Someplate in Time: England 1215

Someplate in Time:  England 1215

 During the prior few months, the articles have mostly been about the history and origins of food intertwined with religious events and holidays. For this month I breaking away from the religious aspect of these articles and imparting upon an alternative variety of article which takes the reader into on a trip through time and sits them at a table somewhere in time. In honor of this year’s octocentennial celebration of the Magna Carta (which was signed on June 15, 1215), I would like to transport you, the reader, into the homes of the English (both rich and poor) as they would have appeared eight hundred years ago.

The Magna Carta

In 1215, King John had his back up against the wall when forty barons banded together to stop his tyrannical actions. In order to ward off a civil war, the king signed a document (he actually affixed his stamped to it) called the Magna Carta (“Great Charter”). This document, theoretically, laid the groundwork for some of the rights the American Founding Fathers fought for in the Revolutionary War. Most of the document was concerned with the rights of the barons in feudal society, but there were two statements within this document that provided some basic right to English citizens. The first reads “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” – which provides due process under the law; and “”To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.” – providing rights (of justice) to its citizens. These statements were most likely not consciously included in the document by the barons (who probably only cared about themselves and their property), but they did provide the basic building blocks which further rights of the people could be built upon. A direct affect of these words can be seen in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – “no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Luckily the spirit of the Magna Carta was able to live on for 550 hundred years when it’s ideals were added into the framework of the fledgling rebellious country of America, since the original Magna Carta was nullified by Pope Innocent III less than two months later, which plunged England into a civil war. However, the document had continuously tried to be re-introduced into the English monarchy for the next several years. Eventually the underlying concepts of this document did make its way into English Common Law. [Fast Fact: There are only four known copies of the original Magna Carta, and after hundreds of years being separated, all four are being displayed together this year at the British Library.]

The Tables of England During the 12th and 13th Centuries

Throughout history (and today is no exception) there has been a separation of classes. Your class would many times dictate the clothing you wore, the friends you associated with, the abode you lived in and the food that was placed on your table. The varieties of food did not change much in the early part of Medieval perod, but as Europeans began spreading their influence during the Crusades, they brought back with them various new foods and cooking techniques. To make things simple, I have divided the English medieval into three classes – upper, middle, and low and have concentrated on the 12th and 13th centuries, where the cuisine remained fairly constant.

Peasants: Serfs & The Lower Class

The lower classes in England would have lived in small one room hand-built shacks (sometimes called cruck houses) outside the walls of the castle or main towns (less than 10% of the populace lived within towns and cities), and those within the city walls would have lived in small and dank rooms crammed in with other members of their families. There were very few pieces of furniture or items adorning their homes besides what was necessary for surviving. The windows in their shacks would probably not be more than an opening cut into its side (glass was expensive), and the door not much more than a thick curtain to keep out the wind. The floors were dirt or clay (if they were lucky), and the interiors were generally not very clean. There were no bathrooms or running water in these houses, so water had to be brought in for other daily tasks such as cleaning or washing. Although evidence of soap has been found dating to 2800 BCE, it did not become very widespread amongst the upper class of Southern Europe until the 13th Century, and it would be an additional few hundred years until soap became used by the all classes throughout Europe. It was said that a person in Medieval times took a bath two times during their lives – once when they were born, and once when they died.

The lower classes spent most of their time working. The peasants were mostly serfs whom paid rent and taxes (consisting of money or whatever they harvested) to the landowner (whom they have sworn an oath of obedience). [The church also collected their own 10% tax called a tithe, and would also require local peasants to work their lands for free as well.] In the cities they also worked long hours for miniscule wages doing a multitude of tasks, many of which would be considered unhealthy and dangerous today.

There would usually be one wooden table in the house in which the peasants used to prepare food and eat. The dishes and utensils would either be crude earthenware or wooden items, and most people would have their own knife. Spoons (for the poor or wealthy) were not usually available, since if they had a broth of any type, it was usually served and drunk out of a cup.

