At the table of the Middle Ages: rituals and food codes

At the table of the Middle Ages: rituals and food codes


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Divided into three orders, the medieval society includes bellatores (nobles) oratores the order of religious and laboratores who are those who work. Each of these groups is subject to specific dietary standards according to the social rank to which it belongs. This conviction, which remained unchanged throughout the Middle Ages, stipulates that foods and drinks as well as the way of consuming them must display in the eyes of all the status occupied by each one. The “eater” of the Middle Ages is by the fact constrained to follow a model of diet and cannot deviate from it under penalty of being accused of “sin of mouth”, or even incurring a sanction.

Medieval food values

Foods are classified according to the four elements of creation (work of God): fire considered as the most rewarding then air, water and the element most distant from God: earth. From this hierarchy arises an order of values ​​of animals and plants, itself in relation to the hierarchy of men. This representation called “the great chain of being” explains why many vegetables were, throughout the Middle Ages, despised by bellatoras because they came from the lowest element: the earth. Reputed to be coarse food, particularly the bulbs growing underground (garlic, onions, leeks, roots, turnips, parsnips, carrots) they will be "left" to the peasants and the urban poor.

A little better considered are vegetables emerging from the ground (salads, spinach) or on stems (peas, cabbages) and those which rise in the air such as fruits and cereals which enjoy a higher status due to their position high. For this same reason, bellatores appreciate the flesh of large birds: herons, stork cranes, peacock swans, pheasants ... associated with the air element worthy of their social rank.

The aristocratic table

For the nobles of the Middle Ages, eating a lot and more than the other guests was a sign of wealth and power. The lords are served the largest rations while knights, squires, chaplains and clerics see their meals reduced to the extent of their social rank for most of the dishes offered. The consumption of the flesh (in contact with the fire element because it is grilled) is associated with physical strength, power and sexual potency, three concepts placed at the top of the scale of values. Game occupies a privileged place on the menu of the lords who practice hunting with the same passion as war.

Feasts and banquets of the lords

Receptions, banquets and feasts have a function of distinction by which the powerful manifest the extent of their powers and riches. They offer their distinguished guests refined, varied, plentiful and above all spectacular dishes, each dish being a work of art intended to dazzle them (the birds appear alive on the dishes covered with their plumage) The tables are arranged in a U at the center of which is the prince and his prestigious guests who occupy the "high end" of the stage. The guests are invited to sit at the table to the sound of the horn in order to rinse their hands in the water of an ewer (this practice is called `` water corner '') they stand on one side in order to enjoy shows given by troubadours, acrobatic jugglers. Guests of lower rank are installed at the "bottom end" as are women and young girls (except on their wedding day when, dressed in red as is the custom of the Middle Ages, they enjoy the privilege of being placed at the bottom. center).

Ritual of service

Serving a duke, a prince or a king, carving his meat or slicing his bread is a great privilege reserved for people of the nobility trained in this task from an early age. The service of the meal and the wine is meticulously regulated by the butler. First to intervene, the "bread maker" sets up the tablecloths, prepares his master's slicers (slices of bread with a dense crumb which will serve as plates) arranges the salt and the spoons. Next to the lord is the "sharp squire" whose role is to cut up meat and poultry. The "cupbearer" serves the wine most often cut with water. Wines and dishes are tested and tasted because, in the Middle Ages, there was a strong fear of poisoning.

Sequence sequence

The banquet is made up of a succession of sequences called services or plates. To each sequence corresponds a set of dishes brought at the same time then cleared to make room for the following ones. Each guest consumes only the dishes arranged in front of him according to his social rank. In the Middle Ages, fruits were eaten at the start of the meal accompanied by scalds (a kind of donuts cooked in boiling water), sausage pâtés, blood sausages, and sweet wine with herbs and spices (ancestor of our aperitifs?).

Then comes the service of soups or potaiges which designate food cooked in pots, game meat or poultry simmered over a low heat with sauces and vegetables. Among the most common potaiges are brouets (meats cooked in a broth) as well as “cretonnée” which owes their name to the piece of bacon curled up by cooking. Comminea are preparations made from cumin. A great classic of this plate, the "hochepots" for which the preparation must be stirred regularly.

The roasting service corresponds (only on fat days) to pieces of meat cooked on a spit. It can be game (wild boar roe deer hare ..) or farm animals (kids piglet calf) poultry (chicken capon, chicken pheasant, goose duck, partridge dove and other small birds) and in large banquets birds such as swans, peacocks, herons, bitterns, cranes and cormorants. It can also include sea and freshwater fish cooked on a spit in the oven, broiled or boiled.

Dessert and dessert

The term entremet applies to a wide variety of dishes often served after roasts, accompanied by entertainment offered by acrobats, jugglers, dancers, finders and troubadours ... These dishes are composed of stewed meats, cereals, pea puree broken eggs, fish dishes in sauce. But the desserts are also for the “master chefs” the opportunity to show extremely sophisticated and very elaborate dishes or of gigantic size, forming part of the show intended to “amaze” the assembly.

