07 September 2010

"A hunger no daily bread can fill"

This just in from the BBC: Medieval diet aids healthy eating message.


It's certainly true that mediaeval peasants got more physical exercise than both their betters and us effete moderns. It is also true that their diet was lower in animal protein and higher in fibre. But I suspect that's true of most pre-industrial working-class lifestyles. Agricultural work is hard physical labor, and animals were often more valuable alive -- to pull carts or plows, for instance, or as a source of milk and eggs -- than as meat.

I can't help but think, though, that some of the content of this plan to teach mediaeval food as a way of improving modern diets is over-romanticised. For most of the period we call the Middle Ages, and especially in the early parts of that era, agricultural communities existed on the brink of disaster as a matter of course. One drought, one hailstorm, one neighbouring warlord running amok, and the harvest was lost, and the community faced starvation. The mediaeval peasant didn't eat pease porridge out of some modern notion that it was fresh and seasonal and therefore better; he ate it because that's what there was to eat.

It's been a while since I've read Piero Camporesi's Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe but I recall that beneath the apparently subversive idea of a drugged-up peasantry was the uglier idea that peasant life was in fact awful, and the hallucinogenic nature of some of their foodstuffs was due at least in part to the fact that many couldn't afford to throw away moldy grain, or needed to stretch such grain as they had with whatever was available. (Roy Porter's preface to the English translation is available in full on Google Books and is a helpful road-guide to Professor Camporesi's arguments).

'Snacking was much less socially acceptable.' This is true. But it's not simply because mediaeval peasants were better able to resist the call of the turnip chip. Often, there was nothing to snack on at all.

I am not sure about the claims that mediaeval peasant food was "very fresh," and lower in salt than what we eat now. It's true they didn't have potassium sorbate and calcium carbonate, but they dried, smoked, and salted various foodstuffs. Preservation was essential for surviving the winter or other times of privation.  Salt-making was a major industry.

A little digging turned up a blog post by the Leeds lecturer cited in the BBC piece, 'You are what you ate,' which does little to resolve my ambivalence.

On the one hand, this sounds like great fun, and a good teaching tool, especially as a means of getting children interested and involved.

On the other, I'm not sure about the lessons being taught. The meal described doesn't seem to align with the claims made for the peasant diet, other than being perhaps 'fresh and seasonal.' Pigeons in orange sauce? As part of the peasant diet in mediaeval England? Really?

I am not familiar with the work of the food historian cited; Google suggests that she's primarily a re-enactor, though she also seems to have been a guide on a Burger Pilgrimage organised by Burger King. Another squib on the Burger Pilgrimage describes her as a 'leading food historian.' Well, we all have to earn a living somehow. However, I can't find anything she's published. While I don't mean to sound dismissive of the knowledge of re-enactors, because I know many of them are extremely knowledgeable in their specific fields of interest, I find it hard to apply the adjective 'leading' to people who don't publish.

Perhaps I'm being overcritical. I do not have a problem with turning to the past for ideas about what to cook for dinner. Nor am I troubled by the ideas that we can learn better ways to eat from history, and that the Middle Ages have relevance in the 21st century. It does seem to me, though, that by presenting an idealised picture of the healthy, fresh, seasonal diet of the mediaeval peasant, we risk losing the reality of that peasant's life, a reality that was considerably dirtier and hungrier than a dish of pigeons in sauce may suggest.

John Reibetanz


  1. We all know that medieval Europe was famous for its orange groves.

  2. Well, sour oranges did grow in places like Sicily and Spain, and sweet oranges were introduced in the 15th C. if I remember correctly (though again, in places like Sicily and Spain), but in places like England they were a rich man's luxury when they could be gotten at all. Piers Plowman wasn't feasting on them, even on his best days.


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