Middle Ages, European

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MIDDLE AGES, EUROPEAN. To understand medieval cuisine, we have to start with Roman culinary practice, which probably kept its influence long after the decline of the Roman Empire. Two ingredients were of particular importance here: the liquid salt called garum or liquamen and the granular gum asa foetida or laser Parthicum. Liquamen or garum was the liquid salt of Roman high cuisine; it was usually made not by the cooks themselves but in factories, notably in Pompeii. For this purpose a vessel holding about thirty liters was filled with layers of fish, salt, and dried herbs, and then covered. This mixture stayed in the sun for a week and was then stirred well daily for twenty days until the fish and herbs were fully pulverized by fermentation and blended into a liquid. This was strained and sold in amphorae. Often it was combined with olive oil and wine, sometimes with honey or sweet wine and with pepper, lovage, and sweet marjoram as well. Some of the herbs for the garum were dill, coriander, fennel, celery, savory, sage, rue, mint, lovage, thyme, and sweet marjoram. These herbs are available today in dried or fresh form, and we can more or less imitate the garum ourselves. We also can make use of a Vietnamese product, called nuoc mam, which is prepared in the same way and has the same function. The advantage of liquid salt in comparison with solid salt is that the liquid keeps the meat succulent, whereas the solid salt extracts the juices.

The Romans also made a cheaper version with fewer herbs by not putting the fish, salt, and herbs in the sun for fermentation, but boiling them for a short time. In this way, the fish quickly becomes pulverized and releases its liquid, which, depending on the quality of the bones, tends to become a jelly. Just before this happens, the liquid is strained and kept as a substitute for garum. The Romans called this salty juice allec, which in the Middle Ages became the word for (salted) herring.

Besides garum, the Romans used another favorite product now called asa foetida. This gum, derived from the roots of a Near Eastern umbellifer, not only smells bad but also tastes bad; nevertheless, it seems to have been consumed lavishly by the Romans. Originally, the Romans had used not this plant, which they called laser Parthicum, but the silphium or laserpicium from North Africa, a plant they consumed so recklessly that it was nearly extinct at the beginning of our era. The Romans then started to import laser Parthicum, which is called "ferula asafetida" by modern pharmacists, as a substitute. In large quantities it is hardly digestible for our stomachs and soon gives one a feeling of satiation and even nausea, but in small quantities it is not disagreeable.

From these two products, liquamen or garum and asa foetida, we may conclude a lot about the taste preferences of the Romans: savory with herbs from the Mediterranean region, which were grown partly in their own gardens. They favored East Asian spices like ginger and cardamom much less, although these were well known. Only the peppers, both black and white, were commonly used. As for sweeteners, sugar was still unknown; it was not imported from Ceylon and Asia Minor until the seventh century. Sugar cane was grown by the Arabs in Sicily starting in the tenth century, but it was only after the Crusades that it found its way to Europe as a very expensive kind of spice. Instead of sugar, the Romans used honey or reduced wine (defrutum ) and raisins, dates, and figs. For the rest, their victuals consisted of fish, fowl, a bit of pork, beef, or mutton, many legumes such as chick-peas and lentils, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, eggs, cheese, and various kinds of grain.

Pasta already existed, if we may translate the word tracta this way; however, it was not pasta in strands like spaghetti but in sheets like lasagna. These were used as dividers between wet fillings to make layers within a pie. The very thin, round sheets, called tracta, were rubbed between the fingers and used as a binding agent for stews, a practice which survives as Reible in South German cooking.

The Early Middle Ages

How long this kind of nourishment held the stage in Western Europe during the Middle Ages is hard to say because detailed information is lacking. We can only conclude that there must have been a certain continuity in the taste for herbs and spices, at least until the Carolingian era of the ninth century. This can be deduced from a 716 charter of the Merovingian king Chilperic II for the abbey of Corbie in Northern France that was, in turn, a confirmation of a charter of King Chlotar III from the third quarter of the seventh century. In the charter, freedom from duties at the toll in Fos near Marseilles was granted for the following imported foodstuffs: olive oil, garum, pepper, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, spikenard, costum (an aromatic root from India), dates, figs, almonds, olives, peas, and rice. So garum was still in use in that period together with a few Indian spices, but asa foetida is no longer mentioned.

