Saturday, April 5, 2014

Beyond the peacocks: what most Medieval eaters actually ate

Imagine you're transported to the twenty-eighth century and your well-meaning temporal host says brightly, “I've prepared some typical dishes from your era!”, then brings out truffled langoustine ravioli with chopped cabbage, sweet corn agnolotii, and Long Island duck breast. While you might be pleased to have dishes taken directly (as these are) from the menus of some of America's most expensive restaurants, you might also say, “Could I have some mac n cheese? Maybe a Cobb salad? Fettucine Alfredo? A hamburger?”

You would then be roughly in the position of a person from the fourteenth century magically transported into the midst of a modern “Medieval” feast, recreating dishes taken directly from period cookbooks. Most of what most people know about Medieval food is taken from such cookbooks. However, these describe either (like Taillevent's Viandier) the food of royalty and the highest nobility or (like the Menagier de Paris) the “aspirational” food of well-off people who wanted to dine in a similar way. What's more, much of the food described was served, not at normal meals, but at great feasts, meant to impress.

A cookbook-based idea of Medieval food, then, leaves one (as the French say) “on your hunger”. While the popular imagination has seized on foods like peacock and swan, served in all their feathers, or dishes reeking of spices as "typical" Medieval fare, in fairness period cookbooks contain a wider range of dishes. Still, if some simpler dishes have found their way into these works, for the most part they do not answer a simple question: what did most Medieval eaters actually eat?

The early Medieval side of that question has already been addressed in an earlier post. What follows here is a look at food from the same period as most cookbooks; that is, the late Medieval period (specifically, here, in France).


Royalty and high nobility

The divergence between the food in cookbooks and regular practice begins with the very classes for which such works were written. Consider a rare extract of accounts for John the Good (reigned 1350 – 1364), right after his coronation (1350). Lalou resumes the food in these:
During the month covered by the accounts, the court ate 130 pigs, of which some are fattened pigs (porci pingues), 37 oxen and 23 sheep. One must add to this rabbits, chickens, partridge, pheasant and plovers, as well as all the fresh or salt-water fish. Among the fish cited, one makes out eels, bruli [?], herring; one must also note crayfish. The king's cooks prepared the dishes in two ways, either in roasting them or in boiling them. Two very distinct parts of the kitchen are responsible in fact for "roast" and "pottage". One must not forget either the "saucery". The kitchen uses spices, sugar, almonds. Fat bacon and pasties are also regularly noted.
In addition to bread, the baked goods include nebulae (“clouds”), a particularly light form of wafer.

The most luxurious items in this list are the spices and the partridge and pheasant, which were of course a step above chicken – but hardly peacock or swan. Nor were the nebulae, if slightly finer than common wafers, exceptional as pastries. While 130 may seem like a large number of pigs, bear in mind that the oxen would have been bigger. Still, these royal meals included more pork than was becoming common at this point. In earlier centuries, this had appeared as the main meat in written accounts; it is far less present in this and later centuries.


About a century later, the accounts for the Burgundian court are similar. The Burgundians by now were already rivaling the French kings and had even sided with the English against them, even if their court had not yet reached the height of its magnificent. Some daily accounts survive for the expenses of Isabelle of Portugal, wife of Philip the Good (1396 – 1467). Sommé, in summarizing these for 1450, highlights the "regularity" of expenditures for food:
In September and October are bought almost each day four sides, four shoulders and six pieces of mutton, a half veal, a veal fraise ("calf's pluck"), a leg of beef, a fat capon, 17 fowl, five pairs of pigeons, a partridge, fifty eggs. The same regularity shows in the consumption of bread, of fats, of verjuice and of vinegar. Finally, if the quantities are not given, the sum spent for pottages and greens are always essentially identical. The accounts tell us less about the consumption of fish because they enumerate the varieties without specifying the quantities, and only mention the total: “The master paid for plaice, sole, red-fish, mullets and herring, XLIX s.” Nonetheless the same species recur frequently. In these days of abstinence, the quantity of eggs grows: instead of fifty, often one hundred are used in cooking.
Nor does this regularity vary by locale; essentially the same data is found for trips to Bruges and Ghent.

