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Research reveals Medieval diet was more than meat and gruel

Monday, February 17, 2003

By Lance Gay, Scripps Howard News Service

How did our ancestors eat in the days before there were supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, refrigerators or temperature-controlled stoves and ovens? And what did the dinner table look like before the discovery of the New World brought back to Europe staple foods ranging from turkey to tomatoes and the humble potato?

The Victorian view was that medieval food was a disgusting slop of thin gruels and roast meat. Hollywood added its own touches of festive diners throwing bones to dogs in the dining room, or wiping their greasy hands on the dog's fur.

But recent historical and archeological research is providing a much different and richer picture, concluding that much of the food served on the medieval dinner table would be recognized and enjoyed today, and pointing out that even medieval etiquette frowned on unsanitary dogs at the dinner table.

"I think it would be very recognizable to one today, with the same tastes," said Bridget Ann Henisch, a medieval scholar and author of several books on medieval cooking. "It was more adventurous. Even the keenest foodie would not be so adventurous today."

The medieval diet seems also to have been far more varied than the goods that can be found in a modern supermarket.

Among things eaten were starlings, vultures, gulls, herons, cormorants, swans, cranes, peacocks, capons, chickens, dogfish, porpoises, seals, whale, haddock, hedgehogs, cod, salmon, sardines, lamprey eels, crayfish and oysters. Turnips, parsnips, carrots, peas and fava beans were common vegetables, and use of onions and garlic was common.

Whatever the meal, it was well spiced. The Roman conquest brought nutmeg and cloves to Northern Europe, and cinnamon was used before that.

There is ample evidence many ate well.

Inventories prepared for the 6,000 guests invited to the daylong 1467 installation ceremonies of Archbishop Neville of York in England, show they were provided with 300 caskets of ale, 100 caskets of wine, 1 large bottle of wine sweetened with sugar, nutmeg and ginger, 104 oxen, 6 wild bulls, 1,000 sheep, 304 calves, 400 swans, 2,000 geese, 1,000 capons, 2,000 pigs, 104 peacocks, over 13,500 other birds, 500 stags, bucks and roes, 1,500 venison pies, 608 pikes and breams, 12 porpoises and seals, 13,000 dishes of jelly, cold baked tarts, custards and spices, sugared delicacies and wafers.

At the other end of the social spectrum, peasants survived on broths thickened with barley or other grains, and oatcakes cooked in the ashes of fires or on heated stones. It was common throughout Europe to leave a stockpot on the fire embers during the day into which greens or other foods foraged were added, and then thickened before eating.

"There may be some tiny [amount of] meat," Henisch said.

Vickie Ziegler, director of the Center for Medieval Studies at Penn State University, said that during periods of plenty, everyone from lord to peasant seems to have eaten well. But periods of famine that accompanied changes in the weather known as the "Little Ice Age" beginning in the 13th century were particularly harsh for those tied to the land and without money to buy food.

Ziegler's center grows a medieval garden on campus to demonstrate what sort of plants and herbal medicines might be grown in backyards of the time. Most of the plants are familiar today, including carrots, beets and cabbages, but medieval tastes favored some vegetables that have gone out of favor in modern kitchens, such as sorrel and leeks.

Jim Matterer, a former Pittsburgh resident and cook who started the medieval food Web site www.godecookery.com, said spices weren't used to disguise rotten food, but to improve flavor.

"They had the same instincts as we have now about rotten meat," he said. "Mankind then and now knew what tasted good."

Matterer, who lives on a Greene County farm near Mount Morris, has turned his interest in medieval cooking into a business that caters medieval and renaissance fairs. He said records show it wasn't all home cooking in medieval times.

"Cook shops were prevalent in cities. People didn't want to cook in their houses because it was dangerous," he said. He noted that Chaucer, in the Reeve's Tale, writes the daughter of the reeve being sent off to buy a loaf of bread and a goose when a visitor dropped by the house.

There also was considerable trade in food, with evidence of ships bringing goods from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe and Russia. A recent archeological dig concluded that bananas were available in 16th century London.

Diet was dependent on seasonal influences, and winters were times of scarcity. Wild animals were hard to find in winter, and preparations were made in October and November for winter months. Pigs were cured in the chimneys and beef was salted down to keep over the long winter.

There also were religious influences. Church ordinances decreed that no meat should be eaten on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, or during Lent. These became "fish days."

Medical influences also prevailed. By the 11th century, a medical school in Salerno, Italy, devised diets that could adjust the tempers of man. Hot-tempered men, for example, were to skip spicy foods like onion, but the lethargic were to add more. Onion also was regarded as an ingredient crucial for averting baldness.

To eat, there were spoons and knives. Two-pronged forks appear in Venice in the 11th century, apparently brought back from the Middle East, and the first etiquette books detailing how to act properly at the table appear a century later.

Among the 13th century table manners, one book tells diners not to pick their teeth with their knives, and to "refrain from falling upon the dish like a swine while eating, snorting disgustingly and smacking the lips."

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