Medieval Part I: Food & Health

The medieval diet was very restricted, consisting mainly of barley, rye and root vegetables. Only the richest could afford to eat meat. Among the poor, and especially in the towns, infant mortality and leprosy were both widespread.

The recreated 12th-century kitchen range at Dover Castle

The recreated 12th-century kitchen range at Dover Castle

MEAT FOR THE RICH

Domesday Book minutely recorded the oxen, cattle, sheep and pigs kept by English manors, but it was only the rich who could afford to eat meat regularly.

Pigeons and fish were also farmed for food, but similarly reserved for the owners of the dovecotes and ‘stews’ (fishponds) where they were kept. Even more exclusive was game in the vast royal hunting preserves, where savage Norman forest laws decreed blinding or death for poachers.

But save perhaps for the odd piece of bacon or a clandestine rabbit – another jealously preserved animal – most English peasants rarely tasted meat. Significantly, in the Domesday Book the names used for it – beef, veal, mutton and pork – are all derived from Norman-French.

Decorated jug found at Launceston Castle

A 13th-century jug found at Launceston Castle, Cornwall. Its decorative detail suggests that it was used at feasts and banquets.

SURFEIT AND DEPRIVATION

The peasant diet consisted mainly of bread made from barley or rye (wheat bread was a luxury), porridge, and ‘pottage’ stews of peas, beans and root vegetables, supplemented with cheese and other dairy products, and sometimes treats like honey and small birds, caught in traps.

Ale (made without hops) and, in some areas, cider were everyday drinks. Though Domesday records several vineyards in southern England (some recently planted to cater for Norman tastes) those who could afford wine preferred to import it from France.

The large meals and meat-heavy diet of the rich could lead to chronic constipation, or worse. Henry I reportedly died of a ‘surfeit’ of lampreys (an eel-like fish), while King John’s fatal dysentery was supposedly brought on by gorging on peaches and cider.

At the other end of the social scale, analysis of bones from Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village, North Yorkshire, and St Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber, demonstrates that poor diet slowed children’s growth. At 14, children there were no taller than a modern ten year old. But Wharram adults were actually only a little shorter than modern people.

LIFE EXPECTANCY

With an infant mortality rate of 15%, the country children of Wharram were more likely to reach adulthood than their counterparts in towns, where infant mortality averaged 40%. Nearly half of Wharram’s adults lived to be over 50, although by then most were afflicted by arthritis.

In the 13th century, aristocratic men who reached adulthood might expect to live into their mid-sixties, although the soldier and statesman William Marshal (1146–1219) leading a cavalry charge in his early seventies was regarded as a marvel.

For adult women, death during childbirth was the greatest danger. Unrelenting hard work shortened the lives of male peasants, and death during warfare did the same for knights.

Tuberculosis, a disease of overcrowding, was the particular scourge of town-dwellers. Cases at rural Wharram were perhaps contracted during visits to York; the single case of leprosy detected there may have had the same source.

A reconstruction drawing of the infirmary cloister at Rievaulx Abbey

Reconstruction of the infirmary cloister at Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire, built for the use of sick and elderly monks, as it may have looked in the mid-13th century. Medicinal herbs and plants were grown in the enclosed cloister garth.
© English Heritage (drawing by Peter Dunn)

LEPERS AND LAZAR-HOUSES

Leprosy, a contagious, disfiguring and disabling bacterial disease, had been present in England since late Roman times. A new epidemic struck shortly before the Norman Conquest, reaching its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its impact on England was considerable, and over 300 leper hospitals or ‘lazar-houses’ were founded to care for sufferers.

By the mid-14th century, leprosy was in decline. But a new and far more devastating disease was about to strike England: the Black Death.

Stained-glass window from York Minster where a woman prays at a saint’s shrine to be cured of leprosy

A woman praying to be cured of leprosy at a saint’s shrine, depicted in a stained-glass window at York Minster. Saints’ relics were thought to have the power to cure illness and disease; with no known cure for leprosy, this woman appeals to a saint’s mercy.

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