In this post, we’re going to explore historical cuisine and how to incorporate it into your writing. No matter when or where your story is set, your characters are going to need to eat. The presence (or importantly, the absence) of food is a great way to set the scene.
On the flip side, food is really easy to get wrong. Not just howlers like Vikings eating potatoes, but more insidious things like lumping all medieval cookery into either spit roasted pigs with apples in their mouths or shapeless brown stew. There is even a trope for it: Stock Medieval Meal.
So with this in mind, I sincerely hope this helps. Bon Appetit!
Food was seasonal
With global trade and factory farming, we are used to being able to eat pretty much what we like, when we like. Not so for the rest of history! Depending on what you want to serve, do a spot of research about when it comes into season. In winter, preserved meats, cheeses and dried foods would keep you going. For vegetables, there are peas, onions, carrots and garlic for seasoning to see you through till spring. All of which could be baked, boiled and stewed for variety.
Speaking of spring, that’s when people starved. You would have used up your stores over the winter and would have ploughed and seeded the farm, but nothing would be growing yet. Early to mid spring was when famines would hit really hard.
Food was expensive
In the 21st century western world, we have more food than we know what to do with. Modern farming techniques, selective breeding and pesticides have all contributed to making food incredibly cheap and plentiful.
David Crowther has a very useful resource here on the prices of various day-to-day foodstuffs. Now, I’m not saying that you should keep a detailed note of your character’s financial records, but it’s worthwhile to know what is and is not within the buying power of your protagonists. Your plucky medieval apprentice is certainly not going to be eating beef.
Food will, of course, vary in price from good years to bad. Supply and demand and all that. Look up the years your writing is set in and check for any major famines or crop failures.
People drank water … but also a lot of beer!
It’s a myth that for most of history water was too dirty to be drunk. However, people still drank a lot of beer. Beer was easy to make, calorific (always a good thing), kept well and was … well, beer! According to The British Museum, Ancient Egyptian labourers were partly paid in the stuff to the sum of around 10 pints per day!
With these points out of the way, let’s have a look at some of the most common periods in historical fiction and how food can play its part. A full summary of the gastronomic history of humanity is a tad beyond the remit of this blog post, but I do hope you get the idea:
For the Roman emperors, providing food for the people of Rome was a big deal (hence, Bread and Circuses, a line in a poem by the satirist Juvenal). Food for the Romans also carried a religious significance, with many festivals having dedicated feasting days. As the western world’s first global superpower, Rome had access to food and dishes from every corner of the empire. A Roman could look forward to such delights as wild boar, hare, snails and as a special treat – dormice. Garum, a paste made of fermented fish guts, was especially popular.
Inns, taverns and roadside stalls would all sell takeaway foods. These were mainly for the lower classes – food eaten while coming and going.
For the upper classes, the emphasis was on leisurely dining at home in pleasant surroundings. At sophisticated dinner parties, multiple courses were served while guests reclined and enjoyed the fruits of civilisation. Banquets could also be hosted by the Collegium (guilds, social clubs and civic/religious associations. Similar to the curry club at work).
Barley, however, was the main staple crop. Gladiators would consume it in vast quantities to help them bulk out for the arena and grow fat for plenty of padding. Hence their sobriquet, Hordearii or Barley Men.
The early medieval Scandinavian would have had a diet rich in fish. This extra protein probably helps to explain why they were taller than their Anglo Saxon counterparts. Other flesh included goat, oxen and wild seabirds in addition to the standard beef, pork and mutton. Horse meat was eaten, but this seems to have been as a religious rite rather than as part of a regular diet.
Feasting was not the chaotic type of affair often depicted in media. It was a highly ritualised gathering, steeped in etiquette.
The Viking did not quaff horns of mead/ale back all in one go. Instead, horns were passed round with a sip taken and then passed along. The very wealthy would have dedicated cup bearers and servants to wait on them during a feast.
You would be seated in a dedicated place depending on your importance. Benches were organised in a horseshoe shape, with the host and his most important guests in the middle, and the less desirables towards the back of the hall nearest the doors. Viking leaders gained and kept followers through lavish public generosity. You were expected to be a gift-giver and provide for the men in your employ.
Finally, although it was expected that you would be drunk at a feast, you were expected to keep your wits about you. Being able to consume alcohol and retain lucidity was the mark of a real man.
For more detail on the ritual elements of Viking feasting, I can highly recommend Viking: The Norse Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual by John Haywood.
Across the broader medieval era, food varied massively from class to class. Serfs and craftsmen would never enjoy the quantity of meat covering the groaning tables of the nobility. Cured pork and bacon made in the autumn would need to last the year. But one of the few constants across society was pottage. Remember the old rhyme, “Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold”? Yeah, it’s that stuff. It’s a porridge made from peas that everyone ate.
