Medieval Food

Reading Food and Drink in Medieval Poland (by Maria Dembińska) has given me some more grist for the mill of dispelling anti-medieval myths. "Popular" histories would have us believe that medieval peasants lived lives of unmitigated misery. The people of that time lived a hard life compared to ours, to be sure. But before getting into the foot, it's worth remembering that between a.D. 1000 and 1340, the population of Europe grew from 38.5 million to about 73.5 million people[i] -- something which would have been impossible if the average person were half-starved and worked into the ground by his aristocratic taskmaster.

Now, as for food, it's commonly believed that Medieval people scarcely had any access to meat and, again, it was their evil noble masters who were the only ones with such food on their table. Meat was relatively expensive -- it still is, especially if you're trying to maintain an all-organic diet like I do! -- but all the same, in medieval Polish society meat was considered essential to a healthy diet and to be consumed daily. Historian Andrzej Wyczanski calculated that manorial work hands (serfs) of the late 1500s consumed a little better than half a pound of meat daily -- and Ms Dembińska stresses that this is a "pauperized" state as compared to the High Middle Ages (I restrain myself from embarking on an anti-Renaissance rant at this juncture).[ii]

Further, according to Regine Pernoud, part of the reason it's been believed that Medieval peasants were constantly starving, is due to the fact that the word "famine" held a much different import in those days than it does now. "Famine" to them was not the total absence of food, as we consider it today, but the lack of wheat bread. Therefore, when the people of a certain area were instead eating rye bread, they would say that they suffered famine. Even then, such "famines" tended to be localized and of short duration.[iii]

P.S. If readers are wondering why my Middle Ages posts are all academic-style with footnotes and such, it's because I want to show that I'm telling the truth on this stuff since my "claims" in such posts go completely contrary to what prevailing wisdom holds.

"History of Europe: Demographic and agricultural growth" Encyclopædia Britannica 2008 ed.
[ii]Dembińska, Maria. Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. p. 62
[iii]O'Reilly, Hugh. "Medieval Famines, Bread & Wine. Tradition in Action. http://www.traditioninaction.org/History/A_023_Famine.htm


Mark Mazur said...

Thank you for this post, Nicholas. I found it fascinating. I remember being very interested in learning more about the specifics of food in the Middle Ages when I first read the TIA article you mention. As a fan of both Medieval and Polish studies, I had no idea a book like this even existed. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I always enjoy following your blog and I look forward to reading more posts like this in the future.

Sophia's Favorite said...

What I find interesting about that third article (the one on famine) is the medieval protectionism—yet another regard in which the American Founders were purely medieval.

As you may know, and contrary to the current cant of the American right, the Founding Fathers were protectionists, virtually to a man. Meanwhile, the French Jacobins were Free Traders. It makes sense—the Founders were mostly agricultural landowners, while the Jacobins were mostly urban tradesmen, and agriculture benefits the most from protectionist policies.

While the current structure of economics makes protectionism largely unnecessary (although "Buy American" and "Stop Outsourcing" are both protectionist impulses), it isn't actually a bad policy—every East Asian country is protectionist, especially China, which is why they've generally been much more lightly touched by the current recession than the West.

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