In a later analysis, Sommé shows that mutton predominates here, with veal far behind and beef still farther; none of this is in the least exotic today. Otherwise,
During these four months, no mention is made of buying grown pigs [porcs], but only of several younger pigs [cochons], in particular for banquets... These are then suckling pigs and not full-grown... Offal appears in the accounts as well, more frequently than pork butchery products: tripe is eaten every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, a veal fraise is bought almost every day. Ham, rare like pork, only appears at the December 31 banquet.
And for luxuries?
Poultry and game make up the luxury food, more expensive than meat, naturally reserved for the duchess' table, in particular the fatted capon, bought very often, which is as expensive as the quarter of a veal or a pig.... Partridge is the only game regularly consumed... Domestic poultry is then far more important than game in the daily food. It is only during banquets that the guests can consume, in addition to partridge, pheasant, "little goslings", river birds, bitterns. All these products are very expensive... Other game however appears more common, that is the rabbit...
As game goes, partridge and rabbit cut a pretty modest figure next to the large birds and boars often associated with elegant Medieval dining.
Because of their price, birds and game then form the essence of spending for banquet days. In effect if the difference between these days and normal days lies first in a light increase in the part held by outlays for meat, in the larger sense, in the food budget, it consists above all in a far greater increase in expenses for birds and game than expenses for butcher's meat.
As for fish. for Fridays and Saturdays, crayfish especially were appreciated. Roach, sole and plaice, herring and whiting, liver fish, turbot and mullet all appear, especially in Bruges. Other records show that court cooks used mackerel, cod, ray and even porpoise. Mussels appear often as well.

For fresh water fish, which appear less, carp, perch and “white frying fish” are mentioned at Bruges, elsewhere, pike, salmon, eel, trout, gudgeon and bream. "Despite certain recurrences, there is then a relative variety in the fish consumed; the accounts for fast days do not present the remarkable regularity of those of meat days."

Noting that the accounts give no details on how all this was prepared, Sommé nonetheless points out that much of the meat and fish was used in pasties. The pastry-chef (who mainly would not have made sweets at this point) also made tarts and “leafed” pastries – what English-speakers today call “puff pastry” – but possibly more like a Napoleon since she writes that these surely included fish. “This taste for pasties and savory cakes is explained by the need of varying as much as possible the presentation of meats and fish, since these made up the essential of the food.”

The accounts included ginger, cinnamon, saffron and “sundry spices”. Pepper does not appear, but may (unusually) be included in the “sundry spices”. Far more sugar – considered a spice – was bought than of the others. Other imports – rice, Corinth raisins, almonds – are mentioned. These are all relatively luxurious items and some of the few markers that these are meals for the highest class of consumer.

A variety of wines, notably the famous wine of Beaune, also hint at the class of these consumers. But in conclusion Sommé writes: “Whatever the variety of culinary practice... monotony, which shows through the regularity of the expenses, must not have been avoided.” And this at what was virtually a royal court.


A special example appears with the last independent ruler to bear the title of “Dauphin” in the region known as the Dauphiné; after Humbert II sold that possession to the king of France, his title became that of the oldest royal French prince. Humbert II (1312 – 1355) was not good with finances and before he, in effect, sold off his realm, he tried to limit expenses, in part by carefully laying out the meals for his household (around 1336-1337). The result goes on for several pages, but Le Grand d'Aussy sums it up in his eighteenth century history of food:
For his Sunday and Thursday dinner, the Dauphin wants to be served two pasties, each made of a hen and two chickens.
On Monday and Wednesday, he wants a puree of peas or of broad beans, with two pounds of salted pork; then good tripes, cooked in water. For the second service, two portions (rotulos) of beef and mutton, boiled and served with a warm pepper sauce; and, as a roast, six capons, or six fat hens.
On Tuesday, instead of soup, he asks for rice with cabbage, beets. turnips and leeks, with a pound of salted pork; half a portion of boiled beef, served with mustard; twelve chickens, or six hens, cut in half; and, for the second service, a portion of fresh pork.
As for supper, he has it consist of a half-portion of roast beef; beef feet, prepared in vinegar with parsley; and grilled beef tongues, with cameline sauce.
His dessert is made up of cheese and fruit.
The Dauphin's feasting, on meatless days, resembles those of meat days. These are, for Friday, two soups, or puree, either of peas, or of cabbage; of fish, if any are found; twenty-four fried eggs, with a good sauce; Lorraine pasties; then some fried food.
For Saturday, two soups with a puree of broad beans and almonds, seasoned with onion juice and olive oil; fish, if there is any; twelve poached eggs, with a good sauce; tarts of greens, and eight hard-boiled eggs.
The Dauphin of course got the best quality of wine, which happened to be (though not yet known as such) côtes du Rhône.

