As we study the life of the past, especially Medieval Europe, we can see the things we use, from the houses that give us shelter to the food that sustains us, have similarities and differences. In every society, we need all these things, and the differences that emerge arise in large part from the goods that were locally accessible.
Balanced Diet and Fermented Beverages
All over the world, people seek out what constitutes a balanced diet. We all want grains (or other starches), fruits and vegetables, and protein. Societies like China that have a lot of people and not much protein must eat everything. Meanwhile, locations like Europe, which actually had more domestic animals than people, could afford to be choosy.
Beyond the basics, another overriding reality of humans is the desire for fermented beverages. These are practical because they form a way to preserve foods—grains or grapes—but our desire goes beyond that. We like beverages (and other plants from tobacco to kava to marijuana—all available in the Middle Ages) that change our moods. The history of human diet tells us a lot about our culture. We are, indeed, what we eat.
This is a transcript from the video series The Middle Ages around the World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Aristocratic Diet
Bread was a staple food and was invariably present at meals. Loaves of bread were placed on the table, and slices of bread were used as plates. But the heart of the aristocratic diet was meat. The Europeans ate more meat per capita throughout the Middle Ages than did anyone else in the world. Servants would bring large plates of roasted or boiled meat as well as fish, and people would eat with knives and spoons (no forks were used).
Though Europeans ate the most meat, they were choosier than most other peoples on what kind of meat they ate. In general, Christian Europe prohibited the eating of carnivores. This eliminated dogs, wolves, bears, and cats from their diet. They made an exception for omnivorous pigs in large part because Jews and Muslims refused to eat pork, so Christians wanted to set themselves apart. They also refused to eat horsemeat because that was associated with Nordic pagan religious customs.
Yet this left plenty of meat for the table—beef, pork, all kinds of fowl and deer and other game. There was plenty of game because the serfs were forbidden to hunt on their land, though there were always poachers to try to supplement the peasant diet with a rabbit or two.
Their vegetables were used as seasonings: Onions, leeks, cabbages, garlic, turnips and parsnips graced the dishes, and northern fruits like apples, pears, and berries were available.
Diet of the Peasants
The diet of the peasants was actually better than that of the nobility, if they had enough to eat.
They were more likely to consume their grains boiled in gruel instead of bread, and they depended more heavily on beans and milk products as protein sources. They ate cheeses as well as milk and eggs, and relied heavily on vegetables to fill out their diet.
Peasants didn’t eat at tables like the nobility; they sat on stools by the fire as they held their bowls in their laps. The servants working in the great hall of the castles had to wait until the nobility had finished their several courses before they ate.
Love for Wine and Ale
The nobility loved wine, and imported it from France, Spain, Portugal, and even as far away as Greece, and Henry II could easily have served wine liberally to his guests. Most wines were most often drunk young because they did not keep as well as modern wines.
While wine was always valued, the staple drink was ale—that is, unhopped beer. Without the preservative quality of the hops, the beer did not keep well, so women had to brew regularly. The beer was not as alcoholic as modern brews, and that’s probably a good thing since daily intake was substantial.
Drink Beer Because Water Is Bad?
It is a long-standing story that ancient people drank beer because the water was bad; this is a myth. In most places, the water was much better than ours since they had not polluted rivers and well water. Plenty of people drank water, but others drank beer because they liked it.
The records of the houses of the aristocracy allow for one gallon per person, and peasant households allowed for two to four pints daily. People also made hard cider from apples, and perry from pears. They also fermented honeycombs into fermented mead.
All this shows that we long for novelty in our food. This led to a valuable trade in things like pepper or spices to change our flavors, and this is the same impulse that would send Christopher Columbus looking for the spice islands.
Common Questions about What the Nobility Ate in Medieval Europe
An overriding reality of humans is the desire for fermented beverages. These are practical because they form a way to preserve foods—grains or grapes—but our desire goes beyond that. We like beverages that change our moods.
The heart of the aristocratic diet in Middle Ages was meat. The Europeans ate more meat per capita throughout the Middle Ages than anyone else in the world.
The peasants in Medieval Europe mostly consumed grains boiled in gruel instead of bread, and they depended more heavily on beans and milk products as protein sources. They ate cheeses as well as milk and eggs, and relied heavily on vegetables to fill out their diet.