A Slice of Vulture my Lord?
In Stronghold, food and drink are very important things for your people. No food in your granary and you lose 8 popularity points; no beer in your inn and your people are extremely unhappy. You can supply them with meat, cheese, bread, apples, beer and, one can only assume, water from the wells. In medieval times things weren’t that much different, if slightly more varied.
The church had rules about what could and couldn’t be eaten. Until the beginning of the 13th century, people were forbidden to eat ‘four-footed flesh’ and only fish was allowed on a Friday. People cheated however and were known to eat meat such as beaver, claiming that as they used their tails for swimming so could be counted as fish. Beavers quickly became extinct.
Kitchens and Cooking
In castles the kitchens were normally built of wood with a thatched roof and were positioned in a corner of the bailey with a covered passageway to the hall where the eating took place. They tended to catch fire fairly frequently because of the open fires so were built away from the hall. This of course meant that the food was usually cold by the time it got to the lord. Later castles placed their kitchens closer to the hall and they were built of stone.
They contained huge ovens, some being big enough to roast two whole cows at once .. 10 or 12 feet diameter was not uncommon. Bread & pies were also cooked in them. Fireplaces (often several) were used for smoking and roasting with spits on which a whole animal could be cooked being turned regularly by young boys to make sure it was cooked evenly. The soups and stews were cooked in large pots made of metal or clay directly on the fire.
The scullery often had its own water supply and contained stone sinks where the dishes could be washed.
In spring and summer fresh food was plentiful and so food was preserved in various ways ready for winter when it was much harder to find food.
Meat and fish were salted, smoked or dried; fruit & vegetables were pickled; milk became butter and cheese; apples & pears were kept in cool attics; honey in jars; mushrooms were threaded on long strings to dry. Preserved meat was still fairly unpleasant as it went stale well before the end of winter, but it was disguised during cooking by using onions, garlic, dried herbs and precious spices.
The Lord and his Family
Eating was a popular pastime for the people living in a castle. As well as the sustenance it provided, it was also a form of entertainment. Banquets showed the affluence and generosity of a lord and could sometimes last for days. Lords were known to bankrupt themselves in their efforts to produce a better banquet than their neighbours.
The lord, his family and favoured guests sat on chairs at the high table which was raised up on a small platform. Everyone else sat below on benches at trestle tables.
Three meals would be eaten every day.
Generally breakfast would be at sunrise at about 6.00 or 7.00am, and consisted of bread and cheese sometimes with a little meat or fish and a drink of wine or ale.
The main meal of the day would be started between about 10.00am and noon and would consist of three or four courses often with entertainment as well. There would be roast meats and pies and desserts. Vegetables were not eaten much as they were the staple diet of the peasantry and thus considered ‘common’. Again wine or ale would be drunk.
Supper would be taken just before sunset at about 6.00 or 7.00pm and was a lighter meal than dinner with a small dish such as a stew of some sort and bread and cheese. This was the time when slightly more unusual dishes were eaten.
The Lord’s Diet
Some of the food eaten by castle dwellers is familiar to us today; some may cause raised eyebrows. This is just a small selection.
Meat (animals): beef, pork, mutton, ox, venison, boar, rabbit, hare, beaver and seal
Meat (birds): swan, peacock, starling, vulture, gull, heron, stork, cormorant, pigeon, crane, chicken, duck and geese
Fish: dogfish, porpoise, whale, haddock, cod, salmon, trout, sardines, lamprey, dolphin, tunny, mullet, sole, shad, flounder, plaice, ray, mackerel, trout, crab, crayfish, oysters and eels
Other foodstuffs: nuts, cheese, bread, fruit, honey, eggs and milk
Vegetables: onions, garlic, cabbage, mushrooms, peas & beans
Drinks: wine, ale, cider, mead, milk and water.
Desserts: jelly, baked tarts and custards using flavours not common nowadays such as rose and jasmine.