The Dauphin's knights and barons got essentially the same food, but in smaller quantities. Only he got certain specialties, like the tripes. He also got two types of bread, one the finer pain de bouche, the other small one-pound rolls meant to be dipped (probably in soup).

Le Grand explains that Lorraine pasties “consisted of a fish stuffing, which was enclosed in a pastry kneaded with butter, sugar, and eggs. They were then fried in butter. There were meat versions; and these were stuffed with a hash of capon white meat.” Along with the cameline and pepper sauce, these may be some of the more extravagant items noted here. Note that the special treat in these meals was... tripe.

Otherwise, such a menu would have been unworthy of the time of a chef like Taillevent.



Minor nobility and the middle class

As strapped as he was for a while, one can hardly mention Humbert in the same breath as a host of minor nobles who lived far more simply. Charbonnier has carefully analyzed the accounts of two such nobles in Auvergne, one, William, the lord of the several estates, and the other, his brother Amblard, a cleric, with a modestly prestigious office as dean of a chapter. These accounts come from the start of the fifteenth century. Their meals, Charbonnier writes, were "generally improvised." One example comes from the eve of St. Catherine's in 1387. It is basically made up of bread, wine and five hens. Similar meals (with somewhat less wine) are noted for December 16 and January 16 of the following year.

When Amblard came to visit with an uncle, the commander of Montferrand, on Tuesday December 1, they had a quarter of mutton, bread, wine and two hens for supper; on Wednesday, bread, wine, fish, oil and two hens and for supper, bread, wine, "large meat [beef or mutton] bought at Maringues"; on Thursday (for supper?), bread, wine, three hens.

In September,1389. William's dinner required bread, wine and one hen. Other meals were similar; the number of those present is unknown. Charbonnier says there were two types of meals:
The most ordinary, which one can suppose were improvised, are divided into three elements: bread, wine, and meat which is almost always poultry. It was in fact easy to go find poultry in the neighborhood, perhaps as a rent, while butcher's meat had to be bought at Maringues. More care was taken with the meals served to Amblard and his uncle: they in fact include two meats and these are more varied, since beyond hens, they include mutton, “large meat” and fish.
He notes that wine is always the most expensive item in these meals. He also notes that pork is mentioned relatively little (and game barely mentioned at all), while the estate raised a lot of bovines, though mainly for milk. At one of the estates, butter was the main fat, but at another walnut oil was more common; olive oil was only bought for special occasions. A local lake and the moat provided fish, largely perch and bream. Fish was of course needed for Lent and fast days. Accounts for one of the estates record numerous purchases of fruit; the other seemed to be well-placed to grow these. A similar situation existed for vegetables and one can reasonably speculate that these too were included in meals, though Charbonnier does not suggest as much.

Salt (a purchase) was largely used for salting meats and cheeses. In theory, pepper was among the rents due, but does not seem to have been given in the period covered by the surviving accounts. Ginger, cinnamon and saffron were all bought at Clermont (the first two by the pound, saffron by the ounce). These apparently were used mainly for festive meals.

“Festive” however was relative. Consider the accounts for one gala affair, here the wedding of minor nobles related to these. The accounts list wheat, wine, spices (saffron, ginger and pepper), beef and pork, chickens, cocks, geese, fish, 250 wafers, a quart of vinegar, a bottle of verjuice, a rabbit, a hare, 400 donnihos [?] and mustard. If the spices add a luxurious touch, the other foods are undistinguished. The large amount of wafer belies their low cost, even if such desserts were probably not seen on more modest tables (including, in regular times, William's). Whatever the donnihos were, they barely cost more than the mustard.

