Author’s note: On this blog, “Diet History” refers to simple, bite-sized bits of historical knowledge that are quick to read.
Forgive the unintentional pun in the title, but this season of feasting and festivals provides the perfect opportunity to discuss medieval banquets.
In more ways than one, medieval banquets looked very different from our modern feasts. They would have had more food than we do—not just in the amount of food that was prepared, but also in the number of dishes served. Those of us in the United States just celebrated Thanksgiving, which, for my moderately-sized family, meant the table was covered with a dozen different foods. That pales in comparison with the spread at medieval feasts, which could have as many as five or more separate courses with multiple dishes in each course. Feasters were served a part of each dish; however, portions were smaller, and feasters were expected not to overindulge to the point that they couldn’t finish the entire meal.
Their cuisine was also different from ours. Turkey, which is perhaps the most iconic food associated with modern holiday dinners, would have been absent from medieval feasts because it is a New World bird. Feasters also wouldn’t have eaten corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, lima beans, cranberries (or cranberry sauce), and chocolates for the same reason. Instead, their menus would have included cabbage, artichokes, turnips, asparagus, various cheeses, venison, squirrel, duck, chicken, partridge, pork, beef, and fish. Particularly wealthy hosts, such as the Earl of Devonshire, could afford more exotic dishes like peacock. Meats were just as likely to be baked into a pie or a crust as they were to be served sliced or filleted.
“Dessert” as we know it didn’t exist in medieval times, as cooks believed feasters should be able to enjoy multiple flavors in each course. So, one or two “sweet” or dessert-like dishes were served alongside the meats and vegetables that formed the body of a course. Common “sweet” recipes included fritters, tarts, mousses, and puddings. “Gyngerbrede,” one of our modern favorites, was a similarly popular medieval dish, appearing in cookbooks dating back to 14th-century England.
Despite the differences in their holiday cuisine, however, medieval people shared much in common with us. If the large number of dishes at their feasts is any indication, they certainly loved their food just as much as we do, and the descriptions of such events suggest that they felt the same pleasure of sitting by a warm fire with friends and family that we do today. Like our holiday season, theirs was a time of festivities, food, and fellowship—evidence that, for all of Time’s unstoppable changes, we are still unmistakably linked by our common humanity.
Featured image: The medieval feast of William the Conqueror, as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.