What the Average Medieval Diet Was Like

Medieval Times
Dinner and Tournament is a rite of passage for
most red-blooded Americans. Sure, eating chicken
without forks has its charm. But it’s hardly
historically accurate to the real medieval times. A real medieval diet could be
surprisingly heart healthy, featuring items that are
trendy and recognizable in our modern era. Today we’re going to explore
what the average medieval diet was like. But before we chow down,
be sure to say grace by subscribing to Weird History. And let us know
what you’re eating while watching this video. Now, put on that bib
and let’s dig in. Though it might feel like
more of a recent trend, people in the medieval
times would get down with some alternative
dairy products. Much like a home in the
hippie-filled Topanga Canyon, almond milk was
a common pantry household in medieval Europe. It was often used
in times of fasting when the church required people
to abstain from consuming animal products. It also didn’t spoil as
quickly as cow or goat’s milk and could be whipped
up into butter and used in an array of dishes. Almond milk was such
a staple of the time, most medieval cookbooks
contained recipes featuring almond milk
as main ingredient. While medieval knights
weren’t taking chariots through late night drive-through
to drunkenly eat a medium Big Mac combo with a Coke,
it was a variation of fast food in the Middle Ages. Archaeologists probably won’t
find an ancient, decrepit pair of golden arches. But they did have places that
served meat pies, hotcakes, pancakes, and wafers prepared
for immediate consumption. Wait, that actually sounds
more like the Waffle House. According to researchers at
Penn State, these medieval McDonald’s had a
similar reputation as Mickey D’s as being
lower in quality, if not still very
tasty, and were thought of as dirty and dishonest. Researchers also discovered
these fast casual joints of yore used the
term “meat” loosely, sometimes using tainted
rabbit in meat pies that probably were not labeled
“rancid rabbit meat pies.” Just like Greg in the office,
medieval peasants loved bread. A typical diet of
a medieval European included two to three pounds
of bread and grain per day, including the gallon of
grainy, low alcohol percentage ale for which to wash it down. Peasants got creative with a
grain, such as wheat, oats, and barley, boiling them down
into a mushy bowl of porridge or baking a loaf of bread. Rarely did they pair
their carbs with red meat, opting instead to use
peas, lentils, or fish to satisfy their protein needs. The calories on this
naturally added up, with 2 and 1/2
pounds of rye bread amounting to 3,000 calories,
or 5 and 1/2 Big Macs, which is far too much for
most people at one time. Factor in the gallon
of ale contributing an additional 1,500
calories, and it’s a wonder the medieval times
wasn’t full of obese peasants. But with 12-hour
workdays of actual labor, they probably had
calories to spare. As would be the case at today’s
medieval times restaurants, raw fruits and vegetables had no
business on most medieval times dinner tables. Researchers from the
British Library Board discovered that fruits and
vegetables were almost always cooked in the Middle Ages due
to the belief that raw fruits and veggies were
riddled with disease, a feature of vegetables
still happening today, as evidenced by the myriad of
Romaine lettuce and spinach recalls. In the book of carving
from the year 1500, readers were cautioned
against consuming salads and raw fruits. Beware of green
salads and raw fruits, for they will make
your master sick. Aromatic fresh herbs
were not lumped with their sickly,
leafy, green brothers and were often used for
medicine and cooking. A salad at the
dinner table was not completely unheard of
for the lower class citizens of the
Middle Ages, however, with salad filling the bellies
of the plebeians designated just good enough for food that
came from the dirty ground. Carrots, turnips, and
other root vegetables were considered a
more peasanty food. A commoner’s salad may consist
of a variety of vegetables, such as lettuce,
onions, and carrots, and even mixed in with
oil, nuts, or olives, or what sounds like a
typical side salad at most Italian restaurants. The rich typically
shunned the vegetable, a word that was rarely
used to describe produce, but would deem the
occasional onion, garlic, or leek to be worthy of
their dinner table spread, and unfortunately for
the booze, their mouths. The stereotypical image
of a medieval feast features a full roasted
pig as its centerpiece. And the image was, in fact,
quite a common occurrence at the dinner table for
anyone who was well to do. Pork was considered one of the
highest on the hog of meats and fat in medieval Europe. And the suckling
pig in particular was a coveted main course. A suckling pig is what it sounds
like, a very young pig who was most likely
suckling on its mother’s teat before being
made into dinner. Like veal today
whose preparation is not far off from
its young swine friend, the meat was
considered a delicacy. Historians agree that suckling
pig was a real status symbol as far as meat affluence goes. Sow’s womb was also a
delicacy that appeared in medieval cookbooks– mmm, succulent suckling. Often referred to as the most
important meal of the day now, back in these
days, breakfast was for the fatties
and the people who were working their
tails off, or at least according to medieval
priest Thomas Aquinas. Thomas thought eating too soon
at the beginning of the day, or pra properi for
all the fans of Latin, was just one of the many ways
to commit one of the seven deadly sins of gluttony. The Middle Ages meal plan– which will be all the rage
with influencers in no time– consisted of skipping breakfast,
a light midday dinner, and a hearty evening supper. Occasionally some
hungry little rascals would sneak in a
third meal called re-re-supper, or rear
supper, with wine and ale. But that was frowned upon. Laborers would eat
something akin to breakfast in the morning before
heading off to a strenuous 12-hour workday but wasn’t no
Denny’s moons over my hammy. It was more of a piece
