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Monday, November 4, 2013

The Typical Medieval Diet (It's Not What You Probably Thought)

It was a cold and quiet morning here in Colorado Springs.  We're expecting the year's first major snow storm.  It's the kind of weather that forces you to stay inside, hunker down and either watch a movie or read.  And since there was nothing good on television this morning, I elected to finally read a few journal articles that I've had on the back shelf for quite some time.

This morning I read an article by Medieval historian Ramon Agustin Lopez entitled, "Consumption of Meat in Western European Cities During the Late Middle Ages." On the surface, this article probably seems cut-and-dry. After all, everyone knows (even those who've never studied Medieval history) that the typical peasant diet was lacking when it came to the basic nutritional needs required for the human body. This conclusion, however, is not as correct as we may think.  In his article, Dr. Lopez contends that while the typical Medieval diet was certainly not as healthy as it could have been, the culturally accepted notion that peasants starved or had little to eat is not as true as we may think.

To be certain, the Medieval world did not fully understand how the human body processed food, nor did they recognize which foods contained the beneficial proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, etc. that humans need. This nutritional deficiency, however, was not the result of a lack of food but rather a lack of maintaining a balanced diet.  As Dr. Lopez points out, over 80% of Medieval peasants enjoyed "more than sufficient portions of protein" in their daily meals. The primary source of this protein came from mutton, which was generally seen as the meat of the lower classes.  Nobility and other elites of society usually consumed beef (in rather large quantities), while the peasantry consumed the flesh of sheep.

In addition, Medieval peasantry consumed a large portion of beans, peas, eggs and lentils, which also augmented their protein intake.  In fact, the typical English peasant could expect to enjoy a rather bountiful table.  The average daily meal for such a person usually consisted of 2-3 pounds of bread, 8-14 ounces of protein (usually from mutton, eggs, or beans and fish in the coastal regions), and 3-6 pints of ale. Vegetables and fruits were a seasonal and regional product.

Of course, none of this takes into account the occasions in which famine, disease or climate effected the abundance of food.  To be certain, the Medieval world faced such difficulties on a reoccurring basis.  But when times were good (or at least "normal"), the typical Medieval family was not as deprived of nourishment as we may think.

The problems that resulted from the typical Medieval diet were usually related to contamination and a lack of nutritional diversity.  Most peasants stuck with a few basic foods for reasons of convenience.  Life was busy and tough enough without having to worry about providing a variety of options on the dinner table.  In addition, the problem of contamination was always present.  As I stated in a previous blog post, most bread (especially the bread of the peasantry) was made from rye, which was often contaminated with Ergot.  And while preservation practices were rather sophisticated and successful (especially in the late Middle Ages), the threat of contaminated water, meat, etc. was always looming.  Dysentery, food poisoning and other ailments were always a reality.

Aside from the practical realities that governed the Medieval diet, a number of cultural customs regarding food were also of great importance.  As was common during this time, the Catholic Church enjoyed a great deal of influence over many aspects of Medieval life, and meal time was no exception.  The liturgical calender was littered with a plethora of feast and fast days, each of which dictated what could or could not be consumed.  In most areas, meat was forbidden for approximately 1/4 of the calender year, while all animal products (to include eggs, dairy, meat, etc.) were prohibited during Lent (fish being the only exception).

Dr. Lopez's article goes on to discuss how Medieval meal practices and customs eventually influenced many of the modern world's dinner and holiday practices.  The idea of eating together as a family at a communal table has its roots in Medieval times.

What I find equally fascinating (but is not mentioned in Dr. Lopez's article) is how European culinary practices changed with the discovery of the "New World."  The introduction of corn, potatoes, sugar, tobacco, etc. completely revolutionized the European dining experience.  We cannot underestimate the importance of this reality.  In fact, Europe witnessed a dramatic spike in procreation at the dawn of the discovery of the New World.  Added calories and a diversity of food options certainly contributed to this growth in population.

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