Most people in Medieval England had to make their own food. Food shops were found in towns but most people were peasants who lived in villages where these did not exist. In Medieval England you, if a villager, provided for yourself and farming for your own food was a way of life dictated by the work that had to be carried out during the farming year. You needed a good supply of food and drink. Drink should have meant water which was free from rivers but usually water was far too dirty to drink.
Most people in Medieval England ate bread. People preferred white bread made from wheat flour. However, only the richer farmers and lords in villages were able to grow the wheat needed to make white bread. Wheat could only be grown in soil that had received generous amounts of manure, so peasants usually grew rye and barley instead.
Rye and barley produced a dark, heavy bread. Maslin bread was made from a mixture of rye and wheat flour. After a poor harvest, when grain was in short supply, people were forced to include beans, peas and even acorns in their bread.
Lords of the manor, did not allow peasants on his land to bake their bread in their own homes. All peasants had to pay to use the lord’s oven.
As well as bread, the people of Medieval England ate a great deal of pottage. This is a kind of soup-stew made from oats. People made different kinds of pottage. Sometimes they added beans and peas. On other occasions they used other vegetables such as turnips and parsnips. Leek pottage was especially popular – but the crops used depended on what a peasant had grown in the croft around the side of his home.
The peasants relied mainly on pigs for their regular supply of meat. As pigs were capable of finding their own food in summer and winter, they could be slaughtered throughout the year. Pigs ate acorns and as these were free from the woods and forests, pigs were also cheap to keep.
Peasants also ate mutton. This comes from sheep. But sheep and lambs were small, thin creatures and their meat was not highly valued. People also used the blood of the slaughtered animal to make a dish called black pudding (blood, milk, animal fat, onions and oatmeal).
Animals such as deer, boar, hares and rabbits lived in woodland surrounding most villages. These animals were the property of the lord and villagers were not allowed to hunt them. If you did and you got caught killing these animals, you faced being punished by having your hands cut off. However, many villages did get permission from their lord to hunt animals such as hedgehogs and squirrels.
Lords might also grant permission for people in his village to catch dace, grayling and gudgeon from the local river. Most villages were built next to a river so these could be a good source of food even if they were small. Trout and salmon were for the lord only. Many lords kept a large pond on their estates filled with large fish. If a peasants was caught stealing from this, he would face a very severe punishment.
The villagers drank water and milk. The water from a river was unpleasant to drink and the milk did not stay fresh for long. The main drink in a medieval village was ale. It was difficult to brew ale and the process took time. Usually the villagers used barley. This had to be soaked for several days in water and then carefully germinated to create malt. After the malt was dried and ground, the brewer added it to hot water for fermentation.
People in most villages were not allowed to sell their beer unless they had permission from their lord. To get permission to sell ale at a fair, for example, you needed a licence which had to be paid for.
Food for the rich and poor varied enormously – as would be expected.
|This was eaten between 6 and 7 in the morning. It was a leisurely affair. A lord might have white bread; three meat dishes; three fish dishes (more fish on a saint’s day) and wine or ale to drink.||This was eaten at sunrise. It would consist on dark bread (probably made of rye) with ale to drink.|
|This was eaten between 11 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. A lord would usually have three courses but each course might have between four to six courses in it! There would be meat and fish on offer with wine and ale. It is likely that only small parts from each dish were eaten with the rest meant to be thrown away – though the lord’s kitchen workers and servants might be able to help themselves if the lord was not looking!||This was what we would call a “ploughman’s lunch” as it was eaten in the fields where the peasant was working. He would have dark bread and cheese. If he was lucky, he might have some meat. He would carry a flask of ale to drink. He would have this meal at about 11 to 12 o’clock.|
|This was eaten between 6 and 7 in the evening. It would be very similar to the dinner but with slightly more unusual dishes such as pigeon pie, woodcock and sturgeon. Wine and ale would also be available.||This would be eaten towards sunset, so this would vary with the seasons. The main meal was vegetable pottage. Again, if the family was lucky there might be some meat or fish to go round. Bread would be available and ale.|