Not only some of the spices, but also the garden herbs must have remained in favor, judging from the last chapter of the Capitulare de Villis (Ordinance in chapters about the demesnes) of Charlemagne, in which the cultivation of about seventy kinds of herbs and vegetables in the gardens of every demesne in his empire was enumerated. There we find most of the herbs needed for the making of garum, as well as several other plants like beans, peas, onions, chives and garlic, cucumbers, watermelons, gourds, beets, endive, and lettuce, as well as fruit trees. The Carolingian population could be assured of a healthy diet if it lived according to the prescriptions of Charlemagne.

The same holds true for the monks at St. Gall in Switzerland, provided that they actually grew and used all the plants that are shown on the map of their monastery from about 817. There we find three gardens with edible plants: the hortus or vegetable garden, the herbularius or herb garden, and the orchard. The species, however, were not strictly separated, for in the hortus there were not only vegetables like onions, garlic, leeks, celery, beets, black radishes, lettuce, parsnips, and cabbage, but also herbs like coriander, dill, parsley, chervil, and savory, and, for medical use, poppy and corn-cockle. In the herbularius we not only find roses, lilies, and iris, but also beans, next to herbs like savory, costmary, goat's horn, rosemary, peppermint and water-mint, sage, rue, cumin, lovage, and fennel. In the orchard we come across apple, pear, prune, mountain ash, quince, medlar, fig, chestnut, peach, hazelnut, walnut, almond, mulberry, and bay.

Monks were allowed to eat vegetables and fruits, for the Rule of St. Benedict states that at every meal, fresh vegetable or fruit, when available, were to be served in addition to two cooked dishes (which were probably made of fish, dairy products, and grains). Walafrid Strabo, ninth-century abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Reichenau on Lake Constance in Switzerland, celebrated in his poem "De cultura hortorum" (About the cultivation of gardens) the plants in his abbey's garden, such as sage, rue, lemon herb, gourd, water-melon, fennel, lovage, chervil, mint, celery, catnip, and black radish, along with poppy, rose, lily, and iris. For the most part we find these plants as well in the Capitulare de villis and on the map of St. Gall, from which we may conclude that they were widespread in the Carolingian period. But recipes for preparing them are not known, and nothing can be said about the refinement of the dishes served. The same holds true for the eleventh-century food prescriptions from the abbey of Werden on the Ruhr River in Germany, according to which the monks alternately had fish, cheese, and eggs, or cheese with vegetables for dinner, with wine and ale for drinks and mead on Sundays.

It must have been possible to compose quite delicate menus with simple ingredients that were permissible for the monks; this is indicated by the ironic words of Bernard of Clairvaux in 1124 in his Apologia ad Guillelmum (Apology to the Abbot William [of Saint Thierry near Reims]) about the eating habits of the abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. In this treatise he ridiculed the many ways of preparing a simple ingredient like eggs and reproached the abbot for the manner of serving one dish after another when the stomach had already been fully satisfied, but the eye remained curious about new colors and shapes. In this way, he condemned exactly those characteristics that would later become the glory of French cuisine, especially the refined sequence of the courses, in which the former dishes did not give a feeling of satiation but on the contrary stimulated the appetite for the latter ones.

The Later Middle Ages

In the meantime, however, this refined sequence of courses was far from common if we judge from the existing menus of the meals of princes and other nobles in the later Middle Ages. These menus contained in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries no more than two or three courseseach course, however, consisting of at least ten dishes without any specific sequence of sweet, savory, sour and sharp, fish or fowl or meat, boiled, baked or roasted. In France the dishes at a festive dinner were divided among five or six courses, but there was also no fixed sequence like that of later ages. A common feature of aristocratic foodways all over Europe was the accent on meat, fowl, and fish (sometimes game, although less than one would expect), in contrast to the rather vegetarian eating habits of former centuries.

