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Useful Notes: Medieval Food in Europe - take 2

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Second version, as the old TLP is no longer editable.

This work is a proposed Trope, Tropers can vote and offer feedback in the comments section below.
Proposed By:
Bisected8 on Jun 11th 2018 at 2:47:13 PM
Last Edited By:
Bisected8 on Sep 11th 2018 at 9:40:43 AM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

Antigone3 is dealing with some real life stuff at the moment, so I've taken sponsorship.

A glitch in the wiki means that the original TLP/YKTTW cannot be edited, so I've made a fresh one. The old one can be found HERE

Draft begins below the line.

The following page is intended as a brief summary of the kinds of food that would have been available in Europe during Medieval times/Middle Ages. This period is usually defined as the time from the fall of The Roman Empire to the dawn of the The Renaissance, so it covers a fair bit of time (1000 years, from the 5th to the 15th centuries, to be rough) which was split into multiple time periods (see The Middle Ages for more information). As a result not all of the information given will apply to the entire timespan, and writers who want to be historically accurate should do additional research to be certain of what food would have been eaten at a specific point.

Note that while many Medieval European Fantasy settings will use a medieval level of technology, they are still fantasy settings and thus don't need to worry about the specifics unless the author really wants to (in a fictional world where none of the European nobility or the Americas exist, there's no need to cry "historical accuracy!" over things like women knights or potatoes, after all).

For the tropes which apply to fictionalised versions see The Dung Ages. For fictionalised versions of medieval meals see Stock Medieval Meal[draft]

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Specific Foods


Those who couldn't afford meat got a lot of their animal protein from milk and dairy products. Milk was obtained from cows, sheep, and goats. Fresh milk was drunk by children, the poor, the sick, and the elderly; the average adult didn't drink it often.

Cheese was far more important in the medieval diet, because it didn't spoil as fast as liquid milk. Many modern varieties of cheese date back to the medieval period.

Areas that raised a lot of cows often used butter for cooking.


The majority of medieval people would have had access to clean drinking water from a well (unless they lived in a large city, where the water was likely to be contaminated by sewage), but would only settle for it if they couldn't afford anything else. The majority of drinks available to buy would mostly have been alcoholic, as the fermentation process was one of the few ways of preserving drinks. That said, it's likely that people would have made their own infusions, called "tisane", by boiling various grains, herbs and spices to flavour their water (or for medicinal purposes). Milk, as mentioned, was also an option.

Beers (which are what would now be defined as ales - lager wouldn't be invented until the 15th century) were produced widely, with the idea of adding hops to act as a further preservative and bitterant appearing in the 13th century and spreading everywhere by the 16th (confusingly, "beer" made without hops is also known as ale). It was available wherever you went in northern Europe and made by everyone from commercial breweries to monasteries (who were obliged to provide both their monks and travellers with it).

Mead and wines were only available to the more affluent, as they needed large amounts of honey and fruit respectively to be fermented into them. Honey was expensive and fruit was hard to gather in large quantities. Cider was an exception, as apples were plentiful all year round in most of Europe. The Anglo-Saxons were also fond of perry, or pear cider. Grape wines were commonly drunk in France (then, as now, a wine-producing country), but further north imported French wine was only drunk by the wealthy.

Brandy and whiskey were known in medieval times (along with other spirits, but specific names for them didn't show up until the renaissance), but would mostly have been treated as medicines rather than drinks.


Fish was less prestigious than meat, but still an important protein source due to the Catholic Church's rules on fast days (when the faithful had to abstain from meat). Fresh fish would be caught locally, but salted/preserved fish were commonly traded. An important trade good for the Hanseatic League was barrels of herrings.

Other common fish were cod, pike, trout, lampreys, and perch.

Coastal regions often ate shellfish such as oysters, mussels, and scallops. River communities ate freshwater crayfish

The medieval definition of "fish" was any creature that normally lived in the water. Most geese were counted as birds (thus meat), but until 1215 barnacle geese were classed as fish and thus could be eaten during Lent. The Eurasian beaver was mainly hunted for its fur and castoreum, but was eaten as well. Whales and porpoises were considered fish and eaten as such.