Then comes the "dessert" where the sweet preparations are offered: various compotes, custard tarts and rissoles (savory donuts) and certain fruits supposed to "close the stomach" pears, medlar quinces, dried fruits and cheeses. At the "end" we drink hypocras and wines of "congiés" while nibbling waffles and wafers called "forgotten", "mestiers" or "supplications". Then the guests, after having recited the graces, retire in their apartments where they can still taste wines, room spices and sweets.

The monastic food model

The oratores are divided into two categories not bound by the same dietary rules: the secular clergy and the regular clergy. Secular religious, parish priests and bishops are called so because they live "in the century" in contact with the population, can eat meat (except on lean days) Monks and nuns who follow a rule (the regulars) must abstain having made a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience because the meat symbolizes wealth, power brute force, sexuality, it is replaced by fish. But exceptions are made in case of illness or weakness Hermits feed on raw wild plants, signifying their break with civilization.

The rule of St-Benoit, respected for five centuries, stipulates that monks should only take two meals a day. The first around noon consists of a bean soup and vegetable stew, sometimes fruit, eggs, cheese, bread and wine. The second meal, after the office of vespers, is made up of leftovers from noon. On fast days there is only one meal around three in the afternoon. In the 11th century, the rigor imposed was relaxed and a snack was allowed in the evening.

Meals for peasants and other workers

The laboratores bring together the poor from the countryside and towns, artisans and small traders, peasants, but also the richest in their corporation, whose diet is obviously more abundant and more varied. The peasant meal is based on three basic elements: bread, wine and "companage" (which accompanies the bread). The custom of soaking large slices of bread (called soups) in wine is widespread in the countryside. Galettes and porridge are also on the menu. The cereals on which the peasants feed, after the share due to the local lord, is mainly secondary varieties: rye, barley, spelled.

The family gardens, tended by women, children and the elderly produce cabbages, turnips, leeks, turnips, spinach, parsnips, garlic, onions. Dried vegetables (beans, lentils, chickpeas, vetches and peasants eaten in dishes) represent a good nutritional contribution to supplement cereals. Nature offers wild pickings, asparagus, watercress, fruits, aromatic herbs, mushrooms, berries, dried fruits (hazelnuts, walnuts ...).

Certain periods in the Middle Ages saw the humble consuming large amounts of pork, sheep, goat, and cattle meats (eaten aged when no longer productive). Their meat is eaten fresh or cured, always boiled. Poultry is reserved for festive meals, for the sick and above all for supplying the lords.

Food insecurity

Bread being the basis of the peasant diet, a poor harvest of cereals due to climatic conditions (drought, torrential rain, cold and frost) but also to wars were at the origin of great famines and numerous local food shortages, including the poor and the peasants had to suffer. When the grain runs out, substitutes are used: the flour can be partly replaced by beans or ground chestnuts. But in extreme situations, to survive, it was necessary to eat everything that came to hand, wild animals, roots, rats and even human flesh (this fact is related around the year 1000 by the monk Raoul Glaber) .

Bread, vital food

Wheat, because of its high gluten content produces a well-leavened bread whose white crumb is a food of social distinction reserved for the nobles, while the other classes of society must be content with bread with a high content of rye, oats and barley. The peasants ate their bread to the last crumb, no waste! We soaked the soup (consisting of slices of bread on which we poured a vegetable broth, sometimes meat). From this habit was born the expression "to be soaked like a soup". The bread also has a Christian meaning because it represents "the body of Christ" Later will appear the corn of which the Italians will make a specialty: the polenta. Also in Italy, an archive document dated 997 mentions a fouace or pancake called pizza! dry pasta, made from durum wheat semolina, are eaten in the Middle Ages as well as fresh or stuffed pasta (made from soft wheat), known since antiquity.

Milk, butter and cheese

Milk, consumed very little by the well-to-do sections of society (because it has a negative outlook) is the food of the peasant, the servant and the child. Moreover, medieval doctors accuse him of weakening adults, of biting teeth, and even of causing leprosy! It is therefore mainly in the form of cow, goat or sheep cheese that it is consumed. Some abbeys will produce local cheeses (brie, maroille, roquefort) on a large scale, very popular with kings. The term “forming” used during the Middle Ages comes from the Latin forma which designates the shape of the container in which the curd was molded. Butter is mainly used in areas where milk production is abundant, other fats like bacon and lard are more common in the countryside.

For a long time, salt was replaced by spices in dishes, and very rare sugar, by honey, a precious commodity throughout the Middle Ages.

The cuisine is a particularly rich alchemy in these medieval times, for which we may have a certain nostalgia in researching the varieties of ancient fruits and vegetables and the recipes of grandmothers. We can see there the expression of a deeper need: that of finding, in our modern society crossed by constant changes, roots and stable benchmarks. Knowing the food and cuisine of the Middle Ages allows you to discover many other aspects of the society of this time.

Sources and illustrations: At the table of lords, monks and peasants of the Middle Ages by Eric Birlouez. Editions Ouest France, 2009.


Video: Kids Try Food From Medieval Times. Kids Try. HiHo Kids


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