The lower classes had to cook for themselves. Most of the food was grown on the land around their homes (called a crock), or purchased (cheap ingredients) within the town’s markets [Fast Fact: London’s Covent Garden market was first established in 1265.] While the wealthier lords and ladies enjoyed their white bread (the physicians of the time considered to be the most healthy of the breads), the peasants mostly ate bread made from rye and barley, which was much less expensive to grow. If they did not have enough of these ingredients, they would include rice, lentils, peas and other items to thicken up the bread.

Since bread was such a big part of the people’s diet, during the 13th century, England created a set of law called the Assize of Bread. This law set the price of bread to keep it affordable by the poor (the price would change year-to-year based on the how plentiful that year’s harvest was). These laws remained enforceable though the 18th century.

But peasants were not allowed to bake bread in their own homes. Many times they were restricted to the use of the ovens of the landlord at the manor, to which they paid a fee. Although it did generate revenue to the landlord, it also prevented possible fires from occurring in the small wooden-framed shacks. Also building and using an oven (including trying to obtain enough fire wood) in one’s own home would have been too costly for the poor, so using the lord’s ovens became their only option.

Besides bread, the other main stable of the masses was pottage. Pottage is a thick stew of vegetables and grains, and when available fish or meat. The stew was placed in a pot and left heated over the fire for a number of days. Each day some of the pottage is taken out to eat, but it is also replenished with whatever ingredients were available, creating an ever-changing (and tasting) source of food for a person’s meager meal. The wealthier (or sometimes luckier) a person was, the more meat they would be able to add to the stew. For me, the image of Oliver Twist (England, but a few centuries later) comes to mind asking for “more,” however, Dickens probably had porridge in mind, which is like pottage, but not as thick.

Occasionally, the poor would eat meat. The deer, boars, rabbits and most other wild creatures that lived in the woods were the property of the local lord and off limits (severe punishment for non-compliance). However, pigs were not under this mandate and were the major source of meat for the peasant class (sometimes salted and preserved as bacon). Sheep and lambs also did not fit under this restriction, but they were not as abundant, and do not provide as much meat as the swine. However, they would eat mutton when available and also used the blood of these animals to make back pudding (a mixture of animal blood, animal fat, onions, and grains). Sometimes the lord would give permission to hunt squirrels and hedgehogs. Also note that there were many religious tenets against eating meat during certain days, so even the wealthy could not eat meat every day (although there were usually ways around it).

The lord also placed restrictions on catching fish on his land, but usually gave permission to catch most of the smaller fish. However, the trout and salmon were for the lord’s pleasure only. As for saltwater varieties, whales and porpoises were the lord’s property. However, fish was usually more expensive than meat, so the poor rarely had any, unless they were lucky enough to be granted permission to catch it on the lord’s land.

Poultry was also available to the lower classes, and these included chickens, pheasants, ducks, and geese. Cod and herring were a main-stay of those living in the northern islands.

There were fruits, legumes, and vegetables available throughout England at the time, however, various types were only being grown in particular areas. So a person in one area of England may be able to grow grapes, but not have direct access to apples (and vice-versa). Some of the more commonly eaten fruits included apples, pears, and grapes (most fruits are not indigenous to England or Western Europe). Some of the more commonly eaten vegetables (usually referred to as herbs during that time period) and legumes included onions, spinach, grains, fava beans, and lettuce). In the middle ages, vegetables were not eaten for their nutritional value as they are today, but used more as filler for their dishes. Although the potato is associated with Ireland, it was not introduced into Europe until sometime during the sixteenth century when the Spaniards brought back this peculiar vegetable collected during their explorations into South America (possibly as early as 1536 after conquering Peru, and according to some historians, was first grown in Ireland in 1589 by Sir Walter Raleigh). Almond trees were also being cultivated around this time and almonds were also used to add to their pottage stews. Honey found in bee hives also added a sweet touch to their pieces of bread.

