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Monday, November 8, 2010


One of the joys, or problems, of writing historical romance is deciding how much detail you should include about the food your characters consume.  What did they eat?

The further back you go, the harder  the problem - with one exception. If you write historical romance dating long before the Christian era, and involving the Jewish peoples, you have some good indications.

Their religion prescribed what they could and could not eat. Pork was a perfect example. Pigs, and they did have them, were scavengers, eat scraps from the ground and carried disease. Nor could they eat milk products and meat from the same wooden bowls. Both products could spoil leaving bacteria behind, even though they knew nothing of bacteria.

But what about the foods of the medieval ages? Foods we think of as ordinary today were far from that to those people. For example, not until the 19th century did most people of even try the tomato. Then there's the humble potato. It came from South America. Yes, today it is a very important staple in our meals, but it wasn't until the 16th century people thought about trying it for food. There are other examples: pineapples and granulated sugar, even chocolate and tea.

So, what did they eat? With my "song" books, Heartsong and Battlesong, the stories take place during the late 13th century England, Scotland and Wales and I got to ask that question a lot.

We do have hints. For example, we have the tapestries left behind that depict elaborate meals for the titled folk. Just from a few of the recorded accounts from their 'bookkeepers', we find that they used or traded a variety of meats, flour, honey and cones of unrefined sugar, probably a coffee color. We know they hunted and the tables of the aristocrats and royals were full of game of all kinds. They also raised cattle, sheep and goats which they ate. They made bread, which again was a dirty color and often, because the flour was not strained or saved in sealed storage, it was full of dirt and bugs. Okay, time for a yuck!

Salt was a precious commodity which is where the expression 'below the salt' came from. The people of lesser rank were seated far from the cone of salt and therefore, didn't get to season their food the way the people above the salt did.

Yes, they did eat vegetables, and most are surprised to learn the medieval period was much warmer then than now. They had a much longer growing period then they did later. Remember, I'm talking 13th century here. However, a lot of the veggies we eat today were not available then. Corn, for example, and I've already mentioned potatoes and tomatoes.

When it came to drink, they made their own ale; they drank wine; they did not have coffee, tea, or chocolate until later. They used the milk they collected for cooking and cheese. And no, they didn't drink much water. It wasn't safe to drink. They didn't have the sanitation and purification systems we have today.

They used eggs, usually from game birds and their desserts were puddings, pies, and some cakes. Remember, sugar was a very costly ingredient, so it was used sparingly.

If you consider the wonderful foods we serve today, it's hard to imagine life in the middles ages. It's even harder to find references to those foods. If you read a book and a food fact is presented which doesn't quite seem to fit, don't be too harsh on the author. It's likely the author couldn't find the information to verify the prose. I still find little about what the serfs and freemen of the time ate. I have to guess.

So, as you sit down to enjoy your next holiday meal and look at the variety, you might want to pause for a moment to reflect on what your ancestors of years ago had to eat.

Award winning author, Allison Knight began her writing career like many other authors. She read a book she didn’t like and knew she could do a better job. She grabbed paper and typewriter (computers weren't available back then) and announced she was going to write a book. Her children hooted with laughter.

“Yeah, Mom, when cows fly,” her daughter declared.

She took classes, joined a critique group and RWA, and wrote, rewrote and wrote some more.

When her first book sold, she came home from her teaching job to find a stuffed toy cow rotating from the ceiling fan in the family room. It seemed  - “Cows did fly!”

Since that time, Allison has written and published seventeen romances with her latest  medieval romance released in August.  She has a Valentine novella coming out in February. Because she loves to share her knowledge and her love of romance novels she often blogs with other authors. She also loves to talk about the growing digital market.
You can find her at or on her blog


Judy Griffith Gill said...

Fascinating information, Allison. Thanks for sharing. As an editor, I'm always doing bits of research into information given in a book if it seems just a bit "off" to me. I'll be saving your article as a brand new research tool.

Celtic Chick said...

Thanks for sharing this. I have a book called The Mead Hall that was pretty helpful on medieval food and another one on the Picts that had some info on what they probably ate and grew.
I know the Celts used to smoke their meat in the rafters of their round houses and they ate pork. It's interesting to learn about how different cultures view eating pork.
Heartsong and Battlesong sound like good reads. I love the titles.
I'm going to save this post too. :)

Ciara Gold said...

This was an excellent post and well timed as I work on one of my time travels. Of course I'm setting mine even further back. I did discover though that while they didn't have corn as we know it, they tended to refer to other grains as corn. Or so a researcher of Viking times told me.

marymccall said...

Wonderful blog, Allison! I have been amazed at some of the foods they ate in the past. Somehow, I can't see myself eating eels. lol. One of my favorite books describes a feast held in Henry I court. Not only were the foods weird, but Henry had his people served on horseback. It was so unusual I decided to put it in a book. Thanks for the info.

StephB said...

Allison, Awesome blog about food and what they ate. Very informative. Smiles

Angelica Hart and Zi said...

A very interesting blog, and one that was very entertaining for those of us who enjoy learning about the past. And those of us who like to EAT!

minki-moira said...

There was one food group that you didn't include and that was fruit. They ate a lot of fruit, apples, oranges, all stone fruits, pears etc. All these were available since the Romans invaded England and other parts of Europe. The period you're talking about they also ate a lot of grains, oats, rye and wheat. The lower class especially had a diet mainly based on grains, they hadn't the time to spend on hunting parties, plus there wasn't the guarantee that they would kill anything. Meat was a luxury, that was mainly the prerogative of the rich. Meat didn't keep long, even if it was salted or smoked. Herbs and spices would have been used to mask any unpleasant taste or smell unless it was too bad to use.