Saturday, May 15, 2010

Castle meals in the age of Ivanhoe

People must have been healthy in the age of Ivanhoe. Life was not poisoned by polluted air and contaminated water, folks walked everywhere and got lots of exercise. Food must have been simple and wholesome before there were trans fats and hydrogenation, and way to much sugar, salt and starch.

But were meals in those glorious castles of 14th-century "Merrie England," in fact healthy at all?

Consider those castles. Some castle floors were tiled, most were clay, covered with layers of rushes from the nearest marsh. Garbage disposal consisted of throwing table scraps on the floor where they accumulated with dog droppings. The garbage was covered with new layers of rushes, “carelessly renewed,” according to Dutch scholar Erasmus. The rushes piled up year after year, for as long as 20 years, said Erasmus, “Harbouring there below spittle and vomit and wine of dogs and men, beer… remnants of fishes and other filth unnameable… With the change of weather, a vapor exhales which in my judgment is far from wholesome.” [1]

Dinner time in a medieval castle

All food was finger food. Forks were not yet used to lift food to mouths, but for such special purposes as dishing out “or toasting cheese,” Will Durant reports in The Reformation, volume six of his 10-volume landmark The Story of Civilization. Men wore their hats at table to keep their long hair from falling into their food.

“Etiquette required that food should be brought to the mouth with the fingers. As handkerchiefs were not in use… men were requested to blow their noses with the hand that held the knife rather than that which conveyed the food. Napkins were unknown, and diners were warned not to clean their teeth on the tablecloth.”

A noble dinner commonly consisted of 15 to 20 dishes. Great lords fed a hundred or more visitors, servants and retainers every day. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, is said to have killed six oxen a day to feed as many as 500 people.

“Meat was the national food; vegetables were scarce or shunned. Beer and ale were the national drinks… A gallon of beer per day was the usual allowance, even for nuns. The English, said Sir John Fortescue, ‘drink no water, unless at certain times upon religious score, or by way of doing penance.’”

Ah, the good old days!

[1]  Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), cited by G.C. Coulton in The Medieval Scene, Cambridge, England, 1925.

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