waste from the bakery floor!

Desserts, of fruit, sweet pastry or some sort of milk-based pudding, might be an everyday aspect of the wealthy person’s table. I suppose peasants ate sweetmeats less often, but I assume they might have access to fruits of various kinds, including apples, pears, cherries and strawberries, all of which they could have grown in their gardens (though perhaps only the more prosperous amongst them would give space to growing fruit rather than the staples of onions, peas, beans and cabbage), together with what they could forage from the hedgerows.

Susanna was hurrying back along the narrow path from the vegetable plot to the house, bearing the last of the winter kale, which she intended to add to the beans and onions already in the pottage on the fire.”


Alice…knew exactly where to find the best brambles, as well as a good source of hazelnuts, and, in autumn, where she’d the best chance of locating a few fungi to add savour to her pottage.”


Scanning the remnants of the feast left scattered across the table, he grabbed a leg of cold capon, pierced some slices of roast meat with his knife, and tore a small maslin loaf in half.”

Chickens on a spit. Public Domain via

Supper, I gather, was invariably something simple such as (yet more) bread, cheese and ale. Something cold was likely, especially in the non-summer months, when it would be getting dark by the time the workers reached home. That’s not to say that a stay-at-home housewife might not prepare a warming pottage for her family, if just with vegetables, rather than any meat.

Alice decided to make a little pottage for their supper: she added oatmeal to the pot, together with a few dried peas she’d already soaked and a scrap of the small piece of salted pork that remained, hung up in the storeroom. She stirred the pottage well, and waited for her sons to return.”

If supper in peasant homes was invariably modest, so it might be too in grander homes, even if the quality of the food was better…

Supper at Meonbridge manor was far more meagre than she had expected. Yet, what little was offered was of the highest quality: soft white wheaten bread, a little fresh butter and a delicious sheep’s cheese, both made in the manor dairy, and a bowl of cherries picked from the orchard – and a large flagon of rich Gascony wine.”

It is often assumed that everyone in the Middle Ages drank huge quantities of ale, downing mugsful at every meal. This assumption is based on the premise that water was a no-no, on the grounds that it was almost certainly polluted. But apparently this was by no means universally the case. Water was drunk, unless of course it was known to be unpalatable, which would be judged presumably from its smell and colour.

Having said all this, however, I must admit that most of my characters do seem to drink quite a lot of ale (or wine, depending on their social status)! The ale might be bought from an alewife, who might also run some form of ale-house or tavern, but many peasant housewives made their own ale. This home-brew had a relatively short “shelf-life”, and would be made often and in small batches. I have a number of references to people drinking spiced ale and spiced wine, both of which I have suggested were warmed, though I am not sure if this was invariably the case.

It seems that milk – cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s – was not generally consumed as a drink (except perhaps by children), but was more usually turned into butter and cheese, again often by the housewife.

Feasts might occur at weddings, at Midsummer, at Christmas. I describe at least a couple, both provided to the tenants by the lord and lady of the manor.

The first is a Midsummer feast celebrated at the end of June in 1349, when the devastation caused by the Black Death is finally coming to an end in my fictional community, Meonbridge. This is not a period of famine, but the arrival of the plague had meant that fields weren’t ploughed and sown as they should have been, animals and vegetable gardens had been neglected, so food was not necessarily in plentiful supply. Many people were hungry. The lady of the manor did her very best, in difficult times, to provide a substantial feast for her suffering tenants.

Roasted meats glistened on their trenchers, and dozens of small roasted birds – woodcock perhaps, trapped in the local woods – were accompanied by spicy dipping sauces. There were pigeon pies as well as a rich venison brewet served with a creamy wheat and almond milk frumenty, pease pudding and a thin spicy mortrews. As well as the usual dark rye and barley bread, they all shared a few small maslin loaves that contained a little wheat flour – Sir Richard was probably the only one in Meonbridge who still had wheat from last year’s harvest, but at least he was sharing it with his tenants.

Excitement buzzed around the company as the dishes were presented, then near-silence descended as everyone fell upon the food and devoured what was, for many, the only substantial meal they’d had for several months.”

From the Luttrell Psalter. Public Domain via

And here is a description of a Christmas feast…

…there were coneys in wine, and little pies of venison, a brewet of beef in a thick spicy sauce, and hens stuffed and roasted and glazed with green. A wonderfully rich blend of smells, spicy and savoury, vinegary and sweet, tingled in her nostrils, enticing her to eat...
It was hard to restrain her eagerness to try at once all the appetising dishes laid out around her, but she contented herself with sipping wine and nibbling at the little white wheaten loaves, as she waited for her turn to come to be offered a rabbit leg and a few slices of roasted chicken...