It is possible to study late-medieval recipes and to imitate them more or less exactly. By the late Middle Ages, tastes had changed rather drastically from those of the Carolingian period; new spices from East Asia with vinegar or sour grape juice, called vertjus, had taken over the role of primary seasonings, replacing the many herbs and vegetables with garum that had been favored earlier. Parsley, savory, sage, and hyssop were still used, but other herbs had become rare. Salt, when it was used at all, was added after cooking. This was due not to the presumed expensiveness of saltthe Asiatic spices were much more expensivenor to the fact that much salted fish and meat was used, but probably to the dominant role of spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, galingale, cardamom, and pepper. These ingredients provide enough flavor that the absence of salt is not noticeable, even in dishes that are prepared with fresh meat, game, fish, or fowl.

In this context, another critical point must be made. We sometimes hear or read that people in the Middle Ages needed so many sharp spices because their meat was always spoiled, and they had to hide the bad smell and taste. But although their means of controlling the quality of their food was less elaborate than in the modern Western world, it is nonsense to pretend that they were always balanced on the edge of food poisoning and tried to conceal this with heavy seasonings. They certainly had other medical conceptions than today, but in practice they understood very well how to combine these theories with wisdom gained from long experience. People knew quite well what was healthy and what was not and were on their guard not only against really spoiled meat but also against unsafe water: instead of water, they used wine or broth or boiling liquid from peas (purée de pois ) in the kitchen. They drank beer and ale in Northern Europe, wine in Southern Europe, and cider in a narrow strip from England to Normandy and Brittany. So the difference in our eating habits is not in the lack of hygiene, but in the fact that they dined less frequently but in bigger quantities with more calories at the same time, and, in the case of the strict rules and regulations in the monasteries, no more than twice a day.

The change in taste after the Carolingian era was caused not by the consumption of half-spoiled meat or fish, but by other factors, largely economic ones. The merchants of the tenth and eleventh centuries had a keen eye for the fact that the small ships and simple harbor equipment of their time meant that the best gains were to be expected from articles that took little space and at the same time were very expensive because they were rare. The Asian spices fit these requirements exactly. They were transported through Asia along land routes and brought to the Levantine harbors of the Mediterranean, and then taken by Venetian ships to Italy. From there they were traded along rivers and land routes to the North, where in the fairs of Champagne in France there were middlemen who exchanged the spices for the products of Flanders and Scandinavia, such as woolen cloth and timber.

Included were not only the spices that had been known and favored in antiquity, such as pepper, ginger, and cardamom, but also cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, and galingale. Added to these was an article from Asia Minor and the Balkans that was and still is even more expensive than the Asiatic spicessaffron, the dark-yellow stigmas of the stamen of the Crocus sativus. In antiquity, saffron was mainly used as a dye and a medicinal drug, but in the Middle Ages it became obligatory in high cuisine and primarily served the purpose of coloring the food yellow. Pure, genuine saffron was as expensive as gold. Adulteration of the stigmas, mainly in the shape of powder and mixed with other yellow stuff had already been the nightmare of physicians in antiquity and was punished with heavy fines or mutilation.

Fasting Prescriptions

Colors played an important role in medieval cookery because the cooks not only tried to make dishes as attractive as possible, but also very often to disguise their real nature. This tendency was connected with the impediments the Christian Church imposed on the foodways with strict rules about fasting and abstinence. People had to abstain two days a weekfor example, Wednesday and Friday, or Friday and Saturdayfrom the meat of quadrupeds. However, fish and other aquatic animals were permitted on those days, as were chicken eggs and dairy products. During some periods of the year, however, not only the meat, but also the milk, butter, and cheese of quadrupeds were forbidden, together with fowl and its eggs. Only fish, snails, and aquatics like mussels and oysters remained outside these prescriptions: they were always allowed as long as they were not prepared with butter or lard.