If the items listed were sufficient for a large party, they seem neither exotic nor elegant.


In fact, it may be that more modest people living in or closer to Paris fared better as a matter of course. Some glimpses of the meals of comfortable but undistinguished diners come from the acerbic fourteenth century poet Eustache Deschamps (1340–1406). One of his poems is a tirade against mustard, which he claimed was offered to him no matter what he ordered in a Brussels tavern. The food he mentions includes fresh herring, carp, pike in water, fat soles, all this presumably for a fast day, along with green sauce, saffron and "grains" [paradise seed?]; he also enumerates roasts of mutton and boar, hare, rabbit and bustard.

Here is somewhat the reverse of what is seen in the more exalted ranks. If Deschamps was not so impoverished a poet as Villon, for instance, and even held office as a sort of bailiff at one point, he was not of the upper crust either, and yet the meals he considered reasonable for his persona were about the same sort as those noted above. If anything, the bustard would have been a touch better.

In another tirade, this one on fasting for Lent, he says that people leave oxen, cows, mutton, veal and lambs, rabbits, partridge, capons, stags and deer, pork?, butter, eggs and cheese, geese, ducks, pheasant, herons and peacocks for:
Stinking herring, rotting sea fish,
puree and peas, and broad beans in a pile,
cooked apples, ground barley, and rice.
The first list seems to trace foods across classes; it is unlikely that Deschamps or those around him often ate herons or peacock. But much of the list, again, is unexceptional even for today. Otherwise, the second gives an idea (albeit exaggerated) of what people had to put up with for Lent.


Another look at meals for a wider selection of the population, in Paris at least, comes from public feasts held by the “Hostel for Pilgrims” of St. Jacques in Paris. These were held each year for the departing pilgrims and members of the public, all of whom paid to attend. The surviving records record different details, depending on the accountant, but give a vivid picture of the sort of food a paying crowd could expect in fourteenth century Paris:
1338 eight hundred and nine guests:
5 oxen (slaughtered and skinned)
18 pigs
3000 eggs
2 setiers and 3 minots coarse salt and 3 minots white salt
spices mustard verjuice
water (brought by wagon)
cheese, pears
a queue [ about a hogshead and a half] of white wine for the kitchen
1339 seven hundred and ninety-nine guests:
5 oxen
14 pigs
bread (white and dark)
wine; beer for the cooks
fruit (pears)
cheeses of Champagne
verjuice (a setier)
Pasties
five bushels of "cake powder" (spice mix for cakes?)
1340 one thousand eighty guests:
5 oxen
20 pigs
pasties
3000 eggs
Wine - two barrels of white wine and three queues of red wine
bread (white and brown)
salt (2 setiers of coarse salt and 3 minots of broken up, a bushel of white salt)
eight bushels of cake powder
3 Champagne cheeses
4 setiers of verjuice
10 setiers of mustard
1341 twelve hundred and seventy three guests:
6 oxen
19 pigs
pasties
wine 1 queue of red wine, 2 barrels of white wine for the hospital; 1 queue of white wine, 1 barrel of red wine of Beaune
white and dark bread
ten setiers of mustard
3 Champagne cheeses
3000 pears
eight bushels of cake powder
Overall, this shows people eating beef, pork, at least partially in pasties, sometimes eggs, cheese and pears (probably the “dessert”) and either adding mixed spices to their food or having cakes flavored with them (“cake powder” is an unusual and obscure term). Sometimes with wine, sometimes even good wine. In the country, one might speculate that vegetables were added from the garden, but here they would have to have been bought and so do not seem to have been included at all. Basically this was a lot of meat, with some bread and drink, and cheese and pears afterward.

Not a bad feast, even today, but hardly what one would deduce from period cookbooks.


