Medieval Festivals – Food and the Social Hierarchy

In Medieval times, the main source of entertainment for people was the various festivals they would attend. At these functions, they would socialize, sell their goods, and most importantly, eat foods made by the traveling cooks. Good food and drink was the key to a successful festival. There was always a wide range of food and drink but sometimes it depended upon a person’;s position in the social hierarchy as to what they were allowed to consume. The social hierarchy of medieval society is similar to a ladder, with the most important positioned on the top rung of the ladder and the least important at the bottom of the ladder. As stated by Miriam Muller (2006),” …this was due to economic necessity, but much of it was due to class delineations.” At the top, were groups such as Gods, Popes and Kings, whereas at the bottom were peasants or the common people.

The Upper Class

Traditionally, those who lived in upper class societies feasted mostly upon game (hunted animals) meats and breads. Vegetables and fruits were not often part of their diet as they were seen as peasant foods. These feasts were not only used as sustenance and nutrition. Food for the Nobles was an indication of entertainment and wealth. The banquets were held by the Lord and Lady of the House to impress their guests with their generosity and show how much money and power they had. Perhaps the most spectacular feast of the medieval period was that of Robert Dudley. He held a nineteen-day festival in honor of Queen Elizabeth in 1575, and an amazing ten oxen were eaten each day! According to Hull (2005), that totaled approximately one hundred and ninety oxen! However during this time, that type of bingeing was not considered strange at all. On the contrary, it was perfectly normal to be confronted with mounds of food, as their eating habits reflected their activity levels. For those who could afford to do so, meals would be eaten three times every day consisting of breakfast, dinner and supper. Breakfast was eaten at sunrise and would normally be bread and cheese. Then around midday they would eat dinner. Finally, supper would be eaten around sunset where they would be served food such as bread, cheese, stews and other small dishes. After this, they would be entertained by storytellers, jesters, singers, musicians and the likes.

Although the types of food eaten would depend on the time of year it was, the main meals the Lords would eat included meats, pastries, breads, fruits, cheeses, nuts and an assortment of wines and ales (ale was more popular with peasant folk). Meat pies were a popular food choice for main meals. For a feast, however, everything was taken to the next level and the best foods were brought out. They would eat oxen, fish, poultry, eggs, beef, pork, mutton, ales, wines and ciders. There would also be an assortment of vegetables, though not prepared to the same extreme of the other foods, as they were considered to be more common. Another good example of an extravagant medieval feast was for the celebration of the new Archbishop Neville of York in 1467. Not only were there thousands of pigs, oxen, wild bulls, geese, peacocks and the like but just the dessert alone reached amazing proportions. There were “13 000 dishes of jelly, cold baked tarts, custards, and spices, sugared delicacies and wafers!” (Hull; 2005). Unfortunately, not all people living in medieval times ate like that. Those living in the slums of town were never given the chance to eat as well as their Lords and Ladies did.

The Lower Class

The lower class citizens of medieval societies survived mostly on vegetables such as turnips and salad, dark breads which were seen as unfit for the nobility, porridge, cheese curds, beer, ale or mead. If they were lucky, they would receive an occasional fish. As meat was considered an upper class food, the people living in these conditions did not always receive the protein that they required. Surprisingly, the poorer people were able to keep themselves in fairly good heath considering their situation, whereas the rich, who ate well everyday, often suffered illnesses such as scurvy and heart problems due to the quality of the meat that they were eating.

In most peasant kitchens there was a large kettle that constantly hung in the fireplace. It was in this kettle that each meal would be cooked and whatever was not eaten would be left in the pot for the next meal. Each day the fire would be relit and more ingredients would be added to the cold stew, it would be heated and the process would continue like this everyday. This meant that some parts of the stew eaten were days old. If they were fortunate enough to obtain some meat such as pork, they would hang the meat to demonstrate their wealth to visitors.

It was a hard life being poor in medieval times and obtaining food to feed the family was particularly difficult. Each season brought with it good and bad times for both the upper and lower classes, however the peasants suffered greater losses than the nobility did, especially in the winter. Often peasants would try to kill and steal game animals from the rich people, although if they were caught the consequences were harsh. The nobility did not give up their game willingly because if they gave it away they would not be able to impress other Lords and Ladies at a banquet if they had no food to offer. This resulted in the rich having far more food than they needed and the poor not always having enough to feed their families.

Festivals

It is important to know what foods the different classes were allowed to eat, as this also impacted what was available for them to have at festivals. Each festival was different and what happened there really depended upon what class an individual belonged to. For those living in medieval times, there would be extravagant fairs with mounds of food, color, music and noise. A great example of this was that of Robert Dudley (mentioned above) whose festival ran for nineteen days in honor of the Queen. Festivals in these times were also used by merchants from other communities and countries to go to a town and sell and trade their wares such as silks, herbs, exotic foods, and sometimes even livestock. This was popular during these times as it gave the people of a town an opportunity to sell and trade their own products as well as buy and swap with other merchants. As well as knowing this, we can be quite sure that they ate a great deal of food, and also that there was significant movement, such as music, dancing and games.

The types of foods that could be found at a medieval festival depended on how much money was invested into it, where it was situated and what time of year it was. However, there were some popular foods; there were many types of meats such as oxen, pig, goose, starlings, chicken, vultures, peacocks, sheep, wild bull, stags and bucks, just to name a few. In some places situated near a river or lake, they would have fish as well as seal, dolphin and porpoises and many other sea animals. There was also a wide variety of fruits that were available and sometimes they were even cooked! The fruits available to them also depended on the season, but this could include grapes, plums, wild cherries, apples and pears. Often the apples and pears would be roasted and cooked and given out to the people. Citrus fruits, such as oranges and lemons, started to become popular when they were imported into the European countries (Hull; 2005). Wealthier people were also able to afford fruits like currents, figs, dates and prunes. They would also have onions, garlic, peas, and beans added to this already tremendous amount of food. Roasts and stews were possibly the most well-liked way of preparing the foods during this time.

Conclusion

During the medieval period, festivals and parties were a source of entertainment, a way of spreading news and also a place to meet and eat. During this period, food was an essential part of life, not only for survival and nutrition but it was also as a sign of wealth and status in society. Different foods signified different levels of the hierarchal ladder as some foods were considered to be for the wealthy classes and some were considered to be only for the “common” people. Festivals were a flourish of color and vibrancy and a vital part of their success was the food.

Reference List:

Internet Sources

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Muller M, date unknown, “You are what you eat… Food, Hierarchy and the Social Order”, available online at URL: http://www.history.bham.ac.uk/research/food.htm, date accessed 8/5/2006.

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