Medieval Food

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


There are cinnamon, juniper berries, and sugar in your beef, sandalwood in your bread, “sweet herbs and sundrie flowers” beneath your feet. The pheasant on your plate has been dead for some days, but no matter–it swims in a sauce of seventeen spices. You’ve brought your own knife and spoon, you eat with your fingers, and your plate will be eaten by the hungry at the gate. You drink spiced wine and mulled ale by the quart, sharing the goblet with your neighbor. You’re at a twelfth-century English banquet–welcome to the Middle Ages! (Cranch 14)

“The culinary slate of western Europe is blank from the fifth century to the thirteenth century, the date of the earliest recorded medieval recipes” (Santich 6). As always, cultures require stability and some degree of prosperity for the arts to flourish, so it is not until the High and Late Middle Ages that the culinary arts reappear in textual artifacts.

Medieval food is largely characterized by the heavy use of spices, especially ginger, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and saffron (Santich 46). One also sees “cubeb” mentioned often, and “verjus”: a tart liquid — a mild vinegar — made from unripened green grapes (they have high acidity and low sugar levels; the “must” remains unfermented). The most common myth about medieval food is that the heavy use of spices was a technique for disguising the taste of rotten meat in the days before refrigeration. “Yet spices had gone out of fashion by the seventeenth century, three hundred years before refrigerators were invented. In any case, municipal records show that the authorities were well aware of hygiene, and of the need for quality controls on fresh food” (Santich 30). Besides, spices were expensive and not likely wasted on rot. Another myth is that the spices were used as preservatives, but medievals were not idiots — spices do not function as preservatives. Fish was salted, as were beef and mutton; and vinegar, sugar, and honey could be used for preservation.

Spices were, instead, as sign of luxury and affluence. They signified prestige. One of the curiosities puzzling me involves the recipes that list a dozen spices and several kinds of meats. It doesn’t seem that one could possibly taste all the ingredients, so the dish could impress guests only if they knew of the exotic ingredients in some other way. But recipes didn’t function as advertisements. In fact, recipes were likely not written even for other cooks, who would probably have been illiterate and would have learned their craft from apprenticeship, but for the household managers so that they would know what provisions to order (Santich 40). The surviving recipe books were never taken to the kitchen but kept in private collections of the wealthy, which is why they do survive. So what is medieval cooking all about? Taste or text?

For extravagant feasts, the medieval contributions to the annals of weirdness are the “subtleties” — which were anything but subtle. These were bizarre presentations — culinary showpieces — such as a swan with its innards removed and cooked with other fowl and meats, restuffed, and brought into the dining hall in a dramatic position. Or a pie whose crust, when first cut into, releases a flock of birds. Or an animal positioned in some intriguing scene. All much more dramatic than your basic flambĂ© dessert.

Medieval Food Bibliography

Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Trans. JosephDommers Vehling. NY: Dover, 1977. The one influential cookbook through the centuries — the fifth through the thirteenth centuries are blank in terms of western European cookery; later medievals rediscovered Apicius.

Bayard, Tania, trans. A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeepingin the Fourteenth Century. NY: HarperCollins, 1991. This is the Menagier de Paris, containing household tips and recipes.

Black, Maggie. The Medieval Cookbook. London: British MuseumPress, 1992. Gorgeous images and numerous recipes.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookeryand Ceremony. NY: George Braziller, Inc., 1976.

Cranch, Robbie L. “Herbs for a Medieval Feast.” The Herb Companion December/January 1991: 14-23. Perpetuates some myths but includes good and representative recipes.

Hiett, Constance B. and Sharon Butler. Cury on Inglysch.London: Early English Text Society, 1985. The real thing.

Redon, Odile, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi. TheMedieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. Trans. EdwardSchneider. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Riley, Gillian. Painters and Food: Renaissance Recipes.San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1993.

Santich, Barbara. The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1995. Ample introductory chapters on European medieval food history.

Sass, Lorna J. To the King’s Taste: Richard II’s Book of Feastsand Recipes Adapted for Modern Cooking. NY: Metropolitan Museumof Art, 1975.

—. To the Queen’s Taste: Elizabethan Feasts and Recipes Adaptedfor Modern Cooking. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.

Scully, D. Eleanor, and Terence Scully. Early French Cookery:Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations.Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Sokolov, Raymond. Why We Eat What We Eat: How the EncounterBetween the New World and the Old World Changed the Way Everyoneon the Planet Eats. NY; Summit Books, 1991.

Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchenand Table from 1300 to 1789. NY: Touchstone, 1996.