There were periods of the year in which not only a two-days-a-week abstinence but a full fast was ordered; this meant that dairy products and eggs, in addition to meat, were forbidden. The most important of these periods was the forty days of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter (not including Sundays, which were never fast days). The so-called Ember days were also a time of fasting. These days, whose name is a corruption of quatuor tempora (four seasons), coincided more or less with the change of the seasons. They were the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following the Feast of Saint Lucia (December 13), Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday (Pentecost), and Holy Cross Day (September 14). Religious were required to fast during the four weeks of Advent, but this was not obligatory for laymen.

Fish was always permitted, for the Church did not promote pure vegetarianism, and the regulations were not made out of compassion for the suffering of animals. It is possible that the fasting cycle was not a Christian invention at all, but an adaptation of medical conceptions about the need for refraining from food during a short period in order to prepare the body for a new season. The physical meaning of the four seasons with their various qualities, derived from the humoral system, was already implicit in the writings of the physician Galen of Pergamon in the second century C.E. The Christian Church adopted this concept and interpreted it by applying it to the avoidance of the capital sins and the devout observance of Lent. The forty days before Easter required a total change-over of the kitchen, especially in those regions that did not have good vegetable oils (like olive oil in Greece, Italy, and Spain) but used butter, bacon, and lard, as was the case in England, Scandinavia, and large parts of Germany and the Netherlands.

Food Imitations

During fasting weeks, wealthy people ate a lot of fish, salted like herring or dried unsalted like "stockfish" (i.e., cod that has been split and then unfolded and dried hanging on a stick), but also fresh fish from the sea, the rivers, and the lakes or ponds. Fresh fish was very expensive because of the difficulty of transporting it without ice to keep it cool. Ordinary people who lived far from the water had to be satisfied with salted herring, a popular food of which, however, people tired. Anyone who could afford it tried to stimulate the appetite not only with fresh fish, but also with imitation eggs and meat. Eggs were imitated by mashing white almonds with a mock-yolk that was colored with saffron. Meat could be imitated by forming dough into the shape of an oxshank, like the Dutch duvekater, which is seen in seventeenth-century paintings but must have been much older. The marzipan sausages that are still sold in Germany and the Netherlands in December are relics of this medieval custom. Such meat substitutes were common during the Ember days around the Feast of Saint Lucia in December. Other ingredients that were typically used during periods of fasting, especially in Lent, were dried fruits like figs, raisins, dates, and currants, as well as nuts, particularly almonds. Colors were very important in medieval cuisine, not only in these imitation dishes, but in other recipes as well; litmus was used to color sauces flaming red, sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus ) was used for a reddish brown, the juice of parsley and other garden herbs for green, and saffron for a goldish yellow. As mentioned, saffron was originally meant not for the kitchen but for the pharmacist's shop because of its stimulating influence. Especially in combination with wine, it makes one feel high, an effect that soon turns into a deep fatigue. The Greek pharmacy knew of more remedies that were recommended for their medicinal effects but might at the same time be used as delicacies as well. For example, confitures, prepared with fruit juice and honey, had a laxative effect but were enjoyed by people with normal bowels, too. The best known of these confitures are marmalade or quince jelly (derived from Greek melon kudonion, which means 'quince') and the diamoron or mulberry jelly. These recipes from the Greek pharmacy reached medieval Latin medical books, such as the Antidotarium Nicolai (Nicholas's book of antidotes) and the Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum (A Salternitan regimen of health) through Syrian and Arabic translations. Greek medical science from the time of Hippocrates (fifth century b.c.e.) and Galen (second century c.e.) had been studied at the School of Salerno since the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Medical Theory

The medical science of the Greeks developed the theory of the four humors or fluids (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), which corresponded with the four human temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic). Each fluid belonged to a distinct season and a distinct period of life and had two qualities: blood was humid and warm and belonged to spring and youth; yellow bile was warm and dry like summer and adolescence; black bile was dry and cold like autumn and midlife; and phlegm was cold and humid like winter and old age. In the course of life, a person slowly changed his or her temperament, although some dominant characteristics remained the same. One's mood also changed a bit with the seasons, in such a way that an adaptation of the body in the Ember days was necessary from a medical viewpoint.

