Reiver by David Pilling

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Summer Banquet Blog Hop!



Welcome to the Summer Banquet Blog Hop – ‘sumer is icumen in’, as they sang in medieval times, and so myself and thirty other historical fiction authors have decided to get our heads together and treat you, the lucky readers, to a series of posts all about food and drink in days of yore.
We are also hosting a fabulous range of prizes and giveaways, so please browse through the blogs listed at the bottom of this post to see if anything takes your fancy. If you wish to enter a competition, just leave a comment below the relevant post. The author will then announce the winners at end of the hop and send the prize out to you as quickly as possible.



I am giving away a free paperback copy of The White Hawk, Book One of my family saga set during the bloody days of The Wars of the Roses. You can see some reviews and a blurb at the link below:
The White Hawk

The White Hawk follows the fortunes of the Boltons, a family of Staffordshire local gentry. The Boltons are much further up the social ladder than the average peasant, slightly above the yeoman and mercantile classes, but well below the upper tiers of the aristocracy. They own three manors and are reasonably prosperous, though constantly threatened by the shifting tides of war and the ambitions of treacherous neighbours.
People like the Boltons could have expected to eat well, though their diets would seem crude and alarming to modern eyes. Cuisine didn’t change much in Europe throughout the medieval period, and it would be centuries before the health benefits of fruit and vegetables were fully appreciated. The emphasis for rich folk like the Boltons was on meat, and lots of it. 


Medieval illustration of peasants working in the fields
The peasants that worked their land were not quite the feudal slaves of previous centuries: events such as the Black Death and the Peasant's Revolt had done much to shake loose their chains, and by the late fifteenth century many farm workers would have been hired labourers. Their diet hadn't changed much, though, and most would have relied on cereals for sustenance. Barley, oats, rye, pulses and beans were still staples among the poor, since New World crops like potatoes and tomatoes were not yet discovered. Rye bread, porridge and gruel was the order of the day. 
Ironically, the poor consumed more vegetables than their social superiors, and so enjoyed a healthier diet in that sense: if ‘enjoy’ is the right word to describe such a dull, repetitive and tasteless repast. Prevailing wisdom considered there to be a natural resemblance between one’s labour and social class and one’s food: it was only right that the working classes ate cheaper, more functional foodstuffs. After all, you wouldn’t feed a horse roast beef, would you? Even the briefest study of medieval society is enough to bring out anyone's inner socialist.
Rich medieval folk with bad haircuts absolutely stuffing themselves

While the plebs chewed miserably on their bowls of slop, the Boltons and their ilk were dining on game and other rich meats in their manor houses. Domestic fowl, beef, pork and chicken were all popular and regularly found their way down well-muscled aristocratic throats. A wide variety of fish was also consumed, including dried, smoked and salted cod and herring. From the Crusades onwards, exotic spices imported from abroad increasingly found their way onto the dining tables of the nobility. 

Common seasonings included combinations of wine and vinegar, while spices such as black pepper, saffron and ginger served to improve the taste of meat (and hide it if the meat was tough or spoiled). Eye-watering combinations of spices, along with the widespread use of sugar and honey, would have given many dishes a sweet-sour flavour that might taste extremely curious, if not downright revolting, to modern palates. Biscuits, cakes and scones made with honey were popular as after-dinner snacks, assuming you could stuff anything else down on top of the heaps of cooked flesh. The rich also loved their fruit, and consumed vast quantities of almonds, currants, dates, figs, prunes, raisins, pears and apples etc: presumably this was the only thing that saved them from chronic constipation. 
Given this taste for sweeteners, and the general lack of proper dental care, it is hardly surprising that many of the nobility suffered from bad teeth: Henry VII’s teeth, for example, were described by a contemporary chronicler as being “few, poor and blackish.” The recently-discovered skull of his mortal enemy, Richard III, also showed signs of dental trouble, as well as a few painful tooth extractions. The skeletons of soldiers found in the mass grave-pits on the field of Towton showed signs of having enjoyed a better diet than the working poor – it was in the interests of the warring nobles to keep fighting men well-fed – but their teeth, like their horrifically mangled remains, were in a generally hellish condition. 

Note: I was going to post a sample image of some medieval teeth, but decided against it: I don't want to turn stomachs!

Entire books could be written - and no doubt have - on the subject of medieval food, and this is only intended as a brief overview. Hopefully it gives some idea of what our ancestors ate, and how the stark divide between rich and poor in medieval times was reflected in diet. Whatever other dangers that face my fictional family, the Boltons, they are certainly not threatened with starvation...
Below is the list of other Hop participants. Please have a browse and enjoy the foody posts!
Hop Participants

27 comments:

  1. English history is one of my favourite subjects and I have always enjoyed this era. I have added your book to my want to read list so thanks for the giveaway

    meikleblog at gmail dot com

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  2. Thanks for your discussion of the difference between the diets of rich and poor.

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    1. No probs, Shauna :) You're added.

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  3. Loved this post! Thanks for organising the Banquet Blog Hop!

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    1. Thanks Helen! It was fun to do :)

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  4. It's fascinating to me to look at some of the differences (and of course the similarities) between medieval England medieval Italy, which is my main area of interest. I managed to win a copy of one of your books last time (and loved it, BTW) - could I be lucky again? We'll see.

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  5. Alison Bahmüller3 June 2013 at 09:13

    I enjoyed reading this and would like to read more about your Bolton family. I like your sense of humour!

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    1. Thank you Alison - you're in! :)

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  6. Wow! I can't imagine not having fruits and veggies as a regular part of my diet. I'm so spoiled.

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. Rather be a Bolton than a peasant...

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  8. I have been on a no sugar diet of late. I can honestly say it's the worst diet I have ever attempted for I crave sugar.

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  9. Interesting. I'll certainly appreciate my dinner and my dentist much more!

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  10. I've never been a fan of honey (I'm more of a refined-sugar kind of girl), but I suspect I'd pass over the spiced meats for a nice plate of honey cakes back then :-) Great post!

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  11. The period of the War of Roses has become my new must read era.The rich really had a wide variety of food stuffs to choose from. Thanks for the giveaway. denannduvall@gmail.com

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  12. LOL on the teeth, David! I just ate dinner, so am thankful not to have the visual.

    Love the historical post. As much as I love the variety of tastes we now have at our fingertips, I don't think living in those by-gone days would have appealed to my palate. No Mexican or Indian food? How did they survive?!!

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  13. Thank you for your comments, everyone! The interest is much appreciated :)

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  14. Thanks so much for the fascinating information on medieval meals!
    Susan Heim
    smhparent [at] hotmail [dot] com

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  15. I agree, not posting the pics of teeth was a good idea. LOL

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  16. Apparently the high grain diet, which was not refined as ours is today, took a lot of chewing and so wore people teeth down.
    Great post,
    Grace x

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  17. This was a wonderful look at meal time during the Medieval Period.

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  18. That seems like a fabulous book of old times and plenty of dished out misery sounds extremely interesting as I like books of old times and this sounds like a really different perspective on there life then I have read. Good job doing something different. thanks

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  19. Wow nice blog its really motivational blog looks different.

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