Much like today, the medieval day was arranged around meal times.
The history of meal times (and when they are consumed) differ greatly from culture to culture and can tell us a lot about the social and religious preoccupations of the time period.
When I wake up, the first thing I think about is breakfast. A milky coffee and a cereal bar must pass my lips or I cannot function properly. The medieval world frowned on breakfast – thinkers like Thomas Aquinas saw breaking your fast too soon as akin to committing the sin of gluttony. By necessity, the labouring class would have eaten in the morning, along with the young or the sick, but this was not acceptable for everyone.
Anonymous 15th Century
The largest meal would have been consumed in the middle of the day, the time varying depending on the individual’s work, and a smaller supper before bedtime. Most people went to sleep at sundown, candles being expensive, and so planned their days round the natural daylight hours. Deciding at around midnight to bake jam biscuits is not something that would have been as common in the Middle Ages.
I have been doing a lot of cooking and baking these past few weeks. Cookery books that I received as gifts years ago have been dusted off and put to use. It interests me to think that cookery books are something we share with the medieval period.
According to the British Library, there are over 50 medieval cookery books stills in existence today. Many of the hand-written manuscripts from the same period contain the same recipes, some perhaps copied from each other. Contrary to what you might expect in a recipe today, these manuscripts didn’t contain very precise ingredients or cooking times. They are thought more to have acted as guides or reminders to already skilled cooks of the wealthy. These meals are not likely to have turned up on the tables of the poor.
We can learn something of the medieval diet from them. Similar to today, bread was a staple for both the very rich and the common man. However, the quality of the bread varied depending on what grain was used. The poor would usually have coarser bread made with barley, oats, or rye; while the Upper Classes ate a type of bread called Manchet which was a softer bread loaf made of wheat flour. A custom of making unleaven bread, a very thin and heavy loaf, hollowed out slightly to serve as plates for eating the other food on, were called trenchers. Once flavoured and softened by the other foods, they were eaten as well.
Unlike today, rice was rice remained an expensive imported product. Vegetables would have been the most important addition to the diet as meat was expensive and generally found on the tables of the rich and noble.
Once again, like today, cooking was a chance to show off as much as it was a physical need – at least for the rich. Banquets were decked out with some truly spectacular dishes. Everyday dishes might be followed by rare animals like whales and peacocks. The most visually stunning meal time custom were sugar sculptures that came in all sorts of complex forms such as castles, ships, or animals.
A lot has changed through history but people still like to show off with their cookery and meals.
Table with One Hundred Settings, Juan de la Mata, Arte de reposteria (Madrid, 1747)