When the diet of a medieval knight is portrayed in movies then the knight is usually feasting on mountains of meat, usually in the shape of a roasted pork knuckle. However, such mountains of meat did not make up the daily diet of a medieval knight. So let`s take a look at the diet of knights to find out what medieval knights ate on a daily basis.
The diet of a medieval knight mainly consisted of cereals in the shape of either bread or porridge. The consistency of the porridge could vary from fluid (like gruel) to solid (like modern-day polenta). In addition to the main dish (bread or porridge), the knight was served several side dishes like cheese, roasted or braised meats, sausages, fish, vegetables, fruit, or egg dishes. Knights drank water, low-alcohol ale, and occasionally beer and wine. Buttermilk was also popular.
Let`s take a closer look.
What did knights eat?
Fortunately for us, quite a few medieval sources are listing the types of food a soldier was provided with when on a campaign.
According to medieval sources, a staple in the diet of a medieval knight was cereals that were eaten either as bread or as porridge which was enriched by adding vegetables, fruits, cheese, different types of fish and meat, bacon, sausages, eggs, lard, and salt. The texture of the medieval porridge could vary from fluid (like gruel) to solid (like modern-day polenta).
The different ingredients and foods were also not mixed and then served on one plate.
Instead, several plates with different ingredients were placed on the table so that everyone could put together their own meal from the different dishes. As a result, the dinner of a medieval knight looked a lot like an Asian meal where a carbohydrate like rice is served as the main dish with additional servings of meats or vegetables on the side. In the case of a knight, the rice would be replaced by a more common grain like wheat.
Let`s say a wealthy knight ate dinner. His dinner would be built around bread since cereals were the staple of his diet. But in addition to the bread as the main dish, he would be brought several plates with side dishes. One plate might have had cheese on it, another one might have had some sort of roasted or braised meat on it, and the last one could have had some vegetables on it.
The knight would then use his knife to bring the different bite-sized pieces from the serving plates onto his plate from where he would then eat his meal.
Speaking of plates. There is the idea that slices of bread were used as plates on a daily basis. But that is not true! While specially baked slices of bread were used as plates on certain, rare occasions most plates were made from wood or tin. Here you can find out more about these plates and why people in the Middle Ages did not use forks (spoiler, it had nothing to do with fearing the fork as a symbol of the devil)
Before we now look at the different foods that knights eat I would like to emphasize that the types of food that the average medieval knight ate were pretty much the same as the foods that a medieval peasant ate.
The reason for that is simple. Peasants had to give a share of their harvest (including meats, eggs, and dairy) as a levy to their landlord. Because of that, the foods that medieval knights ate were the same as the foods medieval peasants ate, even though knights were able to afford more complex dishes.
Because of that, the common stereotype that medieval peasants only ate bland, tasteless, and low-calorie food is wrong. Do you want to find out more about the surprisingly good diets of medieval peasants? Then please check out my article here.
Bread & Porridge – Cereals as the main part of a knight`s diet
A staple in the diet of a medieval knight was cereals, either in the shape of bread or porridge.
Especially during the Early Middle Ages, the main part of a knight`s diet consisted of porridge. The consumption of bread only spread in the High Middle Ages, although bread was never able to completely replace porridges.
By the way. When I talk about porridge in the Middle Ages then I am not talking about the bland, tasteless mush that is commonly associated with the Middle Ages today!
Not only could the consistency of medieval porridge vary from fluid (like gruel) to solid (like modern-day polenta). By adding different ingredients, the porridge could be turned into either a sweet or a hearty dish.
For more information on how porridges were improved and what ingredients were commonly added I would like to recommend you my article here.
So especially during the Early Middle Ages, but also in the High Middle Ages, the main part of what a knight ate was porridge which was enriched by adding ingredients like bacon, smoked sausages, lard, salt, and onions for a hearty meal or fruits and syrups for a sweet meal.
By the way. The mentioned salt was also consumed on a daily basis not only by knights but contrary to modern belief even by peasants since salt was quite affordable in the Middle Ages.
In the High Middle Ages porridge slowly started to be replaced by bread as the main dish.
And while rye bread was the bread that was usually eaten by peasants, wealthy knights could also afford white bread which was about four times as expensive as regular rye bread.
Now one might assume that that was the result of wheat being more expensive than rye. But that was not the case.
