18 March 2009

Food & Drink: The Medieval Peasant's Diet

By Lisa Yarde

In the estates, manors and castles of medieval lords and high-ranking clergy, the hall with its central hearth was the hub of activity, especially at mealtime. The fine fare served at such tables was a feast for the senses. For instance, in the 1290s manorial accounts for John de Sawtry, Abbott of Ramsey indicated his feast-day diet included "larks, ducks, salmon, kid, and chickens at Easter, a boar at Christmas, and capon and geese on other occasions." Breakfast was eaten early in the morning, after sunrise, dinner in the mid morning to early afternoon period and supper after sunset. With entertainment provided by minstrels or, and wine or ale accompanying the meal, the medieval lord was at his leisure to enjoy his food. But what of those who labored to prepare his meals? What did the medieval peasant eat?

There is little evidence for the diet of the average villager or peasant, though you can guarantee it was nowhere near what his lord enjoyed. For cottagers with a small patch of land just outside the house, they might grow a small field of peas, onions, turnips, leeks or beans to supplement their diets. But for most, sustenance came chiefly from bread, porridge or pottage.

The manor lords had white bread from wheat flour, but for the peasants, there was maslin bread, which weighed about four pounds. It was a dark and heavy loaf made from a mixture of rye and wheat flour, or barley and rye. Also, they ate pottage with bread or when it was not available. Pottage is a soup made from oats or barley, with a little onion or garlic added for flavoring. If the medieval peasant was lucky enough, he might have some bacon fat or salted pork to add to the pottage, but never the meat of hares, deer, rabbits or boars, which were reserved for hunting sport. There were strict laws allowing only medieval lords to hunt certain game animals. Also, peasants were barred from fishing for trout or salmon. A peasant who poached could have a hand chopped off, be blinded or have his testicles severed.

Ale or dank water accompanied almost every peasant meal. Sometimes, barley grains were boiled, sweetened with honey and drunk as barley water, but most often, the barley was fermented to make ale. To do so, the villager soaked barley in water and then germinated to create malt. The malt was dried, ground and added to hot water.

The medieval peasant might also receive some butter or cheese, a hen or some pork to supplement his poor diet. But toiling away on his lord's land, or worse in the hot kitchens, he would have been constantly aware of the disparity between the food he ate and the fare his lord enjoyed.