Dispelling Some Myths: Mediæval Peasants ate Bland Food
The first thing to note is that what people ate was heavily dependent on where they lived and at what time. For example, Europe covers a large area with many different countries and peoples living within its boundaries, and the Mediæval period in Europe lasted a long time, roughly ten centuries. Much as today trends in food came and went, and access to particular foods may have been restricted by a multitude of factors such as the climate affecting harvests, war and pestilence, trade links, cost and a person’s disposable wealth, religious observance, personal preference and so on.
New research Much is known of the medieval dietary practices of the nobility and ecclesiastical institutions, but less about what foods the medieval peasantry consumed. A 2019 study by a team from the University of Bristol examined a range of historical documents and found that medieval peasants ate meat, fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables. Before this study, there had been little direct evidence that this was the case. Yet, even though we now have a better understanding of what Mediæval peasants and the poorer social classes ate, the notion persists that food was bland or tasteless. This is a myth, so what is the truth?
What did Mediæval peasants eat? In some respects, the Mediæval diet was much healthier than ours today. There was little or no processed food and far less sugar. Bread remained a staple food for all, but what did Mediæval peasants actually eat? The University of Bristol team analysed food residues from the remains of cooking pots found at the small medieval village of West Cotton in Northamptonshire . By identifying the lipids, fats, oils and natural waxes still present on the porous ceramics, the team found that stews (or pottages) of mutton and beef with vegetables such as cabbage and leek were a mainstay of the medieval peasant diet. The research also showed that dairy products, likely the “green cheeses”  known to be eaten by the peasantry, also played an important role in their diet.
A rural diet It should be borne in mind that, unlike today, for most of the Mediæval period people did not live in towns and cities. While reliant on good harvests, a predominantly rural existence meant people could forage for wild fruits, nuts, fungi, plants and herbs. For those with a little piece of land, then homegrown produce was available. Cottage gardens were common but unlike today’s obsession with cultivating flowers, people would focus on growing vegetables and plants with useful culinary or medicinal properties. Unsurprisingly, herbaceous borders were for herbs!
Fish could be dried or salted, but fresh fish, like herring or mackerel, was popularly eaten by people living near the sea. Those living near rivers could eat freshwater fish such as eels, pike, perch, trout, sturgeon, roach, and salmon. Indeed, in the Mediæval period, English rivers had a plentiful supply of salmon making it a cheap source of food. So cheap in fact that some towns passed laws to limit the feeding of apprentices (trainees) with salmon to no more than three times a week. Today, the introduction of fish farms has made salmon more affordable, but it is still considered a luxury by many.
Farming was one way of providing meat, but unlike today meat remained a luxury unaffordable to the majority. For those who could, the rich and privileged, hunting game (deer, pheasant, rabbit and so on) was a popular pastime that added to their diet. But for those poorer folk who could, they might keep animals all year round. Cows, for example, could provide milk for producing cheese, while chickens could be reared for their eggs or for their meat. When they had the money a Mediæval peasant might buy some meat from the local market, while game animals, like rabbits, they could catch for themselves - but beware of being caught poaching (see right).
Added flavours Herbs and plants such as parsley, rosemary, thyme, basil, garlic, chives and many others were, just as now, added to recipes to develop and improve flavour. Spices, however, were expensive and beyond the means of the ordinary Mediæval peasant.
The spice trade has a long and lucrative ancestry. Although there was an overland trade route across Asia, it was mainly by sea that the trade grew. Voyages from Roman Egypt to India, for example, soon brought vast quantities of aromatic spices to the markets of Greece and the Roman Empire. Roman trade with India continued for more than three hundred years and allowed exotic spices, such as black pepper, to be far more commonplace than in later centuries. As Roman influence waned, however, the trade in spices followed suit. A short-lived resurgence in the 5th-century AD did not prevent trade declining once more in the 6th-century.
The Arab traders, who had always been sailing directly to spice-producing lands, kept their albeit weakened hold on the spice trade in the post-Roman period and through the Middle Ages. But by the tenth century both Venice and Genoa had begun to prosper through their trade with the Levant. The bitter rivalry that developed between the two cities ended with Genoa's defeat and Venice securing a monopoly of trade in the Middle east for the next century. In so doing, the Venetians made vast sums of money by trading spices with buyer-distributors from northern and western Europe. Nonetheless, this trade did little to reduce the price and few ordinary folk could afford spices.
Bland and tasteless food Today many of us have to hand a wide variety of spices from across the globe and we use them almost daily to flavour our meals. From that familiarity it is easy to see why, if Mediæval peasants lacked access to such spices, many might assume their food was bland and tasteless. But, as we have seen, this was far from the case. The Mediæval peasant had a well-rounded, healthy diet which, while dependent on good harvests, kept them properly nourished. Apart from bread, they ate stews (adding meat when it could be afforded), fish, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, eggs, and dairy products. By adding herbs from their garden plots, their meals could be as flavoursome as ours.
1. The pottery analysed covered a period of around 500 years during the Middle Ages.
2. In this instance the cheeses are not “green” by reason of colour but for its newness or under-ripened state. The whey has not fully pressed out of it and the cheese has not been thoroughly dried nor aged. “Green cheese”, therefore, is typically white in colour and usually round in shape.