In medieval times knives were initially the only cutlery used. Spoons appeared in the 13th century, but not quite as we know them. The bowl was pearshaped with a slim handle and designs of various sorts at the top of the handle. They were made of silver, bronze, pewter, horn or bone. Forks, however, didn’t exist. Plates were rarely used, meals being eaten off a slice of stale bread which was later given to the peasants.
As expected, things were much harder for the peasants. Their main diet consisted of vegetables such as turnips together with black bread, pottage and cheese curds; drinks included milk, beer or ale and anything else they could grow, make or steal.
Occasionally their diet would be supplemented by fish. Their water came from the river but was frequently dirty and the milk did not stay fresh so they mostly drank ale which they brewed from the barley they grew.
The pottage was a thick soup made from oats. Anything that they had could be included such as beans, peas, turnips, parsnips or leeks. Their main meat was pork or bacon as pigs did not have to be fed and could root around for acorns in the woods. The bacon was salted pork and could last through the winter if rationed. They would sometimes also eat mutton, but the sheep were small and thin so there wasn’t much meat to be had from them. They made black pudding from the blood of the slaughtered animal mixed with milk, animal fat, onions & oatmeal.
Peasants weren’t allowed to hunt the wild animals in the woods surrounding the village or fish in the local rivers as they belonged to the lord. Poachers set traps, however, and so occasionally diets were supplemented by venison, boar, hare, rabbits, trout or salmon. It was a risky business as they could have their hands cut off if they were caught. The lord sometimes granted permission for them to catch hedgehogs and squirrels in the woods and dace, grayling or gudgeon from the river.
Their breakfast, eaten at sunrise would be dark bread and ale.
The peasants had their ‘ploughman’s lunch’ in the fields at about 11 or 12. It would usually be dark bread and cheese and possibly a little meat together with a flask of ale.
Their evening meal was eaten just before sunset. The main part would be vegetable pottage with a little meat or fish if they were lucky. They would fill themselves up with bread and drink ale.
Townspeople could buy their food from shops. However that didn’t always help health and hygiene.
There was a law that butchers could not sell meat by candlelight so customers could see what they were buying. Bakers were checked for the quality of their bread and many a baker was prosecuted for adding sand to the flour. There were also ‘take-away’ food shops where ready meals such as thrushes or sheep’s feet could be bought and eaten there and then or delivered to your home.
The bread for the lord was made from wheat and was fine white bread.
The peasants’ bread was made from rye or barley as they grew better on their poor quality soil and produced a heavy dark bread. After a bad harvest they would add beans, peas or acorns to bulk it out. All peasants had to pay to use the lord’s oven to bake their dough into bread.
As well as the ale brewed by the peasants for their own use, it was also brewed for special occasions and sold.
Bride and Funeral ales were common. The groom would brew the Bride Ale and expect guests to buy it, giving the money to the new bride. The dead person normally paid in advance for the Funeral Ale which would be drunk at his wake.
The lord controlled ale production in that he brewed his own beer about three times a year and expected his peasants to buy the results. The peasants weren’t allowed to sell their own beer without a licence which they had to buy from the lord.
The Church became upset by so much drinking and tried to ban it. They were unsuccessful and started brewing their own Churchyard Ales which they sold to help with repairs to their churches – if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
The water supply was one of the most important things in a castle. If besiegers could cut off the water, then the siege was usually won. The supply almost always came from wells, usually in the castle courtyard. A small wooden well house would cover the well and it would often be connected to the kitchen by a covered passageway. Occasionally a pipe would carry the water to the upper floors and channels would take it to other parts of the castle or to stone storage tanks. The depth of the well depended on the level of the water table and could range from about 10 feet (Bodiam Castle) to 400 feet (Beeston Castle).
Wrapping it up
Would I have liked to eat in medieval times? I think on balance probably not. Had I been a lord I think the quantity would have been good, but the quality, particularly in winter, would have been very off-putting. Had I been a peasant I think I would have starved as their food sounds distinctly unappetising. The only bonus I suppose would be the amount of alcohol consumed, but I’m surprised any of them were ever sober enough to work or fight.
Written and researched by GillB