Food played a crucial role in this adaptation because it was held that illness depended not on internal factors but on external ones, mainly on foodstuffs that were contrary to the temperament and age of the patient. The balance between the fluids was disturbed, and the physician had the duty to restore it. An example that still appeals to us is the "hippocras," a beverage of wine with spices and honey, named after the Greek physician Hippocrates, that was supposed to be warm and dry and for that reason to counterbalance the cold and humid phlegm of a flu. Wine and spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg were regarded as "warm" and "dry" and were therefore held in high esteem. Moreover, they were expensive, a fact that may have contributed to their use in high society.

In this way the exotic spices found an expanding market in Europe to such an extent that they altered the dominant taste quite strongly. Alas, cookbooks are lacking for the period between late antiquity and the end of the thirteenth century, so that we cannot tell exactly how and when the use of the many spices became fashionable in monastic and courtly circles. The Crusades and pilgrimages to the Holy Land presumably played a role in this process because more people found their way to the Near East and told about their adventures on their return. Another product of this contact was cane sugar, which was grown in Syria and Egypt and became a major cash crop for the kingdom of Cyprus. It appeared in Western Europe around the twelfth century. Sugar was much more expensive than honey and, like the Asian spices, was only available to the very wealthy.

Ordinary People

How the mass of the population was fed in these periods is difficult to ascertain because of the lack of documentation. We can suppose that rye bread, grain porridge, lard, sausages, and salted herring belonged to their food supply, together with vegetables like onions, leeks, cabbage, and white parsnips. Certainly some kinds of fruit were consumed, like apples, pears, and prunes, but they were probably processed in pies or stews, not eaten raw. Raw fruits, being humid and cold, were not considered to be healthy.

Cookery Books

Our knowledge of medieval kitchen recipes is derived from fourteenth-and fifteenth-century cookery books, of which more are extant than most people think. The most famous cookbook was the Viandier of Guillaume Tirel dit Taillevent (c. 13101395), who was the chief cook of the French king Charles V. This manuscript was copied several times in the fourteenth century and influenced the other famous French cookbook of the fourteenth century, which is called Le Ménagier de Paris (The goodman of Paris) after its anonymous author. The Viandier of Taillevent appeared around 1490 in a printed edition that includes not only the fourteenth-century recipes, but also quite a few newer ones that might have originated in the court of the dukes of Burgundy.

The capacity of cookbooks to become bestsellers is also proven by the many printed editions from 1475 onward of the Latin work by the Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Platina, titled De honesta voluptate et valitudine (On right pleasure and good health). His book was based on the handwritten cookbook by Maestro Martino, chief cook of the patriarch of Aquileia, who lived in Rome in the middle of the fifteenth century. Actually, Platina did nothing more than translate Maestro Martino's Italian recipes into Latin and add some medical remarks about their qualities as related to the humoral theory. Maestro Martino's recipes, although more often than not qualified by Platina as unhealthy, can be easily imitated and enjoyed today. They were derived partly from Byzantine as well as Spanish-Catalan cuisine, of which a fourteenth-century cookbook, El libre de Sent Sovi (The book of Sent Sovi), is known. There the Armenian Arabic influence is notable, for example in the use of mashed almonds stirred with cooking liquid for the binding of sauces and stews, and of pasta in strands like spaghetti. The use of ground almonds became common practice in high cuisine all over Europe, but pasta in strands remained limited to the Mediterranean regions: in Italy several varieties were developed, like vermicelli and macaroni, along with pasta in sheets like lasagna, which was probably known already by the Romans.

