by Thomas L. Coles, Lancaster, Ohio
This article is a revision of one written in 1989, primarily to generate interest in the elaborate medieval banquet planned to highlight the Richard III Society’s Annual General Meeting in Cleveland, for which members of the Ohio Chapter were organizers and hosts. Everything about the weekend conference was planned to serve as an introduction not only to historical facts, but to life in late medieval England as well. The banquet itself was billed as a “step back in time,” to an evening at Middleham Castle during a visit by Edward IV. Thanks to the meticulous planning and instructions of Tom Coles, the author of the following, and the cooperation of a marvelous hotel chef and staff, that is precisely what it was. The article cannot revive the totality of the banquet’s success as a pseudo-time machine, but it does offer a great deal of insight into medieval culinary traditions, both those of the low-born and of the nobility. For that, we are grateful to Tom Coles and hope this will inspire interest and further investigation on the part of the reader.
The following is the result of several conversations over the years with the current editor of the Ohio Chapter newsletter who, while in the process of tracking down and recording the plethora of medieval terminology encountered by the average Ricardian reader, noted what a dearth of information there actually was about meals and diet, beyond the occasional description of a gargantuan banquet Oddly enough, there is little hard documentation for something as basic to medieval society, a rather remarkable fact, considering the length of the Middle Ages. [Ed. Note: See P.M. Hammond, Food and Feast in Medieval England (Alan Sutton, 1993), not yet published at the time this article was written and revised.]
Most of our information comes from several surviving cookery books and herbals. The oldest known of these is A Forme of Currie, which dates back to 1390 and contains some of Richard II’s favorite recipes. Another is L’Mangier De Paris, a French manuscript of the 1390s, which supposedly reveals the secrets of the great Taillevant, who was ennobled for his culinary skills. (His tomb effigy lies fully armored and the fess on his armorial bearings displays three cauldrons.) There are also two fifteenth-century books available in facsimile reprint by Thomas Austin, London, 1888. These draw heavily from the Ashmole, Harleian, and Douce manuscripts. For these books to be useful, however, one should be at home with Middle English spellings and usages. Another useful, if somewhat later, source of information is John Gerrard’s Complyte Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, published in 1597. This particular book gives the culinary as well as medicinal use of the various herbs and plants available to the medieval and Renaissance cook. Other information comes from such sources as estate records and accounts and, rather indirectly, from such sources as Dr. Brooke’s Dyetary, a seventeenth-century treatise on the relation of food, temperment, and health. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digbie Revealed (1669) is somewhat useful, as is a fifteenth-century book entitled, A Boke of Kervyinge by Wynkyn de Worde.
The popular conception of eating in the Middle Ages takes this form. The peasantry subsisted on barley gruel and munched root vegetables and, occasionally, nibbled on something called sippet. And, oh yes. Everything was either boiled or stuck over a fire on a stick or spit. Actually, the range and variety of foods available and their methods of prepartion were quite extensive. There was a fantastic array of snacks, hors d’ourves, soups, stews, meats, fish, fowl, vegetables, salads, sauces, and sweets, such as custards, candies, and cheesecakes. Food was fried, boiled, broiled, baked, sauteed, steamed, braised, and spit-roasted. There were six grades of bread alone. Some dishes were plain and simple; others heavily spiced. Still others were sauced, and some were extremely exotic.
Class distinctions were reflected in what was eaten by whom. The diet of the commonality was determined by several factors. (1) How liberal or tight-fisted the lord was. (2) Whether they were yeomen, villeins, or serfs. (3) Were the harvests bountiful or scant? (4) Whether or not they owned any livestock, such as poultry or swine. Bread was the common food of everyone. The nobility ate whitened bread of twice- or thrice-sifted flour. The yeomen usually ate brown, whole-grained bread called cheat, and the serf was grateful for bread made from weed grains, bran husks, and ground peas or beans. The pottages of the well-to-do contained various meats. If the peasant’s pottage featured an occasional piece of meat, that was solely dependent upon the lord’s generosity, or whether he allowed the taking of rabbits from his chases or not. Taking anything larger than a rabbit constituted poaching, which was punishable by mutilation or death.
The lord’s cheeseboard was graced with brie, cheddar, and ruayne (cream) cheese. The whey cheeses of the lower classes were so dry they had to be boiled and pounded with a mallet before they could be eaten. Eggs were plentiful in the noble household and appeared in a variety of dishes, as well as in heavy wine beverages called cawdles. A serf or villein might keep a few chickens, but eggs were precious and only appeared in main dishes.