They also ate dairy products, including milk (although it had to be drunk or used fairly quickly because there was no place to refrigerate it). They also made and ate cheese, although usually hard cheeses which would last for a longer period of times without spoiling.

In some of the monasteries, especially of the Benedictine monks, silence was often practiced. In order to conduct their daily chores, they created a sign language to communicate. Some of these signs, as translated from the book Monasteriales Indicia (as translated) include:

When you would like wine, make a motion with your two fingers as if to remove the spigot from a tun.

When you would have a loaf of bread, set your two thumbs together and your two forefingers one against the other.

The sign for boiled vegetables is to put one hand down by your side, as if you were scraping vegetables.

When you would like pepper, shake with one forefinger over the other.

When you would like an apple, bend your right thumb to the middle of your hand, seize it with your finger(s) and raise up your fist.

When you wish to drink, lay your forefinger along your mouth.

If you need a knife, cut with one finger over the other as if carving.

Sometimes the peasants drank water from nearby rivers and streams. If they were lucky enough to live upstream, or away from the towns, they may have had clean water to drink, the others closer or within towns were not as lucky. Occasionally, they would drink milk (usually goat’s milk), cider, mead (and alcoholic drink fermented with honey and water), and ale/beer (a drink which has been brewed for over 6000 years). They sometimes it brewed themselves, but it was long and difficult process. In areas where the water was really bad, they drank more ale than water (even the children). Even back then, a person needed a license to sell ale, and would have to pay the lord for that privilege.

The typical breakfast of someone in the lower class would consist of bread with a cup of ale. Lunch would usually include some bread and cheese with ale and/or water. The men would take their lunches with them to perform their labors and would eat their meals out in the fields (often referred to as the “ploughman’s lunch”). For the evening meal, they would have some of the pottage along with some more bread, and occasionally with a scrap of meat along with ale or water to wash it down.

The Upper Class

This class consisted of the royalty and the nobility. Mel Brooks had quirked in The History of World, “It’s good to be the king.” However, this is one of the truisms of the English monarchy. The royalty (and many of the nobility) lived, as you would have expected, in large servant filled castles or immense manors. The walls of their large dining rooms were filled with opulence such as gold and silver sculpted objects and beautiful tapestries displaying mythical creatures or stories of valor. Oaken tables and chairs fashioned by the preeminent craftsmen of the time adorned the center of the room, topped with the finest linens in the realm. This would then be set with silver plates and eatery (sometimes jewel encrusted) set upon them (although for most members of the upper class had eatery made of pewter with some silver)

The royalty and nobility had servants to cook for them. Sometimes they had huge celebrations where their guests would dine on unique and gourmet items. In 1213 King John of England ordered a huge amount of food for his Christmas feast, which included: 100 lbs of almonds, 400 pigs, 1000 salted eels, and 3000 capons. When King Edward I was born, his coronation feast included 450 pigs (and another 250 for bacon alone), 440 cattle (oxen), 430 sheep, and over 22,000 chickens.

The wealthier English of that time enjoyed bread, especially white bread made from wheat. But no, they most probably did not use it to make sandwiches [Fast fact: the term “sandwich” has been credited to come from the book Londres by Pierre-Jean Grosley in the late 1700s which recounts John Montagu (the “Earl of Sandwich”) eating beef while in-between two pieces of bread. The reason being was that he was so involved in a 24-hour game of gambling that he did not want to leave the table.]. Many times the bread would either be on the side to tear apart and soak up the juices of the food, or it was the custom to place the bread at the bottom of a serving tray (called trenchers) for meats, so that they would become saturated with the juices to make a tasty dish of its own – sort of like the precursor of the Yorkshire pudding. This practice of using the bread to soak up the juices came about from before the Romans brought the concept of ovens to Europe. Before ovens were used, Europeans (peasants and the wealthy) tried to bake bread themselves, which they did under hot embers. This bread was not leavened, so it did not rise very much. They would use this bread as a plate for the other foods, and when it was soaked with the juices and greases, it would then be eaten.

