Monday, June 8, 2015

Medieval Foods

The foods eaten in medieval times were both similar and different than those we enjoy today. In a castle, meals were usually taken in the great hall, a chamber often located on an upper floor. Servants carrying hot dishes from the kitchen (found on a lower level or in separate building) had to hurry to deliver food that still contained some warmth.

Class considerations dictated diets, the order in which people were served, and the way they behaved at table. Three meals were served: breakfast, dinner, and supper. The use of alcoholic beverages at meals in the Middle Ages was a  widespread preventative measure that guarded against contracting illnesses from drinking unsanitary water.

Illustration from The Decameron, Flanders, 1432. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 5070 fol. 132. {{PD-BnFMandragorePic}}  


For servants,breakfast might consist of a portion or coarse bread and some ale or cider. Those of noble birth ate cold sliced meat, cheese, white bread that had been thrice milled to remove impurities and improve its texture. and a cup of wine.


 Served around midday, dinner was the main repast of the day. A trumpeter or cryer summoned the diners, and then pages would bring a wash bowl and poured water from elaborate pitchers so that those seated at the lord's table could wash their hands. Others washed in lavers before seating themselves at trestle tables below the dais elevating the lord's table. The benches they sat on might later serve as their beds.

Silver salt cellars sat on the tables and cups fashioned from silver, pewter, wood, or horn. More exotic materials for cups used by the nobility included ostrich eggs, agate, and gourds. Guests were expected to supply their own knives. Forks didn't come into popular use until the Renaissance period, and it was considered bad manners (and probably not very smart) to put food into your mouth with a knife. People either ate with spoons, as in the case of soups and stews, or with their fingers.

Visiting clergymen were the first served, followed by noble guests, the lord and his family, then the lower classes.Those at the lord's table were served from a silver platter while the common folk took their food from wooden platters. Until plates came into use late in the 14th century, flat pieces of bread known as trenchers held individual portions of food.

After the chaplain blessed the food, the first course would be served with bread and butter. Cupbearers made sure cups of wine, beer or ale did not run dry. Three or four courses usually made up a dinner. Elaborate feasts called for more courses that offered a stunning array of culinary delights.

Vegetables were considered food for commoners, so the lord and his guests dined mostly on meat and pastries. As might be imagined, this diet caused health complications.

A variety of flesh, fish, and fowl were consumed, including swans, peacocks, seals, dolphins, venison, and mutton. Common vegetables were onions, peas, beans, cabbage, parsley, shallots, and pot-herbs. Fruits eaten in the Middle Ages were apples, pears, plums, peaches, and nuts. These were cooked, since raw fruit was considered unhealthy. Meals ended with cheeses, cakes, wafers, spiced wine, cookies, waffles, and jellies.

After the diners finished eating, servants would gather the trenchers and bread liners to be distributed to the poor.

Merchants had a diet similar to that taken by the nobility, except that they also ate vegetables. Peasants in the country consumed more humble fare. They might take porridge, turnips, coarse bread, herbal salads dressed with vinegar or verjuice, and beer or ale. They could supplement with fish or pork and bacon, in season. Villagers might enjoy bread made from rye, barley, or wheat, plus peas or beans, oat cakes, porridge, fish, and cheese curds. They would wash down a meal with ale, mead, or cider.

Peasant meal.
Aristotle, Politiques et économiques, France, 15th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22500.{{PD-BnFMandragorePic}}


Later in the day, it was time for a light supper that usually included a main dish, side dishes, and cheese. This meal ushered in the evening's entertainment.

A livery cupboard in or near the great hall welcomed unexpected guests in need of nourishment with bread, meat pies, cold meats, cheese, and libations. Some lords had livery cupboards in their chambers, but this was frowned upon as gluttonous by the church. 

Medieval Table Manners

Strict table manners were observed in the Middle Ages, with participants expected to wash their hands before eating, wipe their mouths before drinking (since cups were shared), take their food in small bites chewed slowly, avoid speaking with their mouths full, resist gnawing on bones, and leave their trencher for the poor. Some of the rules of etiquette they followed are still observed today. They weren't supposed to rest their elbows on the table, slurp their soup, belch at table, or feed scraps to dogs during the meal.. We find echoes of the rules they followed as we take our meals today.

About the Author

Escape into creative worlds of fiction with Janalyn Voigt, an author whose unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and fantasy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers.

Beginning with DawnSinger, Janalyn's epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, carries readers into a land only imagined in dreams.

Janalyn is represented by Sarah Joy Freese of Wordserve Literary. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. When she's not writing, she loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors with her family.


The Writer's Guide to Everday Life in the Middle Ages (The British Isles from 500 to 1500) by Sherrilyn Kenyon


  1. Reminds me of a restaurant here in San Diego, where the food runners carry the food up steep steps to an outside patio overlooking the ocean. Thanks for your interesting post. Glad I'm not a servant! sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  2. Hear, hear- they did indeed have table manners in the Medieval times- contrary to the Hollywood trope of throwing bones over shoulders or (heaven forbid) wiping hands on dogs, eating meat raw with hands etc etc etc.

    I did however read a while back that there may have been some consumption of vegetables/fruit amogst the upper classes. It used to be thought they did not eat it, as its not mentioned in Household accounts, dietary records etc (a main source for what the nobility ate)- but that might have been because it was being grown in the grounds of manor houses or estates, and they did not have to buy it.

    Its also reckoned that people in the Early Middle Ages, like the Saxons and Vikings had good teeth because they did not have a lot of sugar in thier diets. So much for black teeth.