15 Disgusting Realities of Medieval Food
Despite what your local theme restaurant and jousting arena might lead you to believe, it wasn’t all turkey legs and pints of ale in medieval times. Sure, there was plenty of ale, but sitting down to a medieval table would probably horrify you even more than you’d expect for a people who didn’t even have ketchup yet.
Not Feeling Great? Eat a Hedgehog
Those li’l roly polies were considered a cure for everything from a sore throat to leprosy. It was usually just their fat or intestines that were consumed, though there’s really no “just” in that sentence and the whole buddies were sometimes roasted and even wrapped in pastry, just to fancy up your roast rodent.
What Even is a Fish?
Much of the medieval diet revolved around the church, which meant a lot of fasting … but not really. The church compromised by simply forbidding people to eat meat during fasting holidays and then compromised further by agreeing that fish isn’t meat, and people went even further by deciding certain parts of animals found in water that kind of looked like fish, like beaver tails, counted as fish. These days, we know that fish don’t exist, so they were onto something.
Thicken Your Soup With Some Fish Goo
People didn’t really know about gelatin until the late medieval period and it was a pain in the ass to make even then, so the goo from sturgeon bladders was often used as a thickener. It seems far preferable to boil some bones for a while than to dig out and squeeze a fish bladder, but you do you, medieval peeps.
Medieval Fast Food (Existed and Was Dangerous)
Stopping for a few minutes to pick up a meat pie for lunch was as common as hitting the drive thru today and just as likely to give you diarrhea, back when diarrhea would probably kill you. Fast food cooks were notorious for using diseased or undercooked meat or just warming up yesterday’s spoiled leftovers -- again, not very different from what goes on in the back at McDonald’s now.
Spices were stupid expensive because Western Europe isn’t exactly known for its fiery flora and the only real means of transportation tended to die if you rode them too far. That meant most people were limited to flavoring their foods with whatever bullshit they had lying around, mostly the tart or sour extracts of unripe fruits, leading to the modern British tradition of refusing to eat food that actually tastes like anything.
Sorry Excuses for Sauces
People tried to liven up their bland-ass food with sauces, but with limited access to dairy and tomatoes still being a twinkle in colonizers’ eyes, they weren’t the sort of thing you’d want to dunk your pizza rolls in. Their “sauces” were more like oatmeal, which you’d only serve on vegetables today if you wanted to ruin them.
Mushy Plants Only, Please
These were the bizarro health days when people started to believe that bathing too much made you sick, so naturally, they also believed that fresh fruits and vegetables were toxic. Only after they were cooked to the point of liquidation could they be poured down your miserable gullet, so it’s no wonder so many people chose malnutrition instead.
Obviously, the Brawny Man hadn’t yet invented disposable paper products, and your average peasant wasn’t about to go wasting perfectly good cloth or food, so they used bread to wipe their faces and then ate it as a bonus snack. Your mom might not approve, but honestly, we should bring it back.
Silverware Wasn’t a Thing
Until about the 14th century, when people started carrying personal spoons, you just used your knife to cut food that couldn’t be scooped up with your hands (or, again, a slice of bread). Even after silverware was introduced, they were considered such intimate objects, like toothbrushes, that people were expected to provide their own, so there were no trays of mismatched forks clogging up medieval drawers.
Or Plates, So Much
Peasants sometimes used plates or bowls made of wood, but food was often just served directly on the table. Again, if you can overcome your puritan aversion to chaos, this seems like a great way to cut down on dishes.
The Sugar Craze
Like spices, sugar was so expensive that blackened, rotten teeth were considered a status symbol. It was so coveted that when it finally became cheaper and more available in the 16th century, people went overboard with it, rolling their meat, vegetables, and probably themselves around in an orgy of sweetness.
The Lamprey Craze
Lampreys -- you know, those blood-sucking water demons that look like a Freudian nightmare -- were so treasured by the medieval British aristocracy that some of them kept ponds specifically for breeding the terrors. It was believed that King Henry I died from eating too many lampreys, though it was probably just a good old-fashioned infection.
The Forbidden Omelet
One popular dish during fasting holidays was the tansy, a pancake-like slab of yellow that was the medieval answer to the vegan omelet made from a plant called tanacetum vulgare. Nevermind that it turns out the herb was toxic -- people loved their tansies so much that they drove it to near extinction.
Death for Duck
Meat was a rare treat for the poor, since they were better off with egg- and dairy-providing livestock than deadstock and more exotic game like ducks and rabbits were legally the property of the lords who owned the forests and ponds. That doesn’t mean a peasant never snuck off with some illicit fowl, but they did risk losing their hands or even execution as punishment. Have you ever tasted duck confit, though? Might be worth it.
Food as (Horrifying) Entertainment
For those lords, dinner was as much an occasion for entertainment as sustenance, though their tastes in both apparently ran distinctly Cronenbergian. Common sights at feasts included a Frankenstein of a bird sewed to a pig called a “cockentrice,” a variation of a bird dressed in a coat of arms positioned to ride a pig called a “helmeted cock,” a chicken that was made to appear like it was alive and singing through methods we promise you don’t want us to go into, live birds that were prepared to appear cooked (because they just couldn’t decide if they wanted living or dead food), and pies full of live birds or frogs that leaped out when you cut into them. Hey, it was a terrifying time of war and pestilence. They took their morbid giggles where they got them.
Top image: Bibliothèque nationale/Wikimedia Commons