Finally, a simpler glimpse of modest but not limited food comes from the 1346 list of food sent to a prior who had gone to the country for a few days (from the abbey of Saint-Theodard in Gascony): “For 8 sols of bread and for 6 sols for the price of a quarter of mutton. Item for the cost of a quarter of beef, a sheep, a bacon of pork, two pairs of partridges, twelve fougasses, 200 wafers, 3 pounds of oil, 3 tallow candles and spices; 2 crowns, 3 sols (the crown worth 40 sols)”

Again, mutton, pork, partridge; nothing exotic in the way of meat. The wafers (or waffles, essentially the same at this point) were probably small, making the 200 noted here like a few boxes of cookies. Fougasse is variously defined in different authors' notes, but originally was simply hearth bread (the name derived from the same root as foccacio, that is, bread made on the focus, or hearth). This may have been a slightly better bread or even a sweet pastry at this point.


The poor and workers

Here we come to the least advantaged members of Medieval society and also those whose meals are the least discussed: the poor and the workers (the boundary between them could depend on a day's work). In fact, the meals of workers may be better known than that of many others, since they were often defined in contracts or other records; but it is rare to see them examined in detail.

Some of this food has already been seen as “hospital food”, which often was indiscriminately served to the poor and the sick in such establishments. A similar example comes from the Abbey of Obazine in the Bas-Limousin in the twelfth century. Records there record rations given to the poor during times of shortages, when they got a tourte (a large round loaf) of a pound and a half, as well as a measure of broad beans and wine. Sometimes to speed things up they were given dough to cook themselves. Women got as many of these rations as the children they brought, even in the cradle (etiam in cunabalis).

However the twelfth century poor in the Limousin did not do entirely without meat, which was promised to those doing hard work. In one case, too, a poor woman used grain gathered from gleaning to raise some chickens. Others probably did the same.

The founder of the abbey got irate when some masons killed a pig in the woods, ate some and hid the surplus in pots. Something so good as a pig was probably a rare treat for these workers.

Aubrun, analyzing all this, writes: "What is striking above all is the near total absence of a food reserve for country people who find themselves at the mercy of a bad harvest.”


Collin provides an overview of early fourteenth century food in the Lorraine region. The workers there were supposed to be given bread, cheese and wine for their (obligatory) labor during the corvées, but it seems that the lords sometimes refused to provide even these simple rations. Otherwise, bread and wine were standard fare; Collin thinks the poor even got meat: “If [butcher's meat] appeared regularly on the tables of lords and probably the bourgeoisie, if it was part of the provision for troops on campaigns, it is probable that the peasants ate it too.” He writes that beef and lamb were most common, pork not mentioned (as is increasingly the case in this period).

Fishing was a seigniorial right, but sometimes granted to bourgeois. It is less likely that the poor were able to (legally) do it. Oak, beech, apple, and pear trees were all protected as “fruit” trees, oaks for the acorns, beech for its mast "from which no doubt oil was made". Beech mast, like acorns, was often fed to pigs as well.


On the Auvergnat estates mentioned above, a rare note of a meal for the valets comes from August 1389: bread, wine and "a pair of poussins". This, says Charbonnier, was very like the lord's meals, but bread cost more in proportion to the wine.

The only note of food for the estate's workers is of wheat, "mixture" (of wheat and barley) and broad beans. However other evidence shows that cow-herds got a flitch of bacon, to which was likely added vegetables and dairy products from the estate. At Saint-Amant (probably nearby) vineyard workers got bread, wine and meat as well, but the meat was of a lesser quality (goat meat, for example). At Lent this was replaced by peas (elsewhere it was more typically replaced by herring). Cheese was often given to vineyard workers and was even included as part of a salary. Since William also sent some as gifts to his in-laws, this was probably considered to be of a respectable quality.

Overall, says Charbonnier "there existed then a difference in diet between different social elements, but it was not very pronounced."


Extensive records exist from the north, near Arras, for the estates of Thierry d'Hireçon, a large landowner in the Artois who later became bishop of Arras (1328).

In 1321, at Roquestor for a household of seven or eight people and three or four valets hired for the harvest, 52-57 rasières (half a hectoliter) of wheat are recorded, as well as 4-6 of peas, and 1 or 2 of oats to make gruel. One fattened pig was always ready for food needs (probably to make bacon above all). For Lent and August labors a large number of herring is recorded; meat is noted for a feast day. The accounts also mention salt, oil, and goodale (a weak form of beer).

