Food and Drink in Medieval England

Food and Drink in Medieval England

Food and drink in medieval England varied from the luxurious feasts of the nobility to the simple meals of the peasantry.

For the majority of the population, meals revolved around grains, seasonal vegetable and a little meat on special occasions. Although food was often bland, it provided peasants with the energy needed to work, and was usually high in nutrients when home-grown vegetables were available.

Bread was a staple of all meals in Medieval England. However, it was usually very different to the white loaves that we know today. Peasants only had access to barley or rye, resulting in bread that was dense and dark such as maslin bread which consisted of a mix of rye with wheat flour. When there was not enough grain available after a bad harvest, peasants had no choice but include other things they had access to within their bread, including acorns, peas and beans.

The manor lords would not let the peasants paid to farm on his fields to bake their own bread at home - they all had to use the lord’s oven, for which they were charged.

Travellers sharing a simple meal; Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, 14C.
Travellers sharing a simple meal; Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, 14C.

Medieval people also ate a lot of pottage, which was a mix between a soup and a stew and contained oats. Different types of pottage were concocted, with various other items added to the mix. Other times vegetables like parsnips and turnips were used, and leek pottage was particularly popular but this was determined by what crops were grown in the land was attached next to a peasant’s home, on which they would grow their own produce.

Pigs were relied on by peasants as a regular meat supply. They were able to be killed at any time of the year as they were able to find food for themselves in winter and in summer. Pigs did not cost much to keep as they ate acorns which could be easily found in surrounding woodland.

Mutton, originally from sheep, was also eaten by peasants but the available lambs and sheep were small and thin so their meat was not very good quality. The slaughtered animal’s blood was also used to create ‘black pudding’.

Other wild animals that could be found in woodland included rabbits, hares, boars and deers. However, they were unable to be hunted as they belonged to the lord. If you risked being caught chasing the animals your punishment would be to have your hands cuts off. Although a lot of villages managed to get their lord’s permission to hunt smaller animals like squirrels and hedgehogs.

A lord might also give permission for the village people to catch gudgeon, grayling and dace (types of fish) from a nearby river - many villages were next to rivers so this could be a satisfactory food supply. Only the lord was allowed to hunt trout and salmon and they kept a large pond of big fish on their estate - peasants would face harsh consequences if they were seen stealing from it.

Villagers would drink water and milk, although river water would not be nice to drink and the milk was not able to remain fresh very long as there were obviously no fridges. Villagers mainly drank ale but it was tricky to brew and took a long time, so barley would normally be used. It would be soaked in water for a few days and then germinated to create malt. Once the malt was dried and ground, it would be added into hot water for fermenting.

Most village people would not be given permission to sell their beer unless their lord gave them permission.

As can be seen from the following table, rich and poor food dishes were very different.

Meal Lord Peasant
Breakfast Breakfast occurred between 6 and 7am and people took their time over it. A lord may typically have had white bread; three meat dishes; three fish dishes (more fish on a saint's day) and drunk wine or ale. A peasant would eat their breakfast at sunrise. It would normally be dark bread (most likely made from rye) with a drink of ale.
Dinner Dinner was between 11am and 2pm. Lords would normally have three courses but each one may have had another four to six courses in it! Meat and fish would be available with wine and ale. Only the small parts of the dishes would probably be eaten and the remainder thrown away, however the lord's kitchen workers and servants could have the opportunity to take food for themselves if the lord didn’t know about it! Dinner for the poor was known as a "ploughman's lunch" because peasants would eat it out in the fields where they worked. This meal would typically be dark bread and cheese and possibly some meat along with a flask of ale. Peasants would have their dinner about 11am to midday
Supper Supper for the rich was eaten during 6 and 7pm. It would look a lot like the dinner but have dishes which were a little more unusual - pigeon pie, woodcock and sturgeon. There would also be wine and ale to drink. Peasants would have their supper near sunset, so obviously it would change times depending on the seasons. Vegetable pottage would be a family’s staple meal and maybe some meat or fish too. They would also have bread and drink ale.

See also: Medieval Towns

MLA Citation/Reference

"Food and Drink in Medieval England". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.