of biscuit or something to just fill the belly before
that light midday supper break as to not pass
out in the fields. Meat was a hot
commodity in this era, which made it hard to come by
for the plebeians of the time. But even the wealthy
weren’t extremely picky. Records from the time list a
luxurious smorgasbord of meat on the menu, including
vultures, cranes, hedgehogs– who we are assuming
are mostly needles– seals, and whales,
just to name a few. At one specific
yummy light dinner thrown by Archbishop
Neville of York in 1467, a guest list of
6,000 people managed to eat their way through several
tons of meat, including swans, peacocks, and over 13,500
non-specific birds, and washed that all down with
400 casks worth of alcohol. With no easy access to a
honey-baked ham for a Christmas dinner, our medieval
friends had to make do. Though occasionally the king
would allow for a Christmas swan, it was mainly the
traditional Christmas goose for both the extremely
wealthy and the less extremely wealthy for the holiday meal. Rich folks smothered their fancy
geese with a snobby rich people rub consisting of
butter and saffron, while it’s assumed
poorer families had a bland goose that cost
them a whole day’s pay. But the rich and
the poor enjoyed an humble pie,
which yes, is where the expression “humble
pie” originated from. But man, did it sound
very interesting. Humble pie was pie made of
deer or another animal’s edible entrails
cooked into a pie. Beans were the real
culinary game changer once they entered the scene
for medieval Europeans. Umberto Eco argued that when
the cultivation of legumes began to spread in
the 10th century, it made such an impact on the
nutrition of the population, it was a major factor
in the survival of Western civilization. That might sound hyperbolic. But the addition of beans
to the diets of hard workers meant more protein
for a society where meat was hard to come by for the
less economically advantaged. The population doubled
within a few hundred years after beans hit the
plates of Europeans. Coincidence? Well, maybe. But keep in mind, beans were
thought of as an aphrodisiac. Yes, you know the famous
saying– beans, beans, the magical fruit,
the more you eat, the more you want
to make babies. Baking wars these
days might refer more to cute baking competitions
between amateur home chefs on Netflix. But back in the
Middle Ages, it was taken a little more literally. Baking was a very serious
business in these times, with commercial bakers
forming powerful guilds that functioned as a cross
between a union and the mob. Bakers who joined
would pay a fee, making them exclusive
members of a club of bakers for a certain region. Those fees acted
essentially as an insurance and could pay off down
the road if anything ever happened to your
business or your family. Beautiful bakery– be a shame
if something happened to it. Now wait. It’s insured by the guild,
and it would be fine. The guilds also protected
the family recipes of master bakers, assuming
that nobody else would open bakeries using
a stolen recipe from a guild-protected baker. These guilds sure
didn’t flam around. Sweets were not likely a treat
for the commoners of the Middle Ages, but not completely
unheard of in the middle class. A middle class feast was
often traditionally served as one would a
family style dinner today, with several courses
landing at the table at once, as opposed
to several courses paced throughout the evening. With this gluttonous feast
of cartoon-like proportions, dessert to our inter-spaced
between the courses as a kind of palate cleanser,
which is how dessert should be served all the
time after every single bite of food. One such dessert was
known as a soltity, which was described as an elaborate
ornamental offering made from dough or marzipan, often
depicting a thematically appropriate theme
for the occasion, such as knight battle or
a baking guild enrollment ceremony. King Richard III,
being a king and all, sure did eat like one
right up until his death in the last Battle
of the Roses in 1485. How do we know this? He ate so richly, it
funneled down into his bones. Archaeologists, geochemists,
and other researchers analyzed King Richard’s
bones and were able to conclude that he did,
in fact, eat a rich, high status diet of a wealthy aristocrat,
which makes sense. Specifically the
researchers were able to miraculously
narrow down his diet to include plenty
of freshwater fish and wild fowl, and in his last
few years, a bunch of wine, just by examining his bones. Richard III may have
been the last Plantagenet king of England. But he had the dietary bones
of a suburban housewife in ketosis. The Mediterranean
diet gets all the hype for being a
heart-healthy alternative to standard American diets
of cheeseburgers and donuts. But really the medieval
diet is the one that should be glorified
on all the pages of goop. The folks back in
the Middle Ages didn’t have the modern
medicine we have now. And the Black Death
thing wasn’t great. But in general, people
then had a better diet for the human heart than
most people have today. Eating three pounds of bread
may not sound heart healthy. But it was more
nuanced than that. This civilization lacked
the refined sugars found in many foods today. And workers actually
worked, participating in heart-healthy exercise
just to get a paycheck, with the benefit of living
longer as a fun little bonus. Dr. Roger Henderson told the
BBC his research concluded that the medieval man
was at much lower risk for coronary heart disease and
diabetes than the modern man and suggested it as
a better model for us in the 21st century than the
much ballyhooed Mediterranean diets. Don’t feel guilty
about eating pounds of bread smothered
in almond butter while shunning the salad bar. Just tell the people,
it’s the medieval diet. And laugh as you live forever. Just be sure to work a 12-hour
workday six days a week. So what do you think? Are you currently eating bread? We see you. Let us know what medieval
food you would like to try in the comments below. And while you’re at it, check
out some of these other videos from our Weird History.

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