The cuisines of the cultures of the Mediterranean Basin had since antiquity been based on cereals, particularly various types of wheat. Porridge, gruel and later, bread, became the basic food staple that made up the majority of calorie intake for most of the population. From the 8th to the 11th centuries, the proportion of various cereals in the diet rose from about 1⁄3 to 3⁄4. Dependence on wheat remained significant throughout the medieval era, and spread northward with the rise of Christianity. In colder climates, however, it was usually unaffordable for the majority population, and was associated with the higher classes. The centrality of bread in religious rituals such as the Eucharist meant that it enjoyed an especially high prestige among foodstuffs. Only (olive) oil and wine had a comparable value, but both remained quite exclusive outside the warmer grape- and olive-growing regions. The symbolic role of bread as both sustenance and substance is illustrated in a sermon given by Saint Augustine:
This bread retells your history … You were brought to the threshing floor of the Lord and were threshed … While awaiting catechism, you were like grain kept in the granary … At the baptismal font you were kneaded into a single dough. In the oven of the Holy Ghost you were baked into God's true bread.
Nuns dining in silence while listening to a Bible reading. Note the use of hand gestures for communicating; The Life of Blessed Saint Humility
by Pietro Lorenzetti
The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox Churches and their calendars had great influence on eating habits; consumption of meat was forbidden for a full third of the year for most Christians. All animal products, including eggs and dairy products (but not fish), were generally prohibited during Lent and fast. Additionally, it was customary for all citizens to fast prior to taking the Eucharist. These fasts were occasionally for a full day and required total abstinence.
Both the Eastern and the Western churches ordained that feast should alternate with fast. In most of Europe, Fridays were fast days, and fasting was observed on various other days and periods, including Lent and Advent. Meat, and animal products such as milk, cheese, butter and eggs, were not allowed, only fish. The fast was intended to mortify the body and invigorate the soul, and also to remind the faster of Christ's sacrifice for humanity. The intention was not to portray certain foods as unclean, but rather to teach a spiritual lesson in self-restraint through abstention. During particularly severe fast days, the number of daily meals was also reduced to one. Even if most people respected these restrictions and usually made penance when they violated them, there were also numerous ways of circumventing them, a conflict of ideals and practice summarized by writer Bridget Ann Henisch:
It is the nature of man to build the most complicated cage of rules and regulations in which to trap himself, and then, with equal ingenuity and zest, to bend his brain to the problem of wriggling triumphantly out again. Lent was a challenge; the game was to ferret out the loopholes.
During the Middle Ages it was believed that beaver
tails were of such a fish-like nature that they could be eaten on fast days; Livre des simples médecines
, ca. 1480.
While animal products were to be avoided during times of penance, pragmatic compromises often prevailed. The definition of "fish" was often extended to marine and semi-aquatic animals such as whales, barnacle geese, puffins and even beavers. The choice of ingredients may have been limited, but that did not mean that meals were smaller. Neither were there any restrictions against (moderate) drinking or eating sweets. Banquets held on fish days could be splendid, and were popular occasions for serving illusion food that imitated meat, cheese and eggs in various ingenious ways; fish could be moulded to look like venison and fake eggs could be made by stuffing empty egg shells with fish roe and almond milk and cooking them in coals. While Byzantine church officials took a hard-line approach, and discouraged any culinary refinement for the clergy, their Western counterparts were far more lenient. There was also no lack of grumbling about the rigours of fasting among the laity. During Lent, kings and schoolboys, commoners and nobility, all complained about being deprived of meat for the long, hard weeks of solemn contemplation of their sins. At Lent, owners of livestock were even warned to keep an eye out for hungry dogs frustrated by a "hard siege by Lent and fish bones".
The trend from the 13th century onward was toward a more legalistic interpretation of fasting. Nobles were careful not to eat meat on fast days, but still dined in style; fish replaced meat, often as imitation hams and bacon; almond milk replaced animal milk as an expensive non-dairy alternative; faux eggs made from almond milk were cooked in blown-out eggshells, flavoured and coloured with exclusive spices. In some cases the lavishness of noble tables was outdone by Benedictine monasteries, which served as many as sixteen courses during certain feast days. Exceptions from fasting were frequently made for very broadly defined groups. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) believed dispensation should be provided for children, the old, pilgrims, workers and beggars, but not the poor as long as they had some sort of shelter. There are many accounts of members of monastic orders who flouted fasting restrictions through clever interpretations of the Bible. Since the sick were exempt from fasting, there often evolved the notion that fasting restrictions only applied to the main dining area, and many Benedictine friars would simply eat their fast day meals in what was called the misericord (at those times) rather than the refectory. Newly assigned Catholic monastery officials sought to amend the problem of fast evasion not merely with moral condemnations, but by making sure that well-prepared non-meat dishes were available on fast days.
