Medieval Food: Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Chanukah!

Robert Baratheon at one of the first feasts at King’s Landing. (From Season 1, Episode 3 at 40:48. Courtesy of Wikia.)

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah and tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. – two tremendous feast days. I thought it might be interesting, given the occasion, to look briefly at medieval food and Game of Thrones.

George RR Martin has acknowledged that he “loosely” based Game of Thrones on England in the 1400s and limits GoT food to what was available during that period. Martin describes food so much throughout the Song of Ice and Fire series that some people have denounced his portrayals as “food porn.”

food kings landing

Food in King’s Landing – note the oranges and other fruit. (c) HBO, linked via Wikia.

However, the food isn’t without purpose. It contributes to the overall world building – Northern cuisine has more meat, Southern cuisine has more fruit. The food descriptions also further the theme: the nobles eat lemon cakes while the peasants starve. I’ve written about this contrast before here because it parallels what happened during the Hundred Years’ War and frankly it still angers and disgusts me. Even though the Hundred Years’ War happened over 600 years ago, the indifference to the peasants’ plight was still wrong.

Because the New World hadn’t been discovered yet, products like tobacco don’t exist in Westeros. People, do, however, chew sourleaf (a tobacco like leaf).

People have written at least two entire cookbooks on Game of Thrones cuisine – and Olga has interviewed the authors of the official Game of Thrones cookbook here. Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer use modern cooking techniques to try to recreate medieval dishes, something which I find so incredibly imaginative. At any rate, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, since all of these ladies far surpass me.

But, in the spirit of the season, here are a few tidbits (no pun intended) about medieval food:

  • Medieval kitchens were shockingly hot sweaty dangerous places. Only men worked in them – some of whom were naked or close to it due to the heat. A young boy tended the fire or spit where meat was roasted and he was allowed as much ale as he could drink.

800px-Woodcut_kitchen

 

  • Henry VIII, not surprisingly, had the largest kitchens of Tudor England. But, these kitchens were not for him. They were built to feed his 600+ member household. One such kitchen, located at Hampton Court Palace, when in use, the kitchen got so filled with smoke they’d regularly white wash the walls.
  • Palaces would have whole complexes of buildings to help them prepare the meals. These buildings included a separate bread hut, bakery, slaughterhouse, and others. Part of this is because of the massive number of people at court – often 800 to 1000- and because medieval nobles ate a lot more than we do.

800px-Medieval_baker

  • Some historians estimate that medieval nobles ate a staggering 4,000 to 5,000 calories (17,000 to 21,000 kJ) per day.1 Many monks were chubby and may have consumed 6000 calories per day and 4500 when fasting.((http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/jul/15/highereducation.artsandhumanities ))  Peasant men required 2900 (12,000 kJ) and peasant women 2150 (9,000 kJ) calories.2   Sailors, soldiers, and others who performed physically demanding work may have consumed 3500 calories.
  • By our standards, many medieval people were extremely active. Young noble men often trained for battle for a large part of the day, wearing heavy armor, vaulting onto horses, and hunting. They were significantly more muscular and stronger than the average man today. As a result, they ate almost double what we do.
    • Incidentally, with all the media coverage of how sedentary lifestyles and sitting all day cut our lives short, medieval people – even nobles and royalty – had very few chairs. There certainly wasn’t a chair for everyone in the room. There might be two chairs in a room and that’s it. Everyone else stood. The master of the house might sit in the best chair and then if a more important guest arrived, he’d give that guest the better chair (for example, a chair closer to the fire) and sit in the lesser chair. But, the point is, in general, medieval stood and moved around a lot more than we do today.

    monk_tasting_wine_from_a_barrel

  • Visitors to the late medieval English court complained the English nobles ate too much meat; it made their breath foul and their teeth rot. To give you an idea of the quantities eaten during the Wars of the Roses, consider this: Gentry members of Warwick’s household received a staggering 3.9 lbs of meat per meal in the autumn (butchering season) and 2.4 lbs in the winter. This was a lot though, even for the period.  In the 1469 household of Henry Stafford – the boy forced to marry the child-bride Katherine Woodville in The White Queen – gentry members received 2.1 lbs and  all others 1.04 lbs of meat.
  • In contrast, many medieval peasants barely had enough to eat. English peasants fared better than their continental contemporaries – and post-Black Death labor shortages improved their lot even more. For those who obtained enough to eat, their diet, however, was significantly healthier than the noble one. When archaeologists have found peasant remains, often the teeth are ground completely flat from the grains in their diet but their bones indicate they had good, if not excellent, health.
  •  In an age before refrigeration, spices and salting were used extensively to preserve food. Many foods were flavored with ginger and saffron, honey, sugar, and wine or vinegar. As a result, some foods had a sweet-sour flavor.
medieval-hawking-2

A medieval depiction of hawking.

  • Possibly because meat wasn’t farmed commercially, medieval people didn’t have the squeamish reservations we do about strange meats. They ate an enormous variety of meats we’d consider “exotic” including, porpoise, swan, goose, pheasant, venison, seagull, and lark. People had to hunt most meat and some of the small birds nobles ate came from hawking – a passion of the nobility3 .

Wild boar was very rare in late medieval England and when Francis I sent Henry VIII a few wild boar he was ecstatic about the prospect of hunting this animal, which people believed gave the most dangerous and chivalric chase.

  • Much to my surprise, those who could afford it ate fish. Given the lack of refrigeration, I thought this would be a highly risk proposition and be unheard of unless you lived on the coast or near a river. But, it was quite the opposite. Fish stayed very fresh since it was transported live to market in oak barrels filled with water and sold live.

 

  • I believe fishmongers transported lamprey eels – that dish so beloved by medieval kings like Edward IV – the same way. Lamprey eels are not really an eel at all but a rather disgusting looking long skinny sucker fish that fisherman caught out of the Thames amongst other places. Chefs often served lamprey eels, or “lampreys” as people called them, in syrup in a pie or cream sauce.
  • Incidentally, Henry I loved lamprey eels so much that some chroniclers blamed his decline and death on a “surfeit [surplus or excess] of lampreys.”

 

fishing-for-lampreys

Illustration from an edition of Tacuinum Sanitatis, 15th century

  • Raw fruit was not eaten in England – or if it was, it was extremely rare. I don’t know if you remember me ranting in this post about all the raw fruit consumed in The White Queen TV show. People believed raw fruit made them sick. But, I just read on this blog that eating raw fruit was actually outlawed in 1569. (By the way, people in some European regions, such as Flanders, thought eating raw fruit was okay.)

Anyway, to all who are celebrating, Happy Chanukah and Happy Thanksgiving!

  1. Revolution and consumption in late medieval England by M. Hicks p. 8 []
  2. Everyday Life in Medieval England by C. Dyer p. 134 []
  3. Food and Feasts by Peter Hammond p. 71 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

2 Comments

  • Reply December 2, 2013

    PatW

    He doesn’t entirely limit it to foods available in medieval Europe. I recall Tyrion nibbling a corn fritter at one point– and they’re in the official GoT cookbook. And I think potatoes show up too.

    • Reply December 3, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      Oh that’s very interesting. I’ll have to watch out for that. Is the GoT cookbook good? I’ve been thinking about getting it – and maybe even having a medieval GoT Christmas. :>)

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