Eating like a medieval peasant

I was interested to read about a re-enactment group’s issuing of a cookbook containing medieval English recipes – well, Cumbrian, actually.

Cumbria’s peasants, it turns out, ate much as we strive to today—though for vastly different reasons. Lack of access to an international array of foods meant the peasants’ diets consisted of plant-based, low-sugar meals of locally sourced, if not home-grown ingredients; the book’s simple “Roast Onions with Thyme” recipe is emblematic. Voluntary, intermittent fasting wasn’t uncommon either, says Jones, albeit in the name of religious self-discipline rather than detoxification. An excerpt from a contemporary work by Bishop Grosseteste indicates that table manners were to be observed (“Never eat bread with abandon till they have set down the dishes. People may think you are famished”). An aside on at-home cooking describes a “home-delivery system” that catered to the many families who, rather than couch-laden, had no kitchens whatsoever.

Elsewhere, Medieval Meals highlights the religious and culinary boundaries that shaped the peasants’ diets and made them so different from our own. A recipe for Monastic Beans with pork lard is a reference to the Rule of St. Benedict. With beans so easy to grow and hard to spoil, writes Appley, monks were prescribed a pound daily alongside a pound of bread—much to the recorded chagrin of many in the monastery. Peasants outside the clergy, whose days “started off with bread and ale,” fared little better. God’s animals were spared slaughter four days a week in reverence of Noah’s Ark, although Medieval Meals nods to a conveniently flexible, if not altogether bizarre, medieval interpretation of meat: “Fish didn’t count as meat … and beavers were eaten because of the superficial resemblance of the tail to fish.”

There’s more at the link.

The cookbook may be ordered from the re-enactment group’s Web site.  At the moment, due to “a sudden influx of interest” (probably due to the article cited above), they’ve sold out, but new copies will be in stock within days.  I’ll be buying one.

(I must admit, the thought of a monastery where every monk ate a pound of beans, every day, is a bit daunting, due to their well-known side effectNot the odor of sanctity!)



  1. If you're interested in more on medieval life, I'd recommend a couple of YouTube channels; 'Shadiversity' and 'Modern History TV'.

  2. From my mother's family stories:

    Beans, beans the magical fruit
    The more you eat the more you toot
    The more you toot the better you feel
    So eat your beans at every meal…

  3. My dad, who grew up in Louisiana during the war years, told me that the local Catholic Bishop declared that ducks counted as fish (because many ducks showed up as the fish went deeper due to the cold.)

    Gaming the rules to ensure your parishioners ate, it's what a good Christian should do.

  4. My youngest daughter needed to bring in a medieval dish to school as part of her history class. We were stumped until she remembered the nursery rhyme – Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.

    One pound of split peas, one large onion, diced and sauteed in butter, 18oz rolled oats (my family tales are of 'stretching' everything with oats), water, cooked it and then left it on 'warm' overnight. Added salt to taste the next morning.

    We put this in a large pot, included a serving spoon, plastic cups and spoons for tasting, and bundled her off to school. That afternoon we collected a very empty pot. Who would have thought that pease porridge would be a hit with modern teenagers?

  5. Monks stank anyway, as St. Benedict in his Rule proscribed frequent bathing except for the sick. Even in modern times, orders such as the Carthusians still bathe infrequently, often with cold water only, and wear hair shirts 24/7.

  6. Sir:

    I checked the Iron Shepherds' website

    and found this notation:

    — SOLD OUT —

    Due to a sudden influx of interest we have sadly sold out of online stock. We have placed an order for further copies and these should be with us towards the end of September.

    To recieve an email notification when the book is back in stock, sign up to our mailing list by clicking here.

    I am waiting for the notification.

    I don't think that the idea of processing beans with an alkali was developed sometime in the early to mid 1800s, and likely was not common until baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) replaced washing soda (sodium carbonate – from saltwort), or potash (potassium hydroxide from wood ashes) in the process.


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