By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The Middle Ages saw a revolution of sorts in the way people dressed and dined. The changes were seen across all strata of the society. The elaboration of tailored fashions, trimming, and accessories was matched in this period by elaborate refinements in dining and tableware.
The Changing Food Culture
The dietary cultures and foods of the Mediterranean basin and northern Europe were being fused together and shaped by the shared ritual practices of the Roman Church, which required all Christians to abstain from the eating of meat and animal fats at certain times of the year.
This meant that people who did not live close to waterways became dependent on those who did, to provide fish for fast days.
It also meant that northern regions depended on their southern neighbors for olive oil and imported spices, while diners in the medieval Mediterranean benefitted from the intensifying extraction of game and other products from the forests of northern Europe and the cultivation of livestock on its rich pastures.
An Appetite for Spices
Pork, the staple food of the boreal forests—but a meat shunned, and even ritually prohibited, by the Abrahamic religious traditions of the Mediterranean world—was now transformed into the signature cured meats of Iberia and Italy and the ubiquitous salt pork of the medieval poor.
The flavors of medieval European cuisines were much, much closer to those of contemporary Asia and Africa than to those of modern Europe, precisely because all of these medieval cultures shared an appetite for spices—very different from the preferred staples introduced in the 16th and 17th century, when the wide availability of cheap sugar and refined flour sweetened and dulled the modern European palate.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Before the 11th century or so, what distinguished the tables of the poor from the rich was the materials from which utensils were made; the utensils themselves—platters, trenchers, drinking vessels—were the same. Knives for cutting and spearing food were personal implements, carried at all times and often passed down from generation to generation, even in peasant families, or bespoke to reflect personal taste.
This begins to change and reflects the newly integrated foodways and material culture of the medieval world. The first fork to be seen in Italy, for example, was brought there by the Byzantine princess Theodora Comnena, and elicited a good deal of interest and criticism from the clerics.
But just a century later, hosts were showing off their wealth and good manners by actually providing eating utensils to their guests, rather than expecting everyone to bring their own.
And of course, there were critics. The future Pope Innocent III, in a treatise “On the Misery of the Human Condition”, surmised what it profited a man to adorn his dinner in such a lavish way.
How Pasta Became So Popular
The Italian scholar Chiara Frugoni has suggested that the fork’s growing popularity in Italy was related to the growing popularity of a food for which it was especially well-suited—pasta.
Long before Marco Polo returned from China with news of its rice noodles, people around the Mediterranean were experimenting with ways of preserving and cooking wheat without an oven. Bread was, and would continue to be, a staple of the Western diet, but only the houses of the very wealthy had their own ovens, and firing them was wasteful of fuel.
But for pasta, dough could be rolled, cut, twisted, and dried into the distinctive shapes that were already receiving their familiar names in the 13th century: macaroni, ravioli, vermicelli, lasagna. It wouldn’t be until the 16th century that tomatoes made their way across the Atlantic to create the distinctive dishes of southern Italy, but certain time-honored accompaniments to pasta were already being noted by connoisseurs.
Unlike the expensive and often absurd culinary concoctions that graced the tables of the super-rich—pies filled with live birds, roasted peacocks with the tails attached, and so on—these were culinary innovations that people of all social classes and budgets could enjoy.
Class- and Gender-inclusive Approach
The one medieval revolution in dining that deserves to be highlighted is its relative inclusivity.
In antiquity, men and women often ate separately, and this would continue to be the case in many medieval Mediterranean societies. But another effect of the melding of northern and southern, eastern and western food cultures was the growing integration of the sexes, in private and in public settings.
Domestic dining and communal feasting included both men and women, and banquets organized by urban and rural confraternities and guilds often blurred distinctions of class, too.
Common Dining Halls
By the 13th century, these associations were building their own halls for feasting, and many can still be seen in villages and cities throughout Europe. Members of the guilds contributed to their construction and upkeep, and paid their share of the costs. And because these shares were graduated according to income, men and women who could not normally afford the same expenses were able to attend.
These occasions were also the times when everyone showed off their newest finery and took care to be on their best behavior. And, of course, this often gave courting couples a false first impression; the ecclesiastical court records of the time are full of suits for the annulment or enforcement of marriages made after chance meetings at a guildhall feast.
Common Questions about Dining the Medieval Food Culture
The first fork to be seen in Italy was brought there by the Byzantine princess Theodora Comnena.
Since the pasta dough could be rolled, cut, twisted, and dried into the distinctive shapes, these received familiar names in the 13th century: macaroni, ravioli, vermicelli, lasagna.
The highlight of the medieval dining ways is how the melding of northern and southern, eastern and western food cultures led to the growing integration of the sexes, in private and in public settings. Domestic dining and communal feasting included both men and women, and banquets organized by urban and rural confraternities and guilds often blurred distinctions of class, too.