Diet and Nutrition

Diet and Nutrition
   The early medieval diet, particularly for the peasant class, was a notoriously poor one. Many of the fruits and vegetables popular in the modern world were unknown in the early Middle Ages, and some vegetables, such as celery, were known only for medicinal purposes. The majority of the calories in the early medieval diet was made up of carbohydrates, but there were occasions when meat, mostly chicken or pork, was eaten. The diet of the wealthy and powerful, of course, was much better than that of the peasants, who lived barely above the subsistence level.
   The evidence for the diet can be found in a variety of written sources, but unfortunately not from any contemporary cookbooks, examples of which are known from ancient Roman and late medieval times. One valuable source for diet is the Rule of Benedict, which, although valuable only for understanding the restricted diet of monks, does provide examples of the things found on early medieval dinner tables. Benedict, who was more sympathetic to human weakness than some monastic regulators, allowed the monks two meals a day; at the "sixth and ninth hour" the monks were offered two cooked dishes. And, when available, a third dish was to be allowed that contained apples or vegetables. The monks could have a one-pound loaf of bread each day, but were not to eat "the flesh of quadrupeds" unless they were sick or weak. Benedict also allowed his monks roughly sixteen ounces of wine each day or twice that quantity of beer, but also cautioned against drinking too much. Other monastic diets could be more or less stringent than that in St. Benedict's rule. Some monks more ascetic than Benedict ate only gruel and vegetables. One saint ate only mushrooms, and the Carolingian monk Walafrid Strabo recommended a diet of "some salt, bread, leeks, fish, and wine." Other monasteries sometimes offered more extravagant fare, including quantities of chicken, geese, and cakes.
   More extravagant than anything the monks could contemplate were the menus of early medieval kings and nobles. Unlike the monks or the peasants, meat was the mainstay of the diet of kings and aristocrats. In a passage from his life of Charlemagne, Einhard reveals that the preferred means of preparation was roasting, because the great emperor refused to follow doctor's orders to eat boiled meat. Pork, fresh or smoked or salted, was a popular meat, and beef and mutton were also part of the nobility's diet. Meats were prepared in a variety of ways, including in the form of bacon and sausages. The diet was further supplemented by meat brought in from the hunt, and included rabbit, which was also a domestic food animal. The dishes of the wealthy were highly seasoned with pepper, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, and other spices. Honey was also used for both food and drink, and both beer and wine were popular at the tables of the powerful. The Capitulare de Villis of the early ninth century, which regulated management of the royal estates, provides further information on the diet of the Carolingian nobility. Charlemagne ordered that his various estates should be stocked with a large quantity of chickens and geese, which would provide a ready supply of food as well as large quantities of eggs. Cheese, butter, a variety of fruits and vegetables, and fish were also found at the tables of the nobility, and fish was particularly important for seasons of religious fasting. Finally, bread was an important source of calories even for kings and nobles, but it was of the highest quality white bread rather than the coarser grains the peasantry often ate.
   The diet of the peasants was clearly the least varied of all the diets of the early Middle Ages, and the diet most dependent on grains as a source of calories. The poor lived on a bare subsistence diet, and a significant portion of their income went to pay for food and drink. The diet of the peasants consisted of porridge or bread, the latter becoming more common as the use of mills increased in the early Middle Ages, made from barley, buckwheat, oats, rye, and several types of wheat. Another important source of calories was beer, the production of which underwent improvement in the Carolingian period with the introduction of hops, which acted as a preservative. Moreover, the beer or ale consumed in this period was quite thick, almost the consistency of soup and practically a meal itself. The diet was supplemented by vegetables that were grown in small gardens by the peasants' homes. Peasants often grew onions, leeks, and cabbages in these gardens. Peas and beans, important sources of protein, were also found in the peasants' gardens; they were grown more extensively after the ninth century as new agricultural techniques were introduced. These legumes improved the nutrition and health of the peasants greatly. The peasants also derived protein from various meats, although not to the same extent as the nobility did. Peasants had access to fish in some local ponds and rivers, and probably also ate some chicken and pork. Indeed, one of the most common images of early peasant life is that of the slaughtering of a pig in midwinter. Thus although it was not without some variety, the peasant's diet was a simple fare, generally involving a simple meal of bread, beer, and stewed vegetables.
   See also
 ♦ Duby, Georges. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Trans. Cynthia Postan. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne. Trans. Jo Ann McNamara. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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