    Fruits and Vegetables 

Vegetables are underrepresented in medieval cookbooks, because the cookbooks were written for wealthy households and vegetables were considered peasant food.

Available root crops included carrots, onions, and beetroot/beets. There were a wide variety of legumes available; chickpeas, fava beans, and peas were all commonly grown. Cabbages, lettuce, and purslane were also grown and eaten.

Fruits were popular, and were eaten fresh or preserved. They could also be used as sweetening ingredients in other dishes. Apples, pears, plums, and various berries were available. Citrus fruits were known in southern Europe, but would have to have been imported to the north (which would limit their consumption to the rich).


Grain crops were the staff of life for the medieval peasant, and important to all social classes. Grains were eaten as bread or porridge.

The exact grains grown in an area would depend on the climate. If there was any way to grow wheat, though, there would be at least a small patch as a cash crop. Wheat was normally only eaten by the upper classes (or at least the rich). The highest grades of wheat bread were made with flour that had its bran sifted out, resulting in a white bread. Lower grades contained the bran, which made a darker loaf.

Other common grain crops were oats, rye, and barley. A peasant farmer might sell his wheat to pay taxes or feudal dues and eat one or more of these grains.


Beef was less common in the medieval period than in modern days, because cows were more valuable as milk producers and oxen were too important as plow/draught animals. Older animals might be slaughtered at the end of their useful life, but didn't produce high-quality meat. The wealthy could afford cattle butchered young, and that had been kept in pasture rather than kept at work.

Pigs and chickens were more commonly eaten by the lower classes, as both animals could be easily and cheaply fed. Pork also had the advantage of being easy to preserve as bacon, ham, and sausage. Hens might get a reprieve from the cookpot as long as they laid eggs. Wool-producing areas might eat mutton if a sheep had to be put down; lamb would have been for the wealthy.

Peafowl and swans were more used as display dishes at a feast than as serious sources of protein. Ducks and geese (either domesticated or hunted) were eaten, as were doves, pigeons, and many songbirds.

Wild game was either hunted legally (by nobles) or poached (by everyone else). Many versions of the Robin Hood story refer to the outlaws poaching deer, but many other wild animals were eaten as well. Rabbits were deliberately introduced to England in the 13th century for food, and legally protected. There are existing medieval recipes for hedgehog and porcupine.

    Spices and Herbs 

Herbs were widely grown and just as widely used. Mustard was highly popular with meat dishes. Gardens held everything from sage and dill to mint and fennel.

Nobility favored imported spices for their food. They still used herbs as well, but it was far more prestigious to season a dish with black pepper or cinnamon. Other popular spices included sugar, cloves, saffron, and nutmeg. Some spices were common in medieval cookery but little-used these days — examples would include grains of paradise, cubeb, spikenard, and long pepper.

Contrary to the usual dung ages claim, spices were not used to hide the taste of rotting food. Anyone who could afford the cost of imported spices could afford decent food to use them on. There are also plenty of cases in medieval law of merchants being punished for breaking food quality laws. Their food might not have been as fresh as what we find in the stores these days, but people didn't eat rotten food unless there was a famine.

Salt was a special case. Salting was one of the few food preservation methods available (drying, smoking, and fermenting were also used), so even poorer people would need to get salt for the kitchen. That said, salt was available in many different grades. A peasant family might use salt with so many impurities that it was black or green. Nobles would fill their ornate salt cellars (dishes to serve salt at table) with finely ground white salt. To be seated "above the salt" meant you were seated near your host's family, and was an honor.

    Sugar and Confectionery 

The idea of cultivating sugar cane and extracting the juice is itself ancient (going back to at least 8000 BC), with refined, crystallised sugar being more recent, but still fairly old (with the earliest case being recorded in India in 350 AD).

