Medieval cuisine  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Medieval cuisine includes the foods, eating habits, and cooking methods of various European cultures during the Middle Ages, a period roughly dating from the 5th to the 16th century. During this period, diets and cooking changed less across Europe, than they did in the briefer early modern period that followed, when those changes helped lay the foundations for modern European cuisine.

Cereals remained the most important staples during the early Middle Ages, as rice was a late introduction to Europe and the potato was only introduced in 1536. Barley and rye among the poor, and wheat for the governing classes, were eaten as bread, porridge, gruel and pasta by virtually all members of society. Beans and vegetables were important supplements to the cereal-based diet of the lower orders. Meat was more expensive and therefore more prestigious and in the form of game was common only on the tables of the nobility. The most prevalent butcher's meats were pork and chicken and other domestic fowl, while beef, which required greater investment in land, was less common. Cod and herring were mainstays among the northern populations, and dried, smoked or salted made their way far inland, but a wide variety of other saltwater and freshwater fish were also eaten.

Slow transportation and inefficient food preservation techniques, based exclusively on techniques of drying, salting, smoking and pickling, made long-distance trade of many foods very expensive. Because of this, the food of the nobility was more prone to foreign influence than the cuisine of poorer people and dependent on exotic spices and expensive imports. As each level of society imitated the one above it, innovations from international trade and foreign wars from the 12th century onwards gradually disseminated through the upper middle class of medieval cities. Aside from economic unavailability of luxuries such as spices, decrees outlawed consumption of certain foods among certain social classes, and sumptuary laws limited the conspicuous consumption among the nouveau riche. Social norms also dictated that the food of the working class be less refined, since it was believed there was a natural resemblance between one's labor and one's food, so manual labor required coarser, cheaper food.

A type of refined cooking developed in the late Middle Ages that set the standard among the nobility all over Europe. Common seasonings in the highly spiced sweet-sour repertory typical of upper-class medieval food included verjuice, wine and vinegar in combination with spices such as black pepper, saffron and ginger. These, along with the widespread use of sugar or honey gave many dishes a sweet-sour flavor. Almonds were very popular as a thickener in soups, stews, and sauces, particularly as almond milk.


Cookbooks, or more specifically, recipe collections, compiled in the Middle Ages are among the most important historical sources for medieval cuisine. The first cookbooks began to appear towards the end of the 13th century. The Liber de coquina, perhaps originating near Naples, and the Tractatus de modo preparandi have found a modern editor in Marianne Mulon, and a cookbook from Assisi found at Châlons-sur-Marne has been edited by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. Though it is assumed that they describe real dishes, food scholars do not believe they were used as cookbooks might be today, as a step-by-step guide through the cooking procedure that could be kept at hand while preparing a dish. Few in a kitchen would have been able to read, and working texts have a low survival rate.

The recipes were often brief and did not give precise quantities. Cooking times and temperatures were seldom specified since accurate portable clocks were not available and since all cooking was done with fire. At best, cooking times could be specified as the time it took to say a certain number of prayers or how long it took to walk around a certain field. Professional cooks were taught their trade through apprenticeship and practical training, working their way up in the highly defined kitchen hierarchy. A medieval cook employed in a large household would most likely have been able to plan and produce a meal without the help of recipes or written instruction. Due to the generally good condition of surviving manuscripts it has been proposed by the food historian Terence Scully that they were records of household practices intended for the wealthy and literate master of a household, such as the Ménagier de Paris from the late 14th century. Over 70 collections of medieval recipes survive today, written in several major European languages.

The repertory of housekeeping instructions laid down by manuscripts like the Ménagier de Paris also include many details of overseeing correct preparations in the kitchen. Towards the onset of the early modern period, in 1474, the Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Platina wrote the De honesta voluptate et valetudine ("On honourable pleasure and health") and the physician Iodocus Willich edited Apicius in Zurich in 1563.

High-status exotic spices and rarities like ginger, pepper, cloves, sesame, citron leaves and "onions of Escalon" all appear in an eighth-century list of spices that the Carolingian cook should have at hand written by Vinidarius, whose excerpts of Apicius survive in one eighth century uncial manuscript. Vinidarius' own dates may not be much earlier.

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