Food is important! And no, it’s not just because it’s necessary to live. When worldbuilding, food is important because it’s a way to understand a culture. The food they eat, how they cook it, and the rituals that surround it are tools that you can use to set the foundation for your cultures. So, for the sixth episode of our podcast, we interviewed Andy Hook and Giles Gasper, medieval food experts, and here’s what we learned!
What People Get Wrong about Medieval Food
If you’ve watched any movies set in the Middle Ages (or in a medieval-inspired fantasy world), you might have a very specific idea about medieval food. Big banquets where everyone is drunk and flinging leftovers over their shoulder, right? Well, nothing farther from the truth! As it turns out, water existed in the Middle Ages, and people drank it all the time (it’s almost as if it’s healthy for us or something!). And even when they drank ale, the manufacturing process wasn’t as good as it is now, so most of the time it didn’t have as much alcohol as today.
As for the food-flinging, banquets were actually pretty civilized places! They washed their hands, served the person sitting in front of them, and had a lot of respect towards guests and other diners. Everyone was taught table etiquette from an early age—because of course, banquets were usually presided by an important lord, after all.
Some people also think that the reason they used so many spices is to cover the bad taste of the meat they ate. But that’s not true either! They actually had more access to fresh food than we do, so it probably tasted even better!
What did Peasants eat?
As you might guess, poorer people (i.e. most of them) didn’t eat the same as nobles. Meat wasn’t widely available to the general population (although that starts to change in the 14th and 15th centuries), so their diet was mostly legume-based.
And of course, bread was a basic part of the diet. The poorer someone was, the darker their bread was. Now we know that white bread is actually less healthy than darker bread, but in the past white was associated with the high class. In towns, baking bread was often a communal activity. Ovens were expensive and difficult to maintain, so people would prepare the bread and then ask the neighbor with the oven to bake it.
Were table manners actually important?
Yes, they were! Sure, they ate with their hands, but that’s only because they had no alternative. How can you eat with forks if they hadn’t been invented yet? But as we covered earlier, they did wash their hands and had a lot of respect for dining, so it was as hygienic as it could be. And if you weren’t sure about food quality at a banquet you could request your food or drink to be tasted to make sure it was safe to eat.
Banquets took place in large dining halls, usually with the tables set up in a horseshoe shape, with the staff at the center. There was always a lord (or a bishop, or someone else with a high rank) sitting at the high table. The food that was served to the lord was special, in part because if the food was rare (and therefore more valuable), they couldn’t afford to have everyone eating it. However, if you were favored by the lord of that feast, he sometimes sent food down to you so you could also enjoy it.
Seasonal medieval food
It’s important to remember that some food is associated with certain seasons (or times) of the year. This was because of traditions related to religion. For example, lamb was associated with Easter (it’s an important symbol in Christianity), as well as eggs. Before Easter, during Lent, meat wasn’t eaten and instead they ate fish. It’s interesting, though, that they used fish to cook dishes that looked like meat!
Now, a misconception about this is that everyone starved during Christmas (and winter in general). That’s actually not true! They knew which food they could preserve during the cold month, and so they did. Starvation happened if the stores ran out but the new food hadn’t grown yet for whatever reason. And of course, wars and pests could also cause starvation when they affected food storage.
The logistics of medieval food
Sure, back then they didn’t the technology we have nowadays, but they still had expansive networks of merchants that transported food all around the world. In fact, they went to great pains to get all words of spices from Asia, using merchant routes that went through Indonesia. Spices were extremely expensive, but they loved them and they even used spices that are no longer common in Europe (which is part of why it’s difficult to reproduce medieval dishes)! Now, usually, a single merchant wouldn’t make the full journey. Instead, they passed their merchandise from one to another until they reached Europe (or whatever their destination was).
Listen to the full interview!
Want to learn more about medieval food and how to represent it in your world? Check out the full interview on YouTube and Libsyn (part 1, part 2)!
Who are Andy Hook and Giles Gasper?
Andy Hook is an expert chef and the managing director of Blackfriars Restaurant, a restaurant in Newcastle, UK that serves 13th-century food! And Giles Gasper is a Medieval History professor at Durham University who, together with Andy, created Eat Medieval. Eat Medieval is an online course where you can learn to cook medieval food with master chefs and Middle Ages experts! Follow Blackfriars Restaurant and Eat Medieval on Twitter for updates!
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Yeah, you wouldn’t use rare and expensive spices to cover up bad meat. It would be a serious waste. – Nightflyer0ne
If anyone is interested there was a season of history reality television from the BBC called “Tudor Monastery Farm” following the archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold, and historian Ruth Goodman. The team discover what farming was like during the Tudor period at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. Ruth is the one to watch about the day to day of the household and food preparation. I found it quite eye opening, I think its currently streaming on Amazon Prime for those interested. And for those without Prime access I found a playlist on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/yXVzSkfPX4g