Medieval society was highly stratified. In a time when famine was commonplace and social hierarchies were often brutally enforced, food was an important marker of social status in a way that has no equivalent today in most developed countries. According to the ideological norm, society consisted of the three estates of the realm: commoners, that is, the working classes—by far the largest group; the clergy, and the nobility. The relationship between the classes was strictly hierarchical, with the nobility and clergy claiming worldly and spiritual overlordship over commoners. Within the nobility and clergy there were also a number of ranks ranging from kings and popes to dukes, bishops and their subordinates, such as priests. One was expected to remain in one's social class and to respect the authority of the ruling classes. Political power was displayed not just by rule, but also by displaying wealth. Nobles dined on fresh game seasoned with exotic spices, and displayed refined table manners; rough laborers could make do with coarse barley bread, salt pork and beans and were not expected to display etiquette. Even dietary recommendations were different: the diet of the upper classes was considered to be as much a requirement of their refined physical constitution as a sign of economic reality. The digestive system of a lord was held to be more discriminating than that of his rustic subordinates and demanded finer foods.
In the late Middle Ages, the increasing wealth of middle class merchants and traders meant that commoners began emulating the aristocracy, and threatened to break down some of the symbolic barriers between the nobility and the lower classes. The response came in two forms: didactic literature warning of the dangers of adapting a diet inappropriate for one's class, and sumptuary laws that put a cap on the lavishness of commoners' banquets.
Medical science of the Middle Ages had a considerable influence on what was considered healthy and nutritious among the upper classes. One's lifestyle—including diet, exercise, appropriate social behavior, and approved medical remedies—was the way to good health, and all types of food were assigned certain properties that affected a person's health. All foodstuffs were also classified on scales ranging from hot to cold and moist to dry, according to the four bodily humours theory proposed by Galen that dominated Western medical science from late Antiquity until the 17th century.
Medieval scholars considered human digestion to be a process similar to cooking. The processing of food in the stomach was seen as a continuation of the preparation initiated by the cook. In order for the food to be properly "cooked" and for the nutrients to be properly absorbed, it was important that the stomach be filled in an appropriate manner. Easily digestible foods would be consumed first, followed by gradually heavier dishes. If this regimen were not respected it was believed that heavy foods would sink to the bottom of the stomach, thus blocking the digestion duct, so that food would digest very slowly and cause putrefaction of the body and draw bad humours into the stomach. It was also of vital importance that food of differing properties not be mixed.
Before a meal, the stomach would preferably be "opened" with an apéritif (from Latin aperire, "to open") that was preferably of a hot and dry nature: confections made from sugar- or honey-coated spices like ginger, caraway and seeds of anise, fennel or cumin, wine and sweetened fortified milk drinks. As the stomach had been opened, it should then be "closed" at the end of the meal with the help of a digestive, most commonly a dragée, which during the Middle Ages consisted of lumps of spiced sugar, or hypocras, a wine flavoured with fragrant spices, along with aged cheese. A meal would ideally begin with easily digestible fruit, such as apples. It would then be followed by vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, purslane, herbs, moist fruits, light meats, such as chicken or goat kid, with potages and broths. After that came the "heavy" meats, such as pork and beef, as well as vegetables and nuts, including pears and chestnuts, both considered difficult to digest. It was popular, and recommended by medical expertise, to finish the meal with aged cheese and various digestives.
The most ideal food was that which most closely matched the humour of human beings, i.e. moderately warm and moist. Food should preferably also be finely chopped, ground, pounded and strained to achieve a true mixture of all the ingredients. White wine was believed to be cooler than red and the same distinction was applied to red and white vinegar. Milk was moderately warm and moist, but the milk of different animals was often believed to differ. Egg yolks were considered to be warm and moist while the whites were cold and moist. Skilled cooks were expected to conform to the regimen of humoral medicine. Even if this limited the combinations of food they could prepare, there was still ample room for artistic variation by the chef.
