Whenever the diet of a medieval peasant is portrayed in movies or books the food is usually depicted as low in calories, bland, and tasteless. But that was not the case! So to clear up a couple of misconceptions about the diets of medieval peasants I would like to dedicate this article to the foods medieval peasants ate and the question of how good their diet really was.
In the 15th century, the peasants on the estates of the Archbishop of Mainz Berthold of Henneberg got a soup with bread for breakfast; a rich soup, meat, vegetables, and half a jug of common wine for lunch; and either bread and meat or a rich soup for dinner. Another source from 1483 states that peasants working during grape harvest were provided with bread, barley, oats, oatmeal, peas, millet, salt, lard, clarified butter, boiled and fried meat, cheese, milk, cabbage, beets, eggs, fish, apples, pears, onions, and herbs.
That diet sounds pretty good.
However, there are also sources that state that peasants only received bread which implies that they had to provide the other foods from their own more or less self-sufficient farms. So, was the rich diet stated above an exception or the rule?
Let`s take a closer look and find out what peasants ate in the Middle Ages!
What did medieval peasants eat?
The diet that will be presented in the following was probably true for about 90% of the medieval population. And while knights generally ate the same types of food as the peasants, there were still differences in the quantity and the ways the food was prepared. Check out my article here for more information on what medieval knights ate.
And here you can find out more about at what times of the day breakfast, lunch, and dinner was eaten in the Middle Ages.
The already mentioned source from 1483 gives us a good idea of the types of food that were available to medieval peasants. However, 1483 is pretty much at the end of the Middle Ages and during the period that is called the Late Middle Ages. It is important to remember that when we talk about the commonness of bread compared to porridge, but more on that under the next headline.
It is also important to note that the source tells us about the types of food peasants got from their landlord when they were working in his vineyards during grape harvest, a time of the year with a lot of physically demanding work.
During that time a peasant was provided with bread, barley, oats, oatmeal, peas, millet, salt, lard, clarified butter, boiled and fried meat, cheese, milk, cabbage, beets, eggs, fish, apples, pears, onions, and herbs. That list of food sounds pretty comprehensive and definitely better than the type of food most think about when it comes to the diet of medieval peasants.
However, one thing shows.
Cereals (bread, barley, oatmeal, oats, and millet) made up the bulk of a medieval peasant`s diet while other foods like vegetables, salt, and meat were added for flavor and extra calories.
And that brings us right to the already mentioned situation of the commonness of bread and porridge and how that commonness changed over time. That question is also directly related to the way meals were served and eaten in the Middle Ages.
Porridge & Bread – the staple foods in the Middle Ages
The bulk of a medieval peasant`s diet was made up of either bread or porridge. In the Early and even in the High Middle Ages, porridge was extremely common while bread only became common during the High and especially during the Late Middle Ages, although it never completely replaced porridge. The consistency of medieval porridge varied from fluid (like gruel) to solid like modern-day polenta.
By the way.
When we talk about the bread that peasants ate then we are mostly talking about rye bread. White bread was the bread of the upper class and the nobility since it was four times more expensive than rye bread. That difference in its price wasn`t because of the higher price of wheat, but because the flour for white bread had to be sieved several times.
As a result, 771 lbs (350 kg) of rye could be baked into 551 lbs (250 kg) of rye bread but the same amount of wheat could only be baked into 242-264 lbs (110-120 kg) of white bread.
Only at special occasions like church festivals would peasants be able to eat white bread. These festivals were also the time when peasants had the most free time. Here you can find out more about the leisure activities of medieval peasants.
So even when bread had become common during the High and Late Middle Ages we are mostly talking about rye bread while white bread was almost exclusively eaten why knights, kings, and urban patricians. The bread was less common in the Early Middle Ages, there the staple in the diet of peasants and knights was porridge.
Speaking of medieval porridge. There is a common misconception that medieval porridge was some sort of bland and tasteless grain mush. But that`s wrong. Not only could the texture of porridge vary from fluid (like gruel) to solid (like polenta), but by adding different side dishes it could easily be turned into a hearty or sweet meal.
That might be a good time to talk about how meals were eaten in the Middle Ages.
In today’s western hemisphere every eater gets one plate with his food on it. And while people in the Middle Ages also used real plates (slices of bread were only used as plates at big banquets), the way meals were served, eaten, and thought was quite different.
A meal, even the dinner of a peasant, in the Middle Ages was probably more similar to Asian cuisine than to our western way of serving the entire meal on one plate.
Let me explain.
In Asian cuisine the staple food is rice. In addition to the main rice dish, several other vegetable or meat side dishes are served. Medieval cuisine might have been quite similar even though bread and especially porridge were the staple food instead of rice.
So the staple food of medieval cuisine was either bread or porridge that was then enriched by adding additional ingredients and foods.
Let`s now look at these foods and look at a few examples of what a medieval meal might have looked like.
Side dishes: Additional foods to add flavor & calories
When it comes to the side dishes that were used to enrich the cereal-based staple food then once again the already mentioned source allows us some valuable insights.
The source from 1483 states that peasants working at the grape harvest should be provided with bread, barley, oats, oatmeal, peas, millet, salt, lard, clarified butter, boiled and fried meat, cheese, milk, cabbage, beets, eggs, fish, apples, pears, onions, and herbs.
Now you might be especially surprised to find salt is on the list. Unlike the common modern depiction, salt was quite affordable in the Middle Ages, even for peasants. Here you can find out more about the price and use of salt in the Middle Ages.