Verjuice was made on the estate, as well as milk, butter, cheese and poultry. Most vegetables were as well though some were bought in Abbeville and Paris. Accounts show these to have been wild leeks, leeks, cabbage, onions, scallions, garlic, broad beans, peas, spinach, lettuce, borage, orache, chard or cardoon, spring onion, parsley, hyssop, Caulet cabbage, and clary.

In 1322, at Sailly, 2500 herring are recorded at Lent, 500 from the 1st of August to All Saints; wine was given during the harvest.

Richard resumes all this: "Wheat bread, oat porridge, pork, broad beans, dairy products, including butter and cheese, and, at certain moments, herring therefore form the basic food of this rural population. As a drink one finds, with water which does not need to be mentioned, verjuice and the beer called goodale, more rarely wine;" No cider is mentioned, though this was produced nearby.

Workers, paid in money, could buy the same food as the household. Prison accounts from 1300 to 1329 show that the basic food cost one or two deniers, leaving enough for workers to buy pork, broad beans, herring, even sometimes butcher's meat; rabbits and chickens were also available. "The field worker then could without too much trouble from time to time put a chicken in the pot."

It helped that these workers got tips ("alms") from visiting lords (sometimes for singing a welcome). The region also had "poor tables" in each parish and the poor also had the right of gleaning during the harvest, as they did in a number of places.


Records from Alsace cover a variety of obligations both for feeding workers during corvées and for special rations offered during obligatory participations in regional lawsuits. Schmidt does not give specific dates for these, but begins by discussing thirteenth century stipulations and says that in the fifteenth century some managed to buy themselves out of these corvées; the figures then seem to apply to the late Middle Ages.

A peculiarity in the Alsatian records is that food rations were often defined by how much they exceeded given measures; meat was often defined by how far it spilled over the edge of a plate and bread by how far above a man's knee it came when set on his feet.

In Alsace, in the Valley of Lièvre, when the domain's foresters came twice a week to report to the abbot, they received a glass of wine, bread, meat or eggs or in Lent fresh fish or herring. At Nothalden the mayor gave the abbess of Hohenbourg's seven foresters bread, wine and boiled or roast meat on the Sunday after St. Martin's. At Munster the abbot gave them a meal of wine, bread and two types of meat (and sent a violonist at night to lull them to sleep!). Harvesters at Marmoutier got wine or beer and a special bread (Actebrod); the reaper, bread and either wine and meat or beer and cheese. At Nieder-Hausbergen workers got wine, bread and two meats exceeding the plates by the width of four fingers.

At Ebersheim the abbot gave, during the ploughing of the fields, wine and a vegetable porridge. At Marlenheim, a sheep and an ox were killed for the reapers, each also got a loaf in the evening. At Artolsheim, a peasant got two herring, a valet a porridge; some drank wine, some beer. At the mountain of St. Odile they got bread, cakes, and meat spilling over each side of the plate; the bread had to be big enough that if a man put his thumb in the middle he could circle it with the longest of his fingers.

At Metzeral reapers got bread, garlic and red wine, At Logelnheim during the work bread and cheese were given, in the evening, wine, beans and bacon. Variations on all this existed, sometimes with meat, cheese, porridge, etc.

Schmidt says of the lords “they were obliged to give the workers meals, which, often, must have seemed like true feasts to people not used to drinking wine or eating roast meats”.

For some legal court proceedings the mayor was obliged to feed the estate farmers (colons) who attended. At Sigolsheim this included boiled or roasted meats (for which each paid 6 deniers); at Soultzmatt they got roast meat, a vegetable porridge, a green sauce, raw and cooked apples (“not rotten or worm-eaten”), walnuts and cheese. The mayor and his wife got a half-quart of wine, two loaves, pieces of beef and veal larger than the plate, with a spiced sauce and a yellow sauce. During the session itself there was bread and wine on the table.

In the evening at Neugartheim a half-measure of wine, a vegetable and roast were served. At Eichhoffen the evening meal included twelve loaves, two cheeses, a bushel of walnuts and a measure of wine. On the Saint-Martin, the mayor invited a few of the colons, giving them bread, wine, vegetables and cheese "until one saw the stars shine".


