4 Odd Realities Of Food In The Middle Ages
Certain things in the recent era can feel akin to the Middle Ages … or at least what we think of the Middle Ages. The truth is a lot of what pop-culture presents of the period doesn't match the actual history. This week at Cracked, we're doing a Middle Ages deep-dive – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Shockingly, the theme restaurant industry has lied to you -- there weren't a lot of turkey legs flying around in the real medieval times and certainly less Jim Carrey (historical records are at odds about the amount of Matthew Broderick):
As with today, the wealthy could eat as many gold-plated steaks as they wanted, but the everyman was in a somewhat more dire situation …
You'd Better Like It Plain and Mushy
For the most part, the medieval peasant way of life was "If you grow it, you eat it." While their lords chose from a variety of meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables available on their bountiful estates, seasoned with the finest spices their staff could procure, the poor were likewise limited to what they could find in their vastly more modest backyards. Spices and sugar were expensive and hard to come by, fish was uncommon unless you lucked into oceanside property, and only the most desperate or stupid risked hunting in the lord's forest, because oh, yeah, he owned that, too.
That means that peasants mostly ate bread, milk, and cheese from their own cows (which were rarely killed for meat because then how are you gonna get your milk, Agnes?), and a limited variety of plain, unseasoned vegetables. They also believed that raw fruits and vegetables made you sick, so they were often cooked to the point of flaccidity. One of the most popular peasant foods was a stew called "pottage" made of peas, beans, and onions that sounds like something we would only feed prisoners or schoolchildren today.
If you wanted dessert, you'd better go out back and see what kind of berries, nuts, or -- if you were really lucky -- honey you could find. Even something as objectively awful as a raisin was prohibitively expensive, and the bread was so low-quality you could use it as a plate. Everyone likes a bread bowl, but maybe not for every meal.
Your Bread Could Get You High (and/or Kill You)
For peasants, that bread was mostly rye, which was seen as lower quality and could be grown in colder weather and worse soil. It was also susceptible to fungi called ergot, particularly after unusually wet springs that followed unusually cold winters, which is poisonous to humans, causing convulsions, delusions, hallucinations, and you know, death. On the order of tens of thousands. You can find a mysterious epidemic sweeping central and eastern Europe pretty much any time the weather produced ideal ergot-growing conditions. If it wasn't the plague, it was carbs.
In fact, medieval reliance on rye bread and the ensuing ergotism epidemics may have been responsible for some of the most important events in European history. Think about it: You've got all these people convulsing and hallucinating all over the place.
They're gonna end up doing some pretty crazy crap. That included, probably, the "Great Fear" that preceded the French Revolution, characterized by a bunch of paranoid peasants erupting in spontaneous riots, and a fair share of witch hunts. Even the Salem witch hunts are often attributed to an epidemic of ergotism. People were just trying to figure out why they kept seizing up and seeing demons everywhere, and they didn't have science yet, so they did what they always did and called "witchcraft."
"DoorDash For Water" Was a Thing
You might have heard that medieval folks drank so much beer because their water was unsafe to drink, but that's not true. Rural communities and villages alike had mechanisms in place to ensure their water was clean, from what was essentially zoning laws to pollution fines. They still probably attributed contamination to witchcraft, but they knew how to stop it.
That doesn't mean it was always accessible, though. You probably also imagine medieval maids carrying water from the family well in two buckets on a stick over their shoulders, but only rural homesteads had their own wells. City dwellers drew water the same way we do today: from the public supply. But only fancy people had pipes running water to their houses.
If you weren't so aquatically well off, you had a few options. You could head on down to the local cistern yourself every day and haul back your daily water supply, but that took time and a considerable level of upper body strength.
If you didn't have those things but did have a little extra scratch, you could pay a guy called a "cob" whose whole job was delivering water. For a nominal fee, he'd lug a three-gallon bucket through town and drop it off at your door just like the person who brings you Popeye's today, meaning you're participating in a rich tradition of laziness and capitalism every time you open that app. Just make sure to tip well.
Beer Was Like Gatorade
That's not to say that medieval people didn't enjoy throwing back cold ones like your uncle who will use any sporting event, up to and including the installation of a Fisher-Price basketball hoop, as an excuse for a tailgate party. They did, but they were drinking a different beverage than we do today, for a different reason. Back then, beer was so weak that you'd take one sip and throw it back at the bartender, demanding to know what kind of apple juice trash this is. It was also a lot higher in calories. Coors Light, this was not.
That meant that the primary reason you drank beer was that you'd been working the fields all day and you needed to get some sustenance in you faster than it would take Beatrice to whip up some more pottage. One historian likens it to "the medieval equivalent of drinking Gatorade," something you did because you're sweaty and dehydrated and in need of electrolytes. Like Gatorade, you'd still need to add vodka if you want to get messed up.
Just because chugging a pitcher of beer was less likely to result in a soccer riot than a serious pee doesn't mean they didn't still drink it to party, though. To paraphrase the Barenaked Ladies, they just drank a lot more. They liked their wine, too, mostly by the cup from taverns that could afford to buy it in bulk. On really special days, the city would shut off the water and instead pump wine through the pipes so everyone could party like it's 1399. They may not have believed in most forms of equality, but they held dear the human right to get crunk.
Top image: Bibliothèque nationale/Wikimedia Commons