No less professional a cook than Maestro Martino was Maistre Chiquart, who wrote his book Du fait de cuisine (On cookery) while in the service of the Duke of Savoy around 1420. A little bit earlier, around 1390, a collection of recipes from the English royal household was composed under the title The Forme of Curye (The way of cookery). Several other English collections of recipes date from the fifteenth century. In the German language the oldest known collection of recipes is Daz Buoch von guoter spise (The book of goodly fare), which was composed in Würzburg around 1350 by a high official of the bishop and, therefore, probably reflected the food served in an ecclesiastical household. But there are also some recipe collections from secular German courts, for example, the cookbook of Maister Eberhard, cook of the duke of Bavaria-Landshut in the fifteenth century. All of these handwritten texts are now available in modern editions. The earliest printed German cookbook is the Küchenmeisterey (Mastery of the kitchen), which was published in Nürnberg by Peter Wagner around 1490.

As for the Netherlands, the series starts rather late with some fifteenth-century written recipe collections and a cookbook printed in Brussels around 1514 by Thomas van der Noot, called Een notabel boecxken van cokeryen (A notable book of cookery). Why this occurred so late is difficult to tell: Is it because older texts are lost or because Dutch courts mainly used foreign cookbooks? Certainly the bourgeois cuisine of the Low Countries, for which the Notabel boecxken was intended, was deeply influenced by French and German as well as English sources.

In general, we should realize that handwritten and printed cookbooks in the Middle Ages were only accessible to educated people, who were able to either read themselves or have the books read to them: ecclesiastics, noble ladies, and wealthy bourgeois. The foodways of the average population in towns and villages can therefore not be learned from cookbooks.

With the invention of printing and the advance of teaching in town and chapter schools, the number of people who could read and write increased, as did the readership for cookbooks. Could a book like Platina's De honesta voluptate even be counted among the bestsellers? We must ask, however, whether these books were meant for use in the kitchen or rather as showpieces in the owner's library. A Latin collection of recipes with medical remarks like Platina's is more conceivable in the latter case. Innovations in culinary practice are not to be found there but rather in sixteenth-century handwritten household collections that were sometimes later printed.

The Renaissance

A remarkable innovation of the Renaissance was the return to the natural taste and shape of the ingredients, which came about under Italian influence in reaction to the medieval predilection for faux preparations and spiced stews. Certainly, the sausages made of marzipan did not disappearon the contrary, as cane sugar became cheaper, people could indulge in the luxury of more imitated animals and other sweetsbut such items were driven to the edge of the dinner instead of being the main course. Fish was now allowed to taste like fish with a simple sauce of boiling liquid and vinegar. A novelty was the consumption of raw salads with a dressing of oil, vinegar, pepper, and salt. Salad comes from insalata 'salted'. In Italy the habit of eating green leaves with garum or salt had never been dropped, and although it was contrary to the medical theory about the humid and cold qualities of raw vegetables, this practice slowly reached the regions north of the Alps as well. By way of concession, however, the physicians advised placing the salads at the beginning of the meal, in order that the warm and dry dishes that would follow them could correct their injurious qualities.

Under the influence of the Protestant Reformation, the fasting prescriptions of the Roman Catholic Church were gradually mitigated, so that the strict prohibition of animal fats like butter and lard during Lent was dropped. It was in precisely those countries that did not possess good vegetable oils and had therefore always experienced the greatest impediments during periods of fasting, that the Reformation gained its staunchest adherentsperhaps not by accident. So dairy products became more important in the kitchen, and in the coastal regions along the North Sea a remarkable increase in the number of dairy cattle can be observed in the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, in comparison with former ages, when horned cattle had been raised mainly for their meat. A larger output of butter and cheese was the result, together with more recipes for sour and curdled milk.

Through the discovery of America, many new plants became known that were more or less successfully introduced in Europe. Travels to India over the sea made the Asian spices available to many more people: they became cheaper and ceased to be a status symbol. This fact certainly played a role in the change of tastes back to the natural flavors of foods and away from the camouflage of sharp sauces and stews.

In this way, the mainstream of history always has exercised its influence upon our civilization and upon our eating habits as well. Next to long waves and secular trends in our foodways, those habits always have been moving and changing.

See also Christianity: Western Christianity; Fasting and Abstinence: Christianity; Medieval Banquet; Poisoning; Renaissance Banquet; Rome and the Roman Empire.


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Johanna Maria van Winter