The poor of course always had the random resources of charity, as when confiscated food was given to the hospitals. At the public banquets given by St. Jacques, the leftover food was given to the poor.


In the meal plans for the Dauphin Humbert, the squires and servants who ate in the household got smaller amounts of the same foods as the others. Servants who were served outside the palace got a small ration of beef cooked in water and a "root" soup for several dinners, a half-pound of salted meat and a dish of broad beans on others. On fast days they got a soup of roots or turnips and a portion of cheese divided among fourteen. (“Roots” were simply root vegetables, such as carrots). For supper, they only got cheese. They also got (with every meal?) four white loaves.

For breakfast, the squires and servants who ate in the household got bread, pure wine of medium quality and a portion of well-cooked beef; on Sundays, they seem to have gotten pasties only for the main meals, but with a minimal quantity of pork and no chicken.

For breakfast, servants who did not dine in the household got bread, the lowest quality of wine and eggs.


Some other glimpses of food for the poorest classes come from literature. In a classic poem called “The butcher of Abbeville”, a priest's concubine, mistress of the house, beats a servant girl for “stealing”:
"Lady, what have I robbed you of?"

"Debauched creature! My barley, my wheat,
My peas, my salt pork, my bread – you took everything
The suggestion here seems to be that this was simply what the servant ate.

Like many a poet in many a culture, Deschamps idealized the “simple life” – what he called, “living frankly”.
There's nothing like the simple life
Cabbages, peas, broad beans and bacon,
rye, wheat or barley bread,
plain [“frans”], fruit, lettuce, leeks
because nothing is so good as the simple life.
If his list of foods is a little caricatural, it does give an idea of what people of his time thought the poor ate. In another poem with a similar theme, he talks about “living on bread and gruel”.

Finally, in his poem on Lent, Deschamps describes the fast day food of the poor:
Garlic and onions, oil of hemp,
moldy nuts, apples and dark bread
is put in front of them, greens, cabbage and leeks,
tourtes in pot [meaning crust?]
of barley and winter barley


Summing up

This is only a sample of the meals described in sources other than cookbooks for the late Medieval period, but what appears here is fairly consistent. Those of any means at all ate much the same meat people eat today: beef, lamb, pork; not to mention chicken, which had remained standard fare in France since the Gauls. If these were sometimes prepared in pasties and with spices and verjuice, they could also be presented more plainly, even for the well-off. Game only appeared exceptionally on tables and large birds like peacocks and swans were reserved for special occasions. Basically, the meals of the time appear if anything simpler and less varied than what we expect today as a matter of course.

There is also no clear distinction between the ordinary meals of the highest classes and those of adequate but not great means. Partridge and pheasant seem to have been the most exotic foods either ate in normal times. The most variety appears in lists of fish, which probably varied a great deal depending on the region and the season.

The poor often were limited to (typically, dark) bread and whatever greens they could find for free, sometimes beans or peas, often with cheese, more rarely with bacon (which seems to be mentioned less by now than it had in earlier centuries). Gruel too was a staple. Depending on the region and circumstances, some had more access to meat (beyond bacon) than others. On fast days, by far their most common option was herring, though some were limited to legumes. Surprisingly often, they also had a ration of wine or beer.

Broad beans and, less often, peas remained the staple legumes across all classes. Beef and lamb are mentioned far more often in this period than they had been in earlier centuries, a trend which would only continue; pork had begun to lose its status as the favored meat of the elite.

Deschamps' complaint about mustard hints at how common that condiment had become, even if one might find green sauce, for instance, in a tavern. (One could also buy sauces from professional saucemakers, but the fact that this item appears in none of the above records suggests this was exceptional.) Overall, the impression one gets in this period is of a limited range of foods served with a limited range of flavorings, except at the most elegant (and ostentatious) events. Rather than finding the period's food exotic, many modern diners would probably have found it, if anything, monotonous.



FOR FURTHER READING:



Special issue on food, including:













IN ENGLISH FROM CHEZ JIM BOOKS:




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