Food and feasting were a common pastime for those living in medieval times; however, the extent to which a person could enjoy a variety food, as with many other aspects of medieval life, depended on one’s wealth and station in life.
On a daily basis, between the classes, the eating schedule was similar, typically involving three meals. These included a small breakfast, a larger meal eaten around mid-day with a final meal being eaten later in the day or early evening.
For the wealthy, food was often the focus when it came to entertaining. It was common to spend huge sums to impress others at a feast. Sometimes the food quantities were impressive even by today’s standards. For one feast in 1467, more than 6,000 guests were fed with thousands of sheep, birds, fish and other animals being slaughtered to feed them.
The availability of food depended on the season. In the summer more was available. Wild meats, livestock, and seafood were eaten and the medieval palate loved fowl. One could find chicken, pigeons, sparrows, starlings, geese, swans, vultures, gulls, cranes, peacocks, herons and other bizarre fowl on the table, sometimes being served with the feathers intact. Fruits such as cherries, apples, pears and plums were popular, though often being cooked or roasted.
Around 1300, citrus fruits were imported along with other fruits such as currants and figs. Vegetables were also consumed. Roasts, stews and soups were the favored method of preparing the food with salt pork and bacon being used for seasoning. Cheese and butter were generally reserved for the wealthy.
In the winter the supplies of food were scarce. Meat was dried for storage, but sometimes spoiled. To save supplies, livestock was eaten in the summer and game was hunted in the winter to better ensure a steady supply of meat. An innovative way to proved meat involved raising pigeons that would be eaten in the winter.
The lower class had a more difficult time with food because they couldn’t afford much. Even in the summer months meat was scarce. Vegetables were eaten, though not raw as that was thought to be unhealthy. Bread and cheese curd were constants though the bread was a dense, dark variety as the lower class could not afford the finer, refined flour of the upper class. Generally the lower class favored a thick soup called pottage that consisted of vegetables and coarse grains with beans for protein. If it was available, the soups would be seasoned with salted pork or bacon.
The preferred beverages were water sweetened with honey, honey wine or mead, ale (generally for the lower classes) and wine (generally for the upper classes). One irony was that the upper class diet, though high in protein, lacked vitamins A, C and D. This meant the upper class often suffered from scurvy, tooth decay and infections from spoiled meat. The lower class, eating mostly vegetables and receiving vitamins from the ale, coupled with a low fat, high fiber diet were in better health; however, were often hungry.