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  • Writer's picture Gary Bills


1. Only the wealthy could afford to hold a proper medieval banquet, because so many courses were prepared and ingredients were often expensive. Six courses or even more were not unusual, but food portions were not large, so that guests wouldn't fill themselves up too quickly.

2. Unusual dishes were often the order of the day. A guest might be offered a lