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.

What Even is a Fish?

Beaver

(Niklas Hamann/Unsplash)

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.

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.

No Spices

Spices

(Pratiksha Mohanty/Unsplash)

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.

Silverware Wasn’t a Thing

Forks

(Maksym Tymchyk/Unsplash)

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.

Death for Duck

Hunting

(Sebastian Pociecha/Unsplash)

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

Pie

(Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash)

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

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