The Middle Ages, generally classified as the time in Europe between 500 and 1500 AD, was a time of great social and economic change. Much, in fact the vast majority of this transformation was brought about by food.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, so-called barbarian tribes overran Europe. Goths, Vandals, Gepids, Alemanni, and Franks were all independent forces that controlled large sections of Europe. The trade of food and goods was quite small among and within these sections. The meals of the barbarians consisted primarily of milk, cheese, and a lot of meat. For them, sustained agriculture was hardly available.
A great transformation occurred around 1000 AD, when commoners began to move out of small city clusters and into the countryside. The exodus from the cities meant that within decades, 90 percent of medieval public worked in agriculture.
What brought this rise in vegetable production? The major cause was new methods of agriculture being developed at this time, namely the new types of plows that allowed for easier plantation. The agricultural method of "crop rotation" began in Europe at this time as well. During the first season - winter - farmers would plant wheat. In another field, during the spring, farmers would plant peas, beans, and other vegetables. The third field would be left fallow to recuperate. The next year, the cycle would rotate. This new system meant greater production for the peasants because the nutrients of the soil had time to regenerate.
Greater production in the fields meant an exploding population in the medieval times. Higher population and a good economy left many people unemployed in the fields, so this caused, once again, citizens desire to move back to the cities. The people within the cities needed goods through trade.
In this way, food brought about the Crusades, the "holy" war waged in the Middle East. By 1097, many young men were restless and out of jobs. Additionally, the cities needed trade routes coming from the east. To protect these routes and to give these men work, the Pope declared war on Muslims in the Holy Land.
New agricultural methods helped the peasants of mainland Europe. After the rise in agriculture, the common "peasant" ate ham, acorns, fish, mollusks, fowls, carrots, and onions at their meals. Despite this startling medley of foods, the winter was harsh, and most often the food was hard to come by.
Peasants also had the hardship of feudalism on their backs. Landowners created that system, in which peasants, or serfs as they were known, would give agriculture production and military service to their lord in exchange for protection. Many lords exploited this system, and serfs were not well off.
Feudalism became a schism between the wealthy landowner, who enjoyed a good, hearty, meat-filled meal and the poor serf, who usually ate nothing more than dark bread and old cheese. Another cause of the schism was a spice that most of us take for granted today - salt.
During the Middle Ages, salt was both scarce and valuable. It was used mostly as a preservative on meats, since that was the only way of keeping it edible and safe. Kings and landlords in general capitalized on the usefulness of salt, and taxed the serfs for it - a lot. For the serfs, that meant either pay for the salt or eat rotten meat. Needless to say, many revolts occurred when the serfs believed they had too steep of a salt tax.
Actual foods were about as unstable as society was at that time. In a disease outbreak in 857 AD, Medieval peasants began dying from ergotism. In their wheat bread, a fungus, ergot, began to grow. This fungus is the equivalent of the modern-day drug LSD. Also, the outbreak of trade meant that "invading species" began to control the locally grown types of wheat.
As you can imagine, famine was also a major problem. A generation would not pass without a very large famine. During these crises, cannibalism became unavoidably popular. Roving groups of bandits would kill travelers and sell their meat as "two-legged mutton" for a very high price. The legends of werewolves and vampires may have originated in this practice.
Food caused the Black Death. The massive rise in trade mad large, central markets a major part of each town and city. Hygiene problems were inescapable. Discarded scraps of food became gold mines for rats, which brought with them lice: the harbingers of the plague.
Monasteries, however, were oases of calm and self-sufficiency during the Middle Ages. The monastery was almost a complex, independent community in itself. Due to their farms and very active distribution centers, monasteries became the city centers.
Monks could dictate what one could eat on what days. Friday was always a fast day when one could not eat meat. However, monasteries often had quite peculiar rules on what was or was not considered meat. Eggs were not meat. Basically nothing that lived in water was meat: fish, frog, or beaver. A most bizarre food that wasn't meat was newly-born rabbit fetuses. It is said that the monks liked eating these so much, that they were the first ones to domesticate rabbits, just so they could eat their fetuses.
Although cooking from a recipe was very difficult, the first cookbook ever, called Le Vaiandier de Taillevent, was published in 1375. It did not do much good, as most medieval commoners cooked with only a large cauldron, known as the pot au feu, in the fireplace. Whatever they could find, they mixed it together in the pot and called it "stew." Sometimes, it would be served with a slab of meat or even frumety. Frumety was a type of wheat pudding that surpassed bread in popularity during the Middle Ages, probably because it went so well with stew.
The act of eating was another inexact science. Utensils were extremely uncommon, but when they were used, the knife was held like a dagger and used to spear morsels of meat from a central communal bowl. The spoon was even more rare than the knife, and the fork was rejected. The fork has had a long history of rejection. Even until 1896, members of the English Navy were not allowed to use a fork, because it was "unmanly."
Along with hardly any utensils came hardly any plates. In place of ceramics, feasters would use thick pieces of stale bread, known as trenchers. After the meals were done, the trenchers were most often filled with sauce, meat, and scraps. They were usually fed to the dogs or the peasants after the meal.
When utensils were not used, as they most often were not, fingers became the main tools. Reaching across the table, the rich ones would fill their hands with sauce and meat, licking and dripping everywhere.
If that were not unsanitary enough, after the gobbling of food, eaters would use their sticky hands to scratch themselves. Lice were a big problem. Who knows how many lice were ingested after men would scratch their hair and reach back into the bowl?
Eventually this became too much for some people, and they published the first "courtesy books" about proper etiquette. They forbade scratching in every section of your body, and also rejected farting at the table.
Food brought about the crusades and the Black Death, but it also brought about major social and economic changes that were to last into the Renaissance.
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