While it was already widespread in the Islamic world by the middle ages, it took longer to reach Western Europe (cane being a tropical plant, could be grown in warm climates with proper irrigation methods, as it was in Spain). However, it was imported (at roughly the same expense as any other spice), and slowly replaced honey as the de facto sweetener. As time went on, it became more and more commonplace (albeit still horrendously expensive). Italy (and specifically Venice) had a near monopoly on sugar imports after establishing plantations on several islands.

Even in cases where it was available, sugar was used exclusively as a sweetener or sprinkled over something like any other spice. The use of sugar as an actual ingredient (such as in a sponge cake) wouldn't appear until the Renaissance. Similarly, most traditional sweets, as we know them now, were not invented until the Victorian era (when plantations in the Americas, unfortunately, made it far more widely available and in larger quantities).

That said, sweets were still available. Many desserts would be recognisable to modern pallets, such as; rice pudding, custard tarts, bread and butter pudding and cheesecake. Fruit was often candied or dried, as it is today, both to preserve it and as a sweet treat. Ginger, honey and almonds featured heavily as flavourings in medieval desserts.

Pastry doughs were fried to make fritters. Custards were another dessert staple (as eggs and milk were freely available). Fruit was a common choice; either cooked on its own (e.g. poached pears), used as a filling in a pie or tart or added to another dish as a sweetener. Breads were often sweetened with fruits such as currents and enriched with eggs and butter to make buns. "Cookies" (small cakes, rather than what would be called a cookie or biscuit today) were made using flour and butter, with raisins and other dried fruit as sweeteners. Ale was also used as a sweetener (not unlike the way cakes can be made using a good stout). Cakes, such as funnel cake, were made using honey, making them a luxury for special occasions only (such as Christmas, or to celebrate one's birthday, if you had the money)

Cheese (and other cultured dairy products, as mentioned above) was also a common dessert item. Indeed, one of the more unusual desserts was "Fritter of Milk", made by frying a sort of sweet cottage cheese.


Salting and drying were the most common means of preserving food. Animals were usually slaughtered in the autumn so that they could be preserved over the winter (since they would need a lot more food in the colder months, this was more practical). This was typically achieved by pickling the meat and vegetables in brine. Vinegar was also used in the same way. Salting meat and vegetables in crystalline salt was only done for much longer term storage. Most recipes took into account that meat would be salted, and began by soaking the preserved meat in fresh water (depending on the cook's preference, this could involve multiple changes of water). As a result, medieval recipes rarely involve adding salt as a seasoning.

Drying was normally used on grain and herbs (which were air dried and stored) and fruits (which could also be air dried, but were more often sun dried in the summer months). It was less commonly used for meat in Europe compared to salting because it would need a specially built storage house, and it would take far longer than in warmer climates (and have far more risk that the drying food would spoil than in colder climates).

Smoking was also commonly used to preserve fish (especially in coastal towns) and some types of meat. It would usually be soaked briefly in brine before being exposed to wood smoke by drying it over a fire, or storing it in a smoking house. Some types off wood were especially prized for the flavour they gave smoked foods.

As sugar became more common, the wealthy would have had access to preserves like jam and (if they really wanted to show off and obtain citrus fruits) marmalade. Food could also be stored in honey to preserve it, by those who had it.

As mentioned above, milk was almost always allowed to ferment into cheese before being consumed.

Lastly, of course, food could be fermented into hard drinks. This was especially common with apples (as mentioned above under drinks), but wines made of all sorts of fruits and berries were produced, as they could be fermented with wild yeast. Anyone with access to enough honey could also ferment it to produce mead. Beer was rarely used as a long term storage method, as it spoiled too quickly.

As with today, foods may also have been prepared using these methods because people enjoyed the flavour (as with smoking), or out of convenience (candying in particular was used for making sweets) instead of only to preserve them.

However it was preserved, it would be stored somewhere as cool and dry as possible, like an underground cellar (if you were wealthy), or a pantry or cupboard (if you were not).

Sometimes large houses and castles would have underground "ice rooms", where food could be allowed to freeze and stored during cold winters, but keeping such rooms below freezing was very time intensive, making it a difficult proposition even for someone rich enough to own such a building. Freezing as a common preservation technique in Northern Europe would have to wait until the invention of the refrigerator some centuries later.