Although there were several spices available throughout England at the time, they were mostly used by the wealthy (i.e., their chefs), and were mostly imported from other countries, with many being brought back from their treks to and from the Holy Land during the crusades. Some of these included: cinnamon, pepper, saffron (imported from Spain), chamomile, and cloves. They also used honey and sugar to sweeten up their dishes, as well as add almonds to add additional flavor. Salt had been available and produced in England since the time that the Romans ruled the island (55 BCE), salt was production and distribution was always regulated by whomever was in charge, such as the English crown. English towns that end with the suffix “wich” had begun as early settlements around brine springs that produced salt (e.g., the four English “witches” are Middlewich, Northwich, Leftwich, and Nanwich.)

The typical daily menu for the rich and nobility was usually extravagant, even compared to today’s American meals. A wealthy noble would have an entire staff of cooks (with specialty chefs for various dishes) and an army of servers. For breakfast, they may have been served a variety of fish dishes and meat dishes, along with white bread and wine or ale (only the wealthy were able to afford wine, and most of it was imported from abroad). Lunch was a large, sometimes consisting of three or more courses of different dishes of meat, fish, etc. The evening meal was usually extravagant, and contained several courses consisting of many dishes of more meat, fish, and poultry with more wine and ale. You may have noticed that the menus do not include much fruit or vegetables since these were thought not to be healthy foods (boy how things have changed). Many of these meals were daily feasts with many guests attending to both eat and be entertained by the singers, jugglers, magicians, story tellers, and musicians. In fact, it was considered rude at that time to eat a meal by yourself.

One reason why the wealthy and nobility were able to eat such quantities of meat and fish at that time was because they were able to purchase or have their servants preserve these items. Some of the century-old methods being used included: smoking, drying, pickling, and salting.

Although we are not sure of the exact recipes that the peasants used (although we can come close through speculation), we have better insight as to how the dishes of the wealthy were prepared and cooked by reviewing cookbooks published during that era. The first known cookbooks began appearing by the 13th century. The earliest known European cookbook known to exist is the Liber de Coquin (from France) and written in two parts written at the end of the 13th century (the first part entitled Tractatus, the second being the same as the name of the book). One of the earliest known cookbooks from England was compiled and published in 1390 and entitled the Forme of Cury. It was a compilation of the recipes used by the Master Cooks of King Richard II (compiled by Edward Lord Stafford). The recipes were written in old English and do not translate easily to today’s dialect. For instance, a recipe for Chicken in (Egg) Soup (Chykenns In Cawdel) reads as follows:

Take Chikenns and boile hem in gode broth and ramme hem up. [th]enne take zolkes of ayrenn an [eg]e broth and alye it togedre. do [?]to powdour of gynger and sugur ynowh safroun and salt. and set it ouere the fyre withoute boyllyng. and serue the Chykenns hole o[v]er ybroke and lay [?]e fowe onoward.

Looking through this cookbook myself, many of the dishes look very interesting and a few resemble dishes that are still being prepared in modern (non-royal) kitchens around the world today. However, the earliest known recipes from the Medieval period were discovered in 2013 amongst a series of manuscript found in the Durham Castle Monastery (Durham, England) and were written in 1140. However, most of the recipes were for medicinal purposes and stated how to prepare dishes with various spices for healing purposes.

Wrapping It All Up

Hopefully you have enjoyed your trip to 13th century England, and learned a few things along the way while you dined with the royalty of the kingdom, and with those whose hand toil in the lands of that kingdom. I was going to leave off with a recipe from this time period, but I think it might be more apt to provide links to other websites which include a large collection of medieval recipes for you to use (or just to have fun reading):

A Boke of Good Cookery:

The Forme of Cury:

Medieval Recipes – Medieval Life and Times:






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