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Medieval Eats (Part 1)

August 14, 2009

Writers are always advised to write about what they know. By following this advice, I am afraid that this is the post that reveals the depths of my geekdom—or at least my fascination with the obscure and poorly-illuminated. In any event, here are some ruminations on a topic near and dear to my heart.

As a scholar working on the early Middle Ages, I occasionally get asked questions like, “What did people eat in the ninth century?” It is difficult to conjure an acceptable answer to that question without seeking further elaboration. Which medieval person’s diet do you wish to explore? The king? One of his courtiers? A monk? Or a bishop? Since this question has so many potential answers, let’s start with the most threadbare diet (the one that I think people most often have in mind when they ask this question): that of the medieval peasant.

Carolingian Peasants

The medieval peasant’s food and drink was simple and humble fare. (Gee, there’s nothing like stating the obvious.) Think basic sustenance. Let’s pretend that you are a peasant living in Carolingian Francia around the year 850. Your food is local in the most literal sense; you eat whatever you can make or pick or otherwise harvest in your immediate vicinity. The core of your diet is grain: bread that you or your neighbors baked, barley or oats made into pottage, or the fermented products of grains (beer or ale, called cervisia). Yeast breads are the most common, with unbleached flours made from barley, rye or spelt. You might “spice up” your loaf with a sprinkling of oats, beans or lentils for texture. Bread for breakfast, bread for lunch, bread for dinner… “our daily bread” indeed.

If you choose to skip the beer, you can always drain the water from the boiled barley, add some honey for sweetness, and quaff to your heart’s content. Mmm. That would be quite pleasant, given that your alternative would be water, so long as “it is not drawn from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook” (Lupus of Ferrières). On the grounds of sanitation alone, I’d recommend you go for the beer. Most people do.

In terms of vegetables, three items form the core of your non-bread diet: beans, vetches, and—most importantly—peas. Peas are grown in abundance and are an important source of protein, which (along with fat) you sorely lack. You can make peas into porridge (hee) or simply boil them without mashing. Pretty much everything goes into the pot for boiling, as this is your preparation method of choice. Even the fruits you might happen to obtain, like apples or pears, are boiled before consumption, because you have been taught that eating food raw is unhealthy and potentially dangerous. Speaking of apples, even in Carolingian times people complain about schoolboys stealing apples from their orchards. Plus ça change

What about meat? You can always go forage through the underbrush down at the nearby creek or marsh. Besides the fish you catch and serve salted or dried, alternatives such as crickets, grasshoppers, and the like provide a precious source of protein for you and your family. Unfortunately meat is generally too pricey for you, with the exception of an occasional helping of salt pork or perhaps bacon fat.

The result of this diet is that you eat “heart healthy”—high (way high) fiber, low fat, low protein, low calorie. But you lack essential lipids and vitamins (A, C and D in particular), as well as calcium. In fact, the levels of fiber in your diet are so high that your digestive tract probably does not absorb the nutrients in your food properly.

One of these days I’ll get around to offering up a recipe for pottage so that you can try to eat like a Carolingian peasant–or Alcuin of York*–for a day. Oh, and remember to pair it with peas, please.

Here are a few good sources for more information on the basics: Pierre Riché, La Vie Quotidienne dans L’Empire Carolingien; Frances & Joseph Gies, Life in a Medieval Village; Paul B. Newman, Daily Life in the Middle Ages

MUSIC: Gustate et videte, Gregorian communion chant… listen here. Because, hey… it’s O taste and see (Ps. 34)

*Note: Theodulf of Orleans’ satire of Alcuin ridicules him for his rhetorical games and his typical meals (pottage and beer or wine), and then casts him aside: “Good riddance, porridge and heaps of curds!”

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