Medieval Monday – The Peasant Diet

Something really interesting happened to me when I set out to research what medieval peasants ate.  I found a lot of contradictory information.  On the one hand, there are websites and books out there that suggest that the peasant diet was mean, people didn’t get enough nutritional value from their food, and food itself wasn’t readily available.  On the other hand, there are just as many resources that state that, in fact, the diet of medieval peasants was far superior to that of the modern man.  There are a bunch of things out there about how we should be attempting to eat more like our medieval ancestors.  So of course I just couldn’t resist the delicious historiographical dilemma brought up by all this food talk.

Let’s look at the facts, shall we?

Medieval peasants were, by their very nature, rural and agrarian.  They lived in an era when food was not processed (unless you count lugging your grain harvest down to your lord’s mill to grind it into flour) and foodstuffs were not shipped around the world like they are today.  You ate what was available locally.  Which means that you can’t really talk about the diet of “The Medieval Peasant” because it varied so greatly from region to region.

So, for example, if you were a peasant who lived in Italy you would have things like olives, citrus fruit, and Mediterranean fish in your diet.  And pasta.  Italians eating pasta is a cliché for a reason.  If you lived a bit further north in France you would most likely be drinking a lot of wine, whereas if you lived in England you’d be drinking ale.  In England they most likely had more lamb since the wool industry was one of the biggest economic powers of the country.  But English peasants probably weren’t cooking things in olive oil.  You get the picture.

But there were a few things that we can pretty safely say went across the board.  Take bread, for example.  Bread was a staple of the medieval peasant’s diet no matter where you lived.  And it wasn’t Wonder bread either.  For the most part peasant bread was made with coarse grains, like oats, rye, and barley, and was thick, dark and heavy.  It’s interesting because some of the contradictory information I found in my research was about wheat and whether it was available to peasants.  Some sources, like the information published on the East Kentucky University website that a lot of other websites cite, indicate that peasants did have wheat in their diet while other websites, like MedievalLife.net, indicate that wheat was a cash crop that was either given to the lord or sold at market and that it was off-limits to peasants unless their lord said they could have some.  I tend to think that, while it probably varied from manor to manor, wheat was at least a little bit a part of the average peasant’s diet.

Strangely enough, though, modern dieticians caution against eating too much processed wheat.  There’s a big trend these days towards whole and less processed grains.  Also towards staying away from meat.  Medieval peasants generally only had meat on special occasions, and even then it was rarely red meat.  Hmm.  Maybe those medieval peasants were on to something.

The other undeniable standard of peasant food was “pottage”.  Ah pottage.  As near as I can gather from all the sources I read, pottage has a reputation for being anything you could throw in a pot to make into a soup or stew.  When I first heard the term as a very young student I was left with the impression that pottage was an actual thing, that somewhere out there you could find a recipe for “pottage”.  I don’t think so.  I think what it means is any kind of soup or stew.  Because it all goes back to the fact that peasants were not stupid.  They wanted to eat something that tasted good.  And just because they didn’t have an elaborate spice rack (because they didn’t – spices were expensive and really hard to come by) didn’t mean they gave up and ate bland, tasteless mush all the time.  Oh no.  What they lacked in spices they made up for in herbs.

Yes, please!

Every peasant house had a lovely little garden growing outside.  And you know what they grew in those gardens?  Herbs, vegetables, yummy things.  I can imagine that our good friend pottage was a lot like the super delicious barley and mushroom soup that I got for lunch at Whole Foods the other day.  It was probably also a lot like the lamb stew my aunt makes in the winter.  It was probably a whole lot like the completely awesome Brunswick Stew I had once when I went to Colonial Williamsburg and ate in one of their authentic pubs.  In other words, medieval peasant pottage, in all likelihood, was probably seriously delicious.

Correction, medieval peasant pottage was probably as delicious as the skill of the woman cooking it.  If it were me as a medieval peasant it probably would have been a bunch of inexpertly cut up vegetables and some beans thrown in a pot with a bit of salted pork and herbs that didn’t really compliment the whole overcooked to the point of being gruel.  I’m not a great cook.  Then again, if I had been a medieval peasant I probably would have learned how to be a great cook because I couldn’t zip down the street to get my barley and mushroom soup at Whole Foods!

Another universal staple of Northern Europe at least was ale.  According to just about every source I could find, medieval peasants consumed around a gallon of ale a day.  Whoa.  But lest you think that this meant the medieval countryside was swimming with tipsy peasants, medieval ale had a much lower alcohol content than what we consider ale today.  But what exactly, you might ask is ale.  Not being a drinker, I had to look this one up.  Thank you Wikipedia for having a description of what medieval ale specifically was.  It was apparently a barley-based warm-fermented drink made with brewer’s yeast and seasoned with a variety of herbs.  And it was highly nutritious too.  Funny, but all sorts of modern diets recommend adding brewer’s yeast into your diet on a daily basis.