As the first dishes were being consumed, more followed, the most magnificent a whole roasted pig, its mouth stuffed with apples, borne in on a great platter, still hot and steaming, presented to Sir Richard, then placed on a serving table for carving into thick, succulent slices…

Some sweetmeats had been brought to the tables, for those who had had their fill of meat – dishes of pears in wine and plates of honey cakes, baked apples and sweet custard tarts.”

Both of these feast passages do rather give the impression of a modern banquet, with the “first course” consisting of savoury dishes, and the dessert course following on. In practice I understand that courses might contain a mix of dishes, both savoury and sweet, served and eaten together…

Food away from home
Of course not all meals were taken at home... If dinner was eaten at midday, I suspect that, for workers out in the fields, returning home from the fields would take too long, so they would take a “packed lunch” instead. In this extract, the miller is simply too busy to take a break for dinner...

Pa was too busy to eat his dinner at home, because tomorrow was Midsummer’s Eve, and he’d got his orders from the manor. And bread and pies for the whole village needed a lot of flour, and he was racing against time to grind it all.

So Ma wrapped a hunk of coarse bread, a lump of cheese and a flask of ale in a cloth, and bade Peter run to the mill and give the bundle to his father.”

But, as working people so often do today, some might go to the pub for dinner…

‘G’day to ye,’ said a stranger, tipping his hat to the men sitting outside Ellen Rolfe’s ale-house, drinking and munching on Ellen’s hot meat pies…

‘Pies good?’ he asked, sniffing the steam rising from the pastry crust Roger had just sliced into with his knife. Then he tipped his head towards the ale-house door. ‘I jus’ ordered one.’

Roger nodded, his mouth full of hot meat and gravy.


We’re sitting in an alehouse near the market, spending some of the money on an early dinner of pies and cups of weak ale. …my pie[‘s] got meat in it as well as onions, though I have to chew and swallow hard to make all of it go down.”

It seems that, in my ale-houses, mostly pies were served! But not in all…

Some hours later, Thorkell and his brother were dining on stewed mutton and red wine in a grimy, noisy, smoke-filled inn near Andover, some thirty miles from Meonbridge. …the mutton was tough and gristly, and he tried to wash down the half-masticated lump with some of the foul wine. But he started to choke and tears came to his eyes. For a few moments he couldn’t breathe, and his face went red and sweaty, until Gunnar thumped him hard upon the back and the vile lump flew from Thorkell’s mouth and landed in the noisome rushes on the floor. Thorkell gulped more wine and, puffing out his cheeks with relief, wiped his sleeve across his eyes. Then both men threw back their heads and guffawed.”

Oh dear! That doesn’t sound much like “Good Pub Grub”…

Peasant meal. Aristotle, “Politiques et économiques”', France, 15th century. 
Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits

During harvest-time, tenants were entitled to their dinner being provided for them in the fields by their lord. If the lord were generous, it could be something of a mini-feast.

Eleanor was certainly looking forward to a good long drink, for the day was warm and, despite the frequent small cups of weak ale handed round throughout the morning, her mouth was parched from the effort of her labours and the dust that rose constantly from the grain as she bundled the stalks together. The two women trudged across the field to where the food was laid out on huge trestles: a loaf apiece, great hunks of cheese, and even slices of roast meat, as well as enough barrels of ale to slake the thirst of a multitude.”

Exotic ingredients
I have already mentioned the use of spices. I assume that peasants rarely had access to any spices, because of their high cost. They were mostly the preserve of the wealthy, but it does seem that the use of spices of many kinds was very popular in medieval cuisine.

Here, although Eleanor isn’t “wealthy”, neither is she poor, and feels able to treat her cook to a little luxury…

Eleanor stood at the spicerer’s stall, breathing in the curious nose-tingling perfumes rising from the colourful sacks of seeds, barks and berries, and on the edge of a sneeze as pungent dust drifted from the peppercorns the merchant was scooping from a sack. She had always loved coming to the fair. Because it was held only once a year and lasted three days, it encouraged a few merchants to travel from much further afield.

…these foreign merchants sold mostly manufactured goods, which were often of much better quality, or more exotic, than anything the local merchants could offer – the finest woollen cloth, well-made pewter ware, and jewellery – and, sometimes, spices. A spicerer did not come every year to Meonbridge but, in the summer months, an employee of the spice merchant in Winchester would travel between a few Hampshire fairs, bringing cloves and cinnamon, and ginger and mace, as well as pepper. How delighted Eleanor was to find that the spicerer had this year chosen to come here.