The listed ingredients and foods in the source open up a wide field of potential flavors.
Let`s assume that the peasant had a little bit of a sweet tooth. By adding apples, pears, and maybe some syrup to his porridge he was easily able to turn the supposedly bland porridge into a tasty meal. Now you might say that syrups are not listed. And you are totally right. But there was a wide variety of plants (like elders) that just grew in the woods. The berries of the elder could be picked for free and turned into syrup, so we can assume that peasants definitely used that opportunity to get a free sweetener.
But let`s say he liked a more hearty meal with more calories for dinner after a hard and long day on the fields.
In that case, the peasant could have cut up and added some meat, maybe a smoked sausage, some seared onions, a pinch of salt, and maybe even some lard to his porridge. He could also roast his oatmeal before turning it into porridge for another, different flavor. Or he could add cheese for jet another flavor. And the addition of herbs added a whole new field of opportunities for even more flavors.
I think it became pretty clear that there was a wide variety of dishes and flavors available.
Now you might say hey, did peasants really have access to that much meat and dairy?
Well, all the food that was consumed in the Middle Ages was produced by peasants. And while peasants had to give parts of their harvest to their landlord they did not have to hand over everything! So when peasants butchered a pig or made cheese/butter, then they had to give some of the products to their landlord but not everything.
So that brings us to the next question regarding the diet of medieval peasants. Did medieval peasants really eat meat and how much of it did they eat?
Did medieval peasants eat meat?
Just like there is the idea that medieval food was bland, there is also the idea that peasants never (or almost never) ate meat. But that is not supported by the sources.
Many pictorial sources of the Middle Ages that portray the farm work throughout a year show, that November was the month when peasants led their pigs into the woods so that they could feast on acorns and beechnuts and get fat. In December these pigs would then be butchered and turned into more durable food like bacon or smoked sausages.
Butchering in the Middle Ages was done by the entire village. Everybody helped not only with the butchering itself but also with making the meat durable. The blood of the butchered animals was turned into highly nutritious black pudding, sausages were made and smoked, and cuts of meat were cured.
And while parts of the butchered animals had to be given to the landlord, the was still enough meat left for the peasants.
And when we look at another example outside of the farm workers, then we see that medieval people ate quite a lot of meat.
One medieval source states that during the construction of the Nuernberg city wall each of the construction men received a total of 4 pounds of beef per day. While that was not pure meat but also contained bones and fat and had to be shared with the families it was still a lot of meat!
By the way. In the Middle Ages pork was more expensive than beef.
It does however make sense that hard-working people would receive rather generous portions of meat since they needed the calories to be able to do their job. In a moment we will talk more extensively about how good the diet of a medieval peasant was and whether or not these presented examples were the exception or the rule.
But for now, I would like to briefly talk about what medieval peasants drank.
What did medieval peasants drink?
Most sources name beer and wine as typical beverages, although it seems wine was a little more popular than beer. Depending on the work that had to be done sources indicate that each medieval peasant might have gotten between 16-50 ounces (0,5-1,5 liter) of wine/beer per day.
Now that sounds like a lot and is probably the origin of the stereotype that everybody in the Middle Ages was always drunk and beer and wine were used since there was no clean drinking water. That, however, is wrong. For more information on alcohol in the Middle Ages and the reason why people in the Middle Ages were not always drunk despite receiving considerable amounts of alcoholic beverages each day you might want to check out my article here.
Generally, there was a differentiation between light and heavy wines and beers in the Middle Ages. While wine and high-alcohol beer were only drunk on special occasions, the oftentimes home-brewed, low-alcohol ale was seen as a good way to stay hydrated and get in some extra calories and minerals. However, the ale was not drunk as a replacement to water.
Water (and the popular buttermilk) were also common beverages in the Middle Ages.
When wine was drunk during the day then it was heavily watered down, something that had also been done by the Romans to make water taste better while simultaneously avoiding the intoxicating effects of pure wine. Do you want to find out more about the diet of a Roman? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Conclusion: Did medieval peasants eat well?
So, the diet of medieval peasants sounded pretty good. But was that the norm or were these sources just exceptions? Well, there is a strong reasoning behind the idea that these sources actually showed the reality for a good part of medieval peasants.
While famines and malnourishment were certainly an occasional part of life for an unknown number of medieval peasants, the kind of hard, manual work peasants did in the Middle Ages demanded a good, nutrient-rich diet. The too-common depiction of peasant food as mush that was low in calories would not have been enough to fuel the daily work on the farms.
In addition, the fact that peasants had to hand over parts of their harvests (including meat, eggs, and dairy) but not all of it meant that medieval peasants ate the same foods as medieval knights. However, there were still differences especially when it came to preparing the food and the meats that were eaten. Here you can find out more about that and the diet of medieval knights.
So yes, the average diet of the average medieval peasant was indeed pretty good and certainly a lot better than most movies and books like to portray. And while famines did exist they were not a daily occurrence and many peasants could live an entire life without ever being hit by a famine.
Especially larger medieval cities took measures like the construction of granaries to avoid famines. These measures had also been taken in ancient Rome, here you can find out more about that and why Rome did prefer to import grain instead of growing it in Italy (despite good soil).
The diet of a medieval peasant was also pretty similar (although not exactly the same) to the diet of a medieval soldier. Here you can find out more about what medieval soldiers ate when they were at war.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Ernst Schubert: Essen und Trinken im Mittelalter (2006 Darmstadt).