Chickens went into the pot when they became too old to lay anymore. Because of the dominating influence of the Church on everyday life, fish was a prominent item on the table. The lower classes were usually allowed to take rough fish from the demense stockfish, salted and so hard it could be used as a hammer. Peasant seasonings were salt and, occasionally, pepper, and wild mustard. The King and his nobles consumed vast and costly amounts of more exotic spices such as cubeb, cinnamon, ginger, gallengale, saffron, nutmeg, cloves, and sandalwood powder. Except for low-grade honey, sweeteners were the province of the wealthy, especially cane sugar, which entered Europe after the First and Second Crusades. A fruit like apples was common to all. Citrus fruits, such as Seville oranges, which were available after 1280, were extremely expensive and found their way only to the tables of those few who could afford them. Game birds and numerous breeds of domestic fowl were part of the diet of the royal and powerful, but were the special province of the clergy, who were not allowed by the Church to indulge too heavily in “four-footed” meats. Most of these same foods were available to the emerging, increasingly wealthy, urban middle class. The prime determiner was personal income.
Class distinctions also manifested themselves in methods of food preparation. The serf had to make do with a clay pot which rested on the hearth-place, a flat hearth-stone under which embers could be raked, a stirring stick, and a crude bowl or two. The artisan/villein was blessed, perhaps, with an iron cauldron with a lid, which could be suspended over the cookfire by a hook, a pair of fire-dogs supporting a spit, and a few cermaic bowls. The yeoman’s goodwife probably enjoyed the same amenities. The professional cook in a great household had bake ovens, fireplaces with spits for roasting, cooking stoves, ladles, cooking forks, cauldrons of various sizes, long-handled frying and braising pans, gridirons, storage bins, and large jars of expensive spices.
Cooking temperatures were regulated by how large the fire was and by how far the food was from the flames. Baking was done in ovens where the fire was raked out after the oven was heated. The peasant baked on the hearth-stone under an inverted bowl, or by coating the food with mud and placing it in the embers.
As for dinner itself, should you have been fortunate enough to have been Richard III’s guest, for instance, even a lesser guest, it would have definitely registered on your twentieth-century perceptions. Medieval cookery was dependent upon spicing and coloring. Many dishes would have been rather sweet by our standards. You would have also noticed an abundance of various sauces. Spicing was extremely important. Spice was a power statement. Secondly, it covered the fact that freshness could be a real problem. Then, too, spices and sauces alleviated the blandness of many winter dishes.
Sauces and foods were thickened in different ways. Common thickening agents were bone marrow, wheat starch, finely minced chicken breast meat, fine bread crumbs, and almond milk. If a salad was on the menu, you would have found it contained the flower blossoms of some of the plants included in it; violets or elderflowers, perhaps. The dressing probably would have been good, old vinegar and oil. Something else that would have caught your immediate attention would have been the coloration. Bright yellow saffron gilding, bright greens, purples, and deep, rich reds, were all used to improve presentation.
And so, hypothetically, here you are now, in the great hall of Middleham Castle. Richard III, having broken his royal progress for a brief respite in his northern stronghold is home and is dining in state. Dinner is about to begin, but what might this entail? What will be expected of you? What might be on the menu? First of all, expect to be seated for quite a while. As the King and his most prominent guests take their places at the high table, all conversation will momentarily pause. Then, the ceremony of the meal will commence. By now, you will have discovered your plate is actually a slab of heavy, coarse bread. Don’t start eating it! They will be collected after each course and given to the poor.
First the ewerer and his men will bring pitchers of rose-scented water, basins, and towels. Then, the steward of the household will send forth the sower, or official taster, thepantlerer with the bread, the cellerar bearing the salt, the carver, and the butler, with cupbearers for the wine.
When all is pronounced fitting and proper, the food will begin to arrive. Oh, no! What about table manners? There is so much to see and to think about, but you don’t want the King to think you a rude fellow, if he sees you make a mistake. First, remember that as a lesser guest, seated at a lower, more junior table, you are expected to share each course with three other people. Therefore, your hands and nails must be clean. Never leave finger marks on the table. Be sure your mouth is empty before taking the wine cup. Yourmesse-mate does not want to share your food. Drink your soup with a minimum of noise. Do not pick you teeth with your knife, blow on your food, or wipe your lips with the table cloth. Keep both feet on the floor when reaching for the serving dish. Take portions only with your fingertips or your spoon, and be sure the latter has been wiped clean with the cloth provided. And, oh yes. Don’t leave the spoon in the messe for your neighbor to find. Don’t gnaw or crack bones, or tear meat with your teeth. That’s why you have a knife. Scratching your head is also taboo. Also totally unacceptable are spitting, coarse language, and belching in the King’s presence. You must also remain seated at table until he makes his departure.
