What’s for dinner?

Food is central to the daily life of everyone who has ever lived, and the Carolingians were no exception. What did they have available to eat? What was on the menu of a peasant, or a lord?

For this post I will rely heavily on secondary sources, as the primary sources simply don’t touch on food that much. Discerning patterns in food production and consumption requires a survey of historical and archaeological sources that span centuries and frontiers, and then coming up with inferences and suppositions based on experience and scholarship. I will leave that to the experts. But let’s see what they have to say.

Let’s start with what was available. The age of the hunter-gatherer had passed, and the populace lived a settled, agricultural life. Cultivated grains included wheat, barley, rye, and oats. While wheat produced more seed per plant, it was not as hardy as some of the others.1.Pearson, Early Medieval Diet, p.4. Growers of the time thought in terms of two types of vegetables. Legumina, or legumes, grew in the fields, and included beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, and others. Olera, or roots, grew in a garden, and included leeks, garlic, carrots, onions, etc.2.Riche, Daily Life, p.173.

Fruit was not uncommon. Various types of apple (sweet or sour), pear, mulberry, and quince trees were grown, and of course grapes were widely grown, for wine. Wild berries were picked where and when available. Other wild food included mushrooms and nuts.

Dairy products were common, with the milk of cows, sheep, and goats made into different kinds of cheese. Turning milk into cheese aided in preservation and distribution. Butter was produced, but it takes a lot of milk to make not much butter, and so it wasn’t very efficient. All of the milk-producing animals were also slaughtered for their meat, as were pigs and horses. Chickens were kept, both for meat and eggs. Wild game was hunted and trapped, such as venison, boar, and rabbits. Rivers and the oceans were harvested for fish and shellfish. River eels were popular, where they could be obtained.

The laws of the lands reflect some of the priorities and concerns of those raising foodstuffs. Many laws prescribe penalties for breaking fences, letting animals trample crops, or stealing food. Eight of the first nine chapters of the Salic law concern the theft of animals or damage to fields.3.Drew, Laws of the Salian Franks, pp.65-74. Pigs were a particularly litigious animal – the law on pigs continues for twenty paragraphs, while goats merit only two.

The primary source that speaks to matters of food most directly is the Capitulare de Villis at the end of the eighth century. The document prescribes the proper organization and maintenance of the royal estates. The level of detail includes the number of chickens and geese to be kept (100 and 50, respectively, for large manors, and 50 and twelve at the smaller farms). The capitulary also notes that those chickens and geese should be kept fattened, and ready to be sent when asked for.4.Loyn, Reign of Charlemagne, pp.64-73.

Clearly there was a great variety of food available, across the kingdom. But did it sustain a healthy population? As with most early medieval questions, opinions vary. “Such disparate interpretations are created by the serious difficulties of reconstructing the early-medieval diet. Different climates, soils and terrains forced local variation in the food supply. Social class and ethnic identity likewise shaped food consumption patterns.”5.Pearson, Nutrition, p.2. Well put, if only marginally useful.

Let’s get back to the point of this post. What was for dinner? For the subsistence or tenant farmer family, slave, or anyone else living in the hinterlands, grains comprised the bulk of most everyone’s diet. Rough bread, murky (no brewing with hops yet)6.Butt, Daily Life, p.68. yet calorie-rich ale, and a porridge or gruel made of barley or oats. Various vegetables probably filled out the meal, depending on the season and latitude. Perhaps onions or leeks added to the porridge, a wild mushroom, or some berries. A cow or goat might provide some milk, or a simple cheese.

The rich ate white bread, and, not surprisingly, animal products formed more of the diet of the wealthy. Einhard famously noted that Charlemagne grew cross with his doctors when they advised him to eat more boiled meat than roasted as the king’s paunch grew with his years. Charlemagne also favored a rind cheese a bishop served him, and asked for two wheels of it every year. Honey was the only sweetener available, and was also used for mead and honeyed wine. Spices, traded and bought from merchants with connections in the east, were used liberally in dishes.

During Lent meat was forbidden, and fish consumed in its place. The poor probably didn’t notice the restriction.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Pearson, Early Medieval Diet, p.4.
2. Riche, Daily Life, p.173.
3. Drew, Laws of the Salian Franks, pp.65-74.
4. Loyn, Reign of Charlemagne, pp.64-73.
5. Pearson, Nutrition, p.2.
6. Butt, Daily Life, p.68.

4 thoughts on “What’s for dinner?

    • While the servants and slaves in the houses of the noble undoubtedly picked over the trenchers once the meal was over, there’s nothing that I’ve found to indicate any pattern of sharing the lesser cuts with the less fortunate. And remember, the vast majority of the population lived in isolated agricultural hamlets, not part of the lord’s household, so the only meat they had was what they could produce themselves.

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