So.  The end result of all this curious research into what medieval peasants ate not only lead me to Whole Foods for soup, rustic bread, and various cheeses, (I didn’t even get into the amount of cheese and butter and eggs medieval peasants ate) it also lead me to think about what the diet of the average modern person is.  Some criticism was leveled against the medieval peasant diet for not providing enough nutrients.  Hmm.  I wonder if we’re all getting the nutrients we need from our pre-packaged, microwaved, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, gallons of soda, stop at McDonald’s when you don’t feel like cooking diets?  Yeah, I think we have to admit that even though it was much more limited and even though the time of year and health of the harvest in any given year effected the amount and types of foods eaten by medieval peasants, they probably did eat better than we did.

Oh, and one other thing that I forgot to mention that I have always found fascinating although I can’t remember where I read it.  Almonds were a massively important part of the medieval peasant diet.  As nuts but also almond milk.  In fact, in many cases dairy milk was reserved for the upper classes, so peasants relied on almond milk as their staple for drinking and cooking.  Just wanted to add that in there because I think it’s cool.  And I happen to love almonds.

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18 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – The Peasant Diet

  1. I always felt that all rustic people, who relied on the land for their food, ate better than we did! Even if they had a high fat diet, they needed it. They worked hard, used up all the fuel they consumed! They also used every part of an animal. Very resourceful people. I don’t think we need to watch our diets so much as get more active…something I find very difficult! Lazy by nature I’m afraid!

    • Oh yeah! I forgot to add that I also discovered in my research that medieval peasants burned 5000 – 6000 calories a day! So I guess they can pack it in all they wanted because they really did need it.

  2. Great post, Merry! This is a very interesting look at the medieval diet. I’ve come across the same contrast in whether the diet was nutritious or poor, and I think you’ve hit it on head. The food was much more nutritious because it was fresh and unprocessed, but a bad harvest or other event would have wreaked havoc because there wasn’t a way to transport anything else in. There were probably nutritional gaps, but it sure couldn’t have been any worse than the modern diet!

    Great post, and I heartily enjoy your blog!

    Callene

    • Thanks, Callene. And I also forgot to say that a lot of the time when people refer to “The Medieval Peasant Diet” they’re lumping about a thousand years worth of history throughout the vast region of Europe into one statement. That’s awfully broad to make that sort of a generalization.

      And now I’m hungry for a good, solid stew. 🙂

      • No kidding. That barley stew looks to die for!

        And I wonder what they will say about our diet in a thousand years? Provided we haven’t starved ourselves to death eating processed junk by then.

  3. Thanks for a really interesting post; I enjoyed reading it.

    Think I’ll go and make some nice warm soup of my own now. 🙂

  4. I was invited to a medieval lunch by a historian once upon a time. Wish I could remember her name. What I do remember: a heavy fruited component in every meat and side dish. We might cook chicken with figs, for example, but this was more like cooked figs with chicken.

    • That sounds like a fantastic lunch! I wouldn’t mind a little chicken with my figs. I still have this idea that they probably had to get a lot more creative with their cooking back in the day than we give them credit for.

  5. Fascinating stuff. I’d think the peasants would probably eat more mutton than lamb though, since they’d keep the sheep alive as long as possible for a) more breeding and b) more wool. Lamb is the delicacy now, but mutton was definitely a staple back in the day. And rabbit too.

    I definitely agree on the nutrition. I’m eating lots of home-cooked, naturally prepared organic stuff these days and feel much better for it. All the additives we put in food for taste and preservation can’t be that great for us (not to mention all the growth hormones, genetic modification and all that other scary stuff).

    • Good point about the mutton. I’m still convinced that someday soon they’re going to discover that the perservatives we put in our food, especially the hormones and antibiotics given to cows, are what’s causing so much cancer.

  6. I read somewhere that the healthiest meal we can eat is the Sunday roast or Christmas dinner, because it’s all fresh ingredients and not processed junk. I know our Christmas dinners are nothing but fresh food. I wonder if the question of our longer life compared to the “olden days” is partly due to our diet, which I doubt, or advances in medical treatments.

    I also wonder if peasants were not struck by the volume and variety of fatal illnesses as there seem to be today, and again is this due to diet? Great post Merry, I for one would have slurped the last bits of pottage, it looks yummy!

    • I recently read this incredible book called “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by, um, Siddarth Mukerjee or something close to that I think. In it he theorized that one of the reasons cancer is so prevalent in modern society is because historically something else would kill people off before cancer could develop. Modern medicine has really extended out lives, but you’re right, I don’t think it’s made us healthier. In fact, my old chiropractor used to say that people in the late 19th/early 20th centuries were the healthiest in history because they lived at the dawn of modern medicine but before we began to process all our food.

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