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Food in Medieval Times

How Food in Medieval Times Reveal a Vast Division of the Classes

Did you know that the poor were allowed to eat only limited foods in medieval times, while the nobility had access to a larger variety? This article on food of the medieval times, explains all the differences in the kind of food available and consumed by different classes.
Puja Lalwani
Last Updated: Jul 14, 2017
Food during the medieval times depended mainly on availability. Several times people used to starve to death due to lack of food, especially during winters. Due to the unavailability of transport, people had to suffice with the food available in their area, and were deprived of several foods that were grown and available in other areas. The lack of proper food storage techniques was another problem faced by the people in medieval times. Even if they had an excess, storing it would be a problem, and it would invariably go to waste. Several people tried techniques such as curing meat with salt, as it was the only available preservative, and drying grapes to make raisins, dried peas, etc. However, only limited items could be preserved, while the rest resulted in spoilage.
What Were the Options Left?
The kind of food people ate not only depended on the situation, but also on their class and social ranking. While nobles had a plethora of delicious meats to choose from, the choice for the peasant class was very limited, not only because of the expense, but also because there were restrictions on what peasants were entitled to eat, and what was suitable only for nobles. Given below is the classification of food in the middle ages based on social ranking.
Food of Peasants
Peasants always worked for the lords, and so, whatever little they could grow on their fields went to them. They would primarily face a lack of good, nutrient-rich food, as the upper class didn't consider them worthy of such food. Again, food was expensive, due to its scarcity and problems with storage, which peasants could not afford. The diet of the peasants thus, comprised the following:
  • Bread: The bread available to peasants was a dark bread, that didn't require milled flour to be made. This bread was not considered good enough for nobles.
  • Meat: As meat, peasants mostly ate only pork as it was the most basic form of meat in those times.
  • Vegetables and Fruits: Vegetables such as turnips, cabbage and carrots were part of the staple diet of peasants. Fruits were eaten by the poor, but were not available throughout the year.
  • Apart from these, the peasant class consumed porridge, and once in a while were able to afford fish and cheese curds. Ale was consumed by all classes.
Food of the Nobility
Their meals were more elaborate than the poor:
  • Bread: The nobles were entitled to eating white bread made from white flour. They also used these breads as plates to eat from. These were known as trenchers. Left over trenchers were given to the poor to eat.
  • Meat: The noble class chose from a variety of beef, chicken, venison (deer meat), fish, lamb, pork, and rabbit. They also consumed delicacies like the meat of geese, peacocks, crane and crow. Pigeons were harvested for the winter when other wild animals could not be hunted.
  • Vegetables and Fruits: The noble class did not prefer eating fresh fruit. Their class of fruits included raisins, figs, prunes, dates and currants. They preserved these in honey and other preservatives. Vegetables were less eaten by nobility as they assumed that they didn't provide any nourishment. However, it was due to this lack of necessary nutrients from fruits and vegetables, that they suffered from health problems such as tooth decay, heart disease, scurvy, and infection caused by eating meat that was rotting.
  • Drinks: The noble class drank only wine and beer. Though some used to consume ale, it was mostly considered a drink for the poor.
Life in the medieval times was difficult, and food during this dark period did not even comprise half the food items we have nowadays. Especially in times of war, the scarcity of food was intensified with the enemy blocking all routes of minimal food transportation, and poisoning ponds to kill the fish. No wonder then that those times were called the 'Dark' Ages!
wine and beer
Dried Fruits
fish in a plate
Vegetables for Peasants
Pork slices
Dried Peas
drying grapes