She had already treated herself to a length of fine cloth for a new kirtle, and wanted to please Hawisa by buying a little spice and sugar for her to add to a pie or pudding. It could not be much, for she was not one of the wealthier sort, but Hawisa could make a little go a long way.”

The food of the poor
The poor, on the other hand – in my novels, these are the cottars, the labouring folk on the lowest rung of the social ladder – might struggle to provide their family even with the basics. Money was scarce, and they might have very little land to grow their own food.

Emma always knew exactly what she had available to feed her family: bread, of course, a few eggs, dried beans, a couple of onions, sometimes a scrap of bacon or a small piece of cheese when she or Ralph had earned a little extra. It was never much, and never in such quantity she’d not notice something going missing.”

She might have to make do with old vegetables, and be circumspect about how much she buys…

Emma nodded. ‘Four eggs, if you will, Alice, and d’you still have any leeks?’

Alice…held out two fat leeks... ‘Not many left,’ she said. ‘The leeks are rather old now, and you might want to remove the outer layers. Are these enough?’

Emma took one. ‘Just this.’ She’d keep as much of it as she could. She thought she saw a glimmer of understanding in Alice’s eyes. ‘And the eggs.’

At the same time, a woman such as Emma might well long for the opportunity to be a better provider for her children…

She knelt down by her meagre herbary with her weeding hook and fork. She’d learned from Alice long ago how to grow a few herbs, thyme and sage and marjoram, parsley, mint and clary, to add flavour to their simple food. She’d have liked to grow vegetables as well, onions and cabbages, but the plot just wasn’t big enough. She often thought with envy of Susanna’s croft, with not only space enough for vegetables of many kinds, and trees of apple, pear and cherry, as well as herbs, but also for a flock of fussy hens, and even a sty with two fat pigs.”

Food in the time of famine
In a time of famine, however, such as the period 1315-17, the increasing dearth of food might affect everyone. Even those who could grow their own would find their produce dwindling in the face of terrible weather and hopeless growing conditions. But, again, it would be the poor, with no resources, who would suffer most. 

I lift aside the piece of blanket covering my basket and show her the undersized onions and yellow-leaved cabbages. Taking out two onions and a small cabbage, Maud puts them in the pocket of her apron. Then she looks up at me, tears in her eyes. 

‘I can’t pay you, Agnes,’ she says, her voice the merest whisper. I feel a warmth rush to my face, remembering…Pa insisting I must always ask for something…

‘I’ll put them back,’ she says, but I shake my head.

‘No, Maud, keep them. Ma won’t mind.’

‘I’ll make a pottage. Maybe a few worms or grubs’ll make it tasty.’ She sniggers and, for an instant, she’s the cheerful Maud I remember. But the light’s gone entirely from her eyes. 

I give her a little smile. ‘Maybe.’

‘If they’re good enough for badgers,’ she says, ‘they’re good enough for us,’ and pats me on the arm.”

The hardships - and rewards - of war…
Even soldiers, fighting for the king, sometimes suffered from lack of food, when the king’s funds faltered. Yet, there were times too when they had more food than they could eat, when they plundered their enemy’s homes and farms in a brutal chevauchée

The Frenchmen don’t go quietly, but at least go with their lives. Though I can’t say they look grateful to be spared. Only once they’ve gone does Sir Henry order us to overrun their homes and gardens. We pile up our carts with whatever food they had: sacks of grain, remnants of smoked hams still hanging from the rafters, squawking hens and new-laid eggs, rounds of cheese and fresh-baked loaves of bread. We heave in flagons of ale and vats of milk. We tramp though their gardens, churning the soil to mire and ripping from the ground whatever’s growing there – beans, leeks, cabbages and turnips – and tearing fruit – apples, pears, medlars, quince – from their orchards. Then, throwing open the doors of barns and sties, we drive out those pigs and cattle we can butcher for our fires and slit the throats of those we can’t. When our carts are creaking under the weight of what we’ve gathered, we set light to whatever’s left – houses, barns, animals, trees. When it’s burning well we leave, to that night’s camp, to enjoy the fruits of our day’s work.

If you are interested in medieval cookery, although I haven’t tried out any of the recipes, this online cookbook ( offers authentic medieval recipes interpreted for modern use. Could be fun!

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