The other big thing was bread. You could store flour over the winter, so bread could be eaten all year round. Calorific and filling, everyone would eat bread at each meal. Brutal punishments were meted out to bakers selling underweight loaves, and there are dozens of laws and by-laws about the price, weight and buying/selling of bread. Quite simply, the significance of bread cannot be overstated.
It is worth bearing in mind that meal times were different than the modern breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For most of the medieval period, there were only two formal meals a day – one at midday and one in the evening. Breakfast was seen as a gluttonous extravagance. However, children, travellers, the sick and labourers – all of whom required the extra oomph – were permitted to indulge. The main meal was at midday though, and you were expected to wait if you could.
A superb resource for this is The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, which really gets into the nitty-gritty of food and the relevant economics.
The Tudor period was nothing short of a food revolution. By the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, the huge communal household meals were gone. Replaced instead with smaller, more intimate dining rooms.
In an effort to reinforce the social hierarchy, both Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth passed a dazzling array of sumptuary laws restricting what could be eaten, when and by whom. The number of courses served depended on rank and income. A cardinal was permitted to serve nine dishes, dukes and earls an impressive seven and the lowest members of the gentry a paltry three courses.
These laws were strictly enforced. In 1543, the Earl of Surrey was dragged before the royal council and given a severe telling off for eating meat during Lent. Clearly, the man did not enjoy fish.
Even with these restrictions, the nobility continued to ingest a frankly dizzying amount of meat, with around eighty percent of their diet being protein. During Lent, this could be any type of fish – including porpoise!
Game, especially venison, was the food of the very wealthy. By serving venison, you showed that either you owned a huge estate where deer were roaming, or you were close to someone who did. Henry VIII sent a hart to Anne Boleyn during their courtship.
The rise of permanent theatre buildings such as The Globe led to more street food, including oysters, cockles, nuts and figs. All of which could be enjoyed during the performance.
Leading by example, George IV (unkindly but not unfairly nicknamed the Prince of Whales) ushered in a bright new age of fancy food. Such decadent delights included on one occasion in 1817, a 4ft high mosque made entirely of marzipan.
Deserts were elaborate and dramatic. Even middle-class families would have regular pudding courses with their meals. Ice cream, jellies, cakes and pies all featured prominently on the table in lurid colours.
As the British Empire started to grow in size and power, access to exotic foreign foods grew and grew. In the 1790s, the typical English individual consumed about four kilograms of sugar each year. Nothing compared to our modern sweet tooth, but a staggering increase from 100 years previously.
Urbanisation meant that meat and produce would be transported further. Which meant it was far less fresh than it could have been! However, improved selective breeding and the Agricultural Revolution did mean there was finally more meat to go around, even if it wasn’t terribly nice when it arrived at the table.
The Eponymous Earl of Sandwich in 1762 allegedly invented the food. However they came about though, they were eaten in the Regency as small dainty triangles and with a knife and fork.
Some popular anachronisms: by the Regency period, coffee houses had been in Britain for over 150 years (they first opened in 1650 according to Samuel Pepys). So there is no need to have characters shocked and fawning over this brand new drink. Also, it is important to note that service à la russe (service in the Russian Style), where courses are served sequentially by servants to diners, did not become the norm in England until around the 1870s. Up until then, Service à la française (service in the French style) was the most common. This involved multiple dishes being provided at the same time, with diners serving themselves.
The Victorian era was one of contradictions, one moment proclaiming the superiority of British life and the next moment appropriating and enjoying a dazzling range of new dishes.
Curry became popular, with Queen Victoria herself being a big fan of having it served to her at lunch. Although she is oft credited for the British love of curry, it should be stressed that by the time she tried it in 1887, it was already a popular dish, with the Hindoostane Coffee House opening in 1810.
Much like their queen, many upper-class Britons found themselves rapidly gaining rather a lot of weight. Adverts for weight loss and fad diets became popular, one of the most repulsive being to ingest a live tapeworm to help you lose weight. From over the pond came Horace Fletcher. Nicknamed “The Great Masticator”, he swore by chewing food until it turned to liquid and then spitting it out.
A British icon, the first fish and chip shop was opened in 1860 by a Jewish immigrant called Joseph Malin. Jellied eels, pie and mash and all the other cockney delicacies came about as well.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this culinary journey through history!
Jack Shannon is a regular guest contributor to The History Quill. He is the author of Brigandine – a dark, bloody fantasy where unfortunately for Ulf (and everyone else), magic is returning to the land of Ashenfell. It has quite a few sword fights and a healthy dose of Lovecraft. Why not give him a follow on Twitter? @Jack_Shannon.
P.S. For more guidance on accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction, make sure you download our guide below.