Meals and Other Customs


Unavailable Food

    Unavailable Foods 

Some authors are just too used to modern grocery stores, with foodstuffs from multiple countries.


Coffee was unavailable to medieval Europeans. It originated in Ethiopia sometime during the first millennium but was not widely consumed outside the region until the early 1400s when the beverage became popular in Yemen and Arabia. From there, coffee-drinking spread throughout the Middle East and eventually reached Europe by the late 1500s.


Maize was not available, despite all those extant medieval tax records referring to so many bushels of "corn" — in the medieval period, that was a generic term for "whatever grains are grown locally". After Europeans settled in North America, they promptly dubbed the grain grown by the local tribes "Indian corn", and subsequent usage has abbreviated that term to "corn".

Potatoes and Yams

Potatoes and sweet potatoes are native to the Americas, yams are native to Africa and Asia. A fictional Mediterranean trader might be able to get his hands on a few yams, but the other two tubers will have to wait for trade with the Americas.


Tomatoes are native to South America. They may have been introduced to Europe as early as 1493 by Columbus, but the oldest recorded evidence of them being used in European cuisine is from 1544, in Italy. (So depending on where we draw the line between Middle Ages and Renaissance, further info about them may be off-topic.) Even then, since some tomato varieties were toxicnote , most Europeans wrote them all off as unfit for eating, and instead grew them as ornamental plants. Tomatoes didn't catch on as food until the late 17th and early 18th century (depending on the region).


Is there an American RenFaire that doesn't have at least one food vendor selling turkey legs? Sorry, the turkey is a New World native. The name is thanks to the bird taking a detour through the Middle East on its way to being introduced to England. The merchants who brought the birds were commonly called "Turkey merchants" because they came from areas controlled by the Ottoman Empire, and so the birds were dubbed "Turkey birds".


Other common modern foodstuffs not available in medieval Europe are kidney beans (along with several of their relatives), chili peppers, vanilla, and cacao/chocolate.

Feedback: 12 replies

Jun 12th 2018 at 5:07:35 AM

Any thoughts?

I was wondering if it would be worth separating it into "available" "possible available" and "not available" categories?

Jun 12th 2018 at 12:31:27 PM

You mean putting those categories underneath each food group heading in the space above Unavailable Foods?

Jun 13th 2018 at 8:18:41 AM

No, I mean having everything categorised by availability instead of by food type.

Jun 18th 2018 at 9:50:13 AM

I've added a section on sugar, and I think I've managed to compile all the info that was in the comments of the original.

Any thoughts on formatting?

Jun 19th 2018 at 4:04:58 PM

What does everyone think of the current formatting?

And it looks like we have a bomb; are there some issues that need addressing?

Jun 19th 2018 at 4:21:13 PM

I'm fond of the current formatting and am unaware of any issues.

Jun 19th 2018 at 7:45:56 PM

Edit this, with more research, don't just copy because it's based on my experiences.

In a Renn Faire they were explaining how much of the food was cooked either according to the humors and elemental theory. They mentioned how food that was already dry, they tried to moisten it (so salted meat would not then be broiled, it would be stewed). This was also a period of alot of pot pies (research more here:

Also, talk about food preservation (this may help: and how marketplaces developed to sell food to the public. Also maybe discuss inns and taverns. A Useful Notes should have the feel of not missing any major points, though not necessarily being exhaustive.

Jun 21st 2018 at 9:46:31 AM

I've alphabetised the paragraphs and added some new sections to work on later, including one on preservation, thanks, ~bulmabriefs144!

Sep 10th 2018 at 2:35:49 PM

Looks great, seems launchable to me. I don't know the policy for Useful Notes, but this seems like the sort of thing where you could comment out those new sections, launch it, and then Wiki Magic help fill in the blanks.

Minor typo (summery -> summary) in the first paragraph.

Sep 11th 2018 at 9:40:43 AM

Section on methods of preservation added.

^ Got the typo, thanks!

I'd rather add the sections, even if they end up being barebones (UN pages don't get many additions).