The caloric content and structure of medieval diet varied over time, from region to region, and between classes. However, for most people, the diet tended to be high-carbohydrate, with most of the budget spent on, and the majority of calories provided by, cereals and alcohol (such as beer). Even though meat was highly valued by all, lower classes often could not afford it, nor were they allowed by the church to consume it every day. In England in the 13th century, meat contributed a negligible portion of calories to a typical harvest worker's diet; however, its share increased after the Black Death and, by the 15th century, it provided about 20% of the total. Even among the lay nobility of medieval England, grain provided 65–70% of calories in the early 14th century, though a generous provision of meat and fish was included, and their consumption of meat increased in the aftermath of the Black Death as well. In one early 15th-century English aristocratic household for which detailed records are available (that of the Earl of Warwick), gentle members of the household received a staggering 3.8 pounds (1.7 kg) of assorted meats in a typical meat meal in the autumn and 2.4 pounds (1.1 kg) in the winter, in addition to 0.9 pounds (0.41 kg) of bread and 1⁄4 imperial gallon (1.1 L; 0.30 US gal) of beer or possibly wine (and there would have been two meat meals per day, five days a week, except during Lent). In the household of Henry Stafford in 1469, gentle members received 2.1 pounds (0.95 kg) of meat per meal, and all others received 1.04 pounds (0.47 kg), and everyone was given 0.4 pounds (0.18 kg) of bread and 1⁄4 imperial gallon (1.1 L; 0.30 US gal) of alcohol. On top of these quantities, some members of these households (usually, a minority) ate breakfast, which would not include any meat, but would probably include another 1⁄4 imperial gallon (1.1 L; 0.30 US gal) of beer; and uncertain quantities of bread and ale could have been consumed in between meals. The diet of the lord of the household differed somewhat from this structure, including less red meat, more high-quality wild game, fresh fish, fruit, and wine.
In monasteries, the basic structure of the diet was laid down by the Rule of Saint Benedict in the 7th century and tightened by Pope Benedict XII in 1336, but (as mentioned above) monks were adept at "working around" these rules. Wine was restricted to about 10 imperial fluid ounces (280 mL; 9.6 US fl oz) per day, but there was no corresponding limit on beer, and, at Westminster Abbey, each monk was given an allowance of 1 imperial gallon (4.5 L; 1.2 US gal) of beer per day. Meat of "four-footed animals" was prohibited altogether, year-round, for everyone but the very weak and the sick. This was circumvented in part by declaring that offal, and various processed foods such as bacon, were not meat. Secondly, Benedictine monasteries contained a room called the misericord, where the Rule of Saint Benedict did not apply, and where a large number of monks ate. Each monk would be regularly sent either to the misericord or to the refectory. When Pope Benedict XII ruled that at least half of all monks should be required to eat in the refectory on any given day, monks responded by excluding the sick and those invited to the abbot's table from the reckoning. Overall, a monk at Westminster Abbey in the late 15th century would have been allowed 2.25 pounds (1.02 kg) of bread per day; 5 eggs per day, except on Fridays and in Lent; 2 pounds (0.91 kg) of meat per day, 4 days/week (excluding Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday), except in Advent and Lent; and 2 pounds (0.91 kg) of fish per day, 3 days/week and every day during Advent and Lent. This caloric structure partly reflected the high-class status of late Medieval monasteries in England, and partly that of Westminster Abbey, which was one of the richest monasteries in the country; diets of monks in other monasteries may have been more modest.
The overall caloric intake is subject to some debate. One typical estimate is that an adult peasant male needed 2,900 calories (12,000 kJ) per day, and an adult female needed 2,150 calories (9,000 kJ). Both lower and higher estimates have been proposed. Those engaged in particularly heavy physical labor, as well as sailors and soldiers, may have consumed 3,500 calories (15,000 kJ) or more per day. Intakes of aristocrats may have reached 4,000 to 5,000 calories (17,000 to 21,000 kJ) per day. Monks consumed 6,000 calories (25,000 kJ) per day on "normal" days, and 4,500 calories (19,000 kJ) per day when fasting. As a consequence of these excesses, obesity was common among upper classes. Monks especially frequently suffered from obesity-related (in some cases) conditions such as arthritis.