Dinner will open with bread and softened butter, then an entrement to prepare the stomach. This will be followed by two long removes of various dishes, divided by the presentation of a hard sugar subtlety. There will probably be a desert course, or remove, as well. You will discover most of the fruit has been cooked in some way and the vegetables will seem a bit overdone. Medieval man was suspicious of raw fruits and dealt with them accordingly. The entrement tonight, it appears, will be a soppet, or leek poached in white wine and served on a piece of toasted bread. The first course? Green soup of almonds, roasted beef with pepper sauce, sliced breast of chicken in cinnamon sauce, baked mushroom pasties, a great pie of venison, pork, and veal, baked trout in sauce galyntyne, boiled turnips with chesnuts, and sliced apples fried in ale batter. That should whet the appetite! Remember, the bread trenchers will be cleared away and fresh ones provided as needed during the meal.
With great ceremony and flourish, the subtlety is presented. Tonight, it is a spun and hardened sugar hunting scene. There will be a period of entertainment before the next course. The King’s Fool is here to juggle pomegranates, accompanied by the lilting of a treble recorder. As he finishes, fresh trenchers appear as the second remove arrives in procession: woodcock addorsed with saffron, a spicy compost of vegetables colored with sandalwood powder, a brie tart, a pie of small birds with scallions and mushrooms, loins of pork in garlic sauce, a pottage of spiced lamb, a green salad with violet blossoms, steamed peas, and fresh grapes. And, there is still desert to go. After another interlude of entertainment, a custard of eggs, honey, almonds and cream cheese arrives at your table, along with pears baked in honey, and spiced wine called hippocras. After the King has finished a cup of this, he rises and takes his leave. So do his principal guests. Dinner is over. Time elapsed, just over three hours.
And what might the King have been doing while you were feasting? In all probability, conversing with those of immediate importance to him. Perhaps, he ate a little of each course as it was presented, but more out of courtesy to his guests and servants than insatiable appetite on his part. Possibly, he even spent a moment mentally calculating the cost of the banquet.
Richard III, both as duke and as king, strikes me as a man who might have preferred simpler, plainer fare, given his interests and possible disposition. This is not to say he was uncomfortable with, disliked, or was adverse to the finer elements of high cuisine, but all the spices, sauces, and sweets seem rather out of character for him. They seem far more suited to his older brother, Edward IV’s tastes. If that was case, then why all the elaborate foods and preparation? That’s simple. It was expected. His subjects, his guests demanded it and would have judged him sorely lacking without it. After all, he was King and whether on progress or entertaining in what was once his private residence as Lord of the North, he was on public display. The abundance was part of “good lordship,” and even more grandeur and largess was required of the King than had been of the King’s Lieutenant in the North, the Duke of Gloucester.
- Black, Maggie: Food and Cooking in Medieval Britain: History and Recipes; English Heritage, Birmingham, 1985.
- Brears, Peter: Food and Cooking in Sixteenth Century Britain: History and Recipes; English Heritage, Birmingham, 1985.
- Hieatt, C.B. & Butler, S>: Plevin Delit: Medieval cookery for Modern Cooks; Univ. of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo, & NYC, 1976. Revised 1979.
- McKendry, Maxine: Seven Hundred Years of English Cooking; Ed. by Arabella Boxer, Exeter Books, NYC, 1973.
- Sass, Lorna: To the King’s Taste: Richard II’s Book of Fests and Recipes Adapted for Modern Cooking; Metropolitan Museum of Art, St. Martin’s Press, NYC, 1975.
ABOUT THE AUTHORTom Cole is a high school teacher in Lancaster, Ohio, long-time member of the Richard III Society, and immediate past chairman of the Ohio Chapter — and an acknowledged master of medieval cookery and culinary ceremony in his own right. His knowledge of the finer points of medieval food preparation, ceremony, and etiquette are the result of a lifetime of research and experimentation with recipes and instructions all but incomprehensible to anyone lacking the dedication to learn Middle English and enough love and appreciation of the art of cooking to stick with it until he could replicate the historical recipes, not only for himself, but to the delight of the members of the medieval associations to which he belongs. A Tom Coles banquet is an event worthy of a king, and one at which any of the later Plantagenets could expect to be served the foods they knew and enjoyed, in the high estate which was their due.