The reason white bread was four times as expensive as rye bread was that the flour that was used for white bread had to be sieved multiple times. So while 771 lbs (350 kg) of rye could be baked into 551 lbs (250 kg) of rye bread, the same amount of wheat could only be baked into 242-264 lbs (110-120 kg) of white bread.
So when we pick up the comparison of the diet of a medieval knight and modern-day Asian cuisine then the porridge (and later the bread) would be the main dish. In addition to the main dish, additional dishes were served on extra plates.
These additional dishes could vary widely.
Meats, Vegetables, Fish, Dairy, Egg dishes, and Fruits: The side dishes
For most of the Middle Ages, the knights lived off the duties that the peasants on their estates had to pay. These duties were usually a certain percentage of all the resources & comestibles that the peasants produced on their farms and could include vegetables, meats, cereals, bacon, sausages, eggs, fruits, and so on.
So the types of foods knights and peasants used as side dishes didn`t really differ that much. However, the complexity of the recipes often did.
Let`s say that both the knight and the peasant had flour, lard, salt, smoked sausage, and some onions. Then the peasant might have just cut everything up and mixed it into his porridge while the knight might have had the personal (and time) to have a pate made from the same ingredients.
However, there was one difference. One type of food was only available to the nobility. And that was game.
Hunting was not only one of the most popular (although not the only) leisure activities of medieval knights, but it was also a great way to enrich meals. But peasants were strictly prohibited from hunting game aside from doves and maybe rabbits. So while peasants also ate meat they could not eat any game.
But not only the food that medieval knights and peasants ate was similar. The beverages they drank were also pretty similar.
What did knights drink?
Unlike the common stereotype about the Middle Ages, the average medieval person was not always drunk. I wrote an entire article busting that myth so I will keep it short for now.
Knights mostly drank water or low-alcohol ale. Buttermilk was also highly popular. High-alcohol beer and wine were only drunk on special occasions and not during the work day. Because of its low alcohol content, ale was seen as a good way to stay hydrated while also getting in additional calories and minerals. Ale and beer were not drunk because of a lack of clean drinking water.
Especially that last part, the availability of clean drinking water might sound surprising. If so, then please check out my article here where I talk about alcohol in the Middle Ages.
So there we have it, the types of food that a medieval knight would eat daily. But how would that look in practice? Let`s find out.
What did knights eat for breakfast
Breakfast and dinner were the main meals in the Middle Ages, here you can find out more about at what time people in the Middle Ages ate their meals.
The breakfast of a knight mostly consisted of bread or porridge. By adding salt, bacon, lard, cheese, and onions or fruits and syrups breakfast could be turned into a hearty or sweet meal. Knight drank water, low-alcohol ale, or buttermilk for breakfast.
While breakfast was an important meal, lunch was usually more a snack than a meal.
What did knights eat for lunch?
Medieval lunches are quite interesting. Here you can find out more about the lunch of medieval peasants for a comparison.
Lunch was usually treated as a snack in the Middle Ages and was fitted into the work schedule. The lunch of a knight might have consisted of bread or porridge, cheese, cold cuts of meat, vegetables, or soup. Common beverages were water, low-alcohol ale, or the quite popular buttermilk.
Dairy was generally pretty popular in the Middle Ages.
What did knights eat for dinner?
While lunch was oftentimes more like an improvised snack, dinner was usually a more sophisticated meal.
A knight’s dinner consisted of porridge or bread. In addition, dishes made of fried or braised cuts of meat, vegetables, cheese, egg dishes, or soups were served. Knights drank water, low-alcohol ale, beer, watered-down wine, or the quite popular buttermilk at dinner. Dinner was the meal where more sophisticated dishes like pates/meat pies were eaten.
Knights did not have to cut their meat themselves, something that would have been quite hard without a fork. Instead, the meat dishes were served in bite-sized pieces so that the knight could eat them by using their knives as replacements for forks.
The fact that knights did not use forks is often attributed to a fear of forks as a symbol of the devil. But that was not the case. You can find out more about that in my article here.
The meals we talked about gave the knights the nutrition necessary to perform their daily tasks. For more information on what knights did all day long (and why participating in tournaments was not a fun free time activity), I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Stephen Howarth: The knights templar (1982).*
Ernst Schubert: Essen und Trinken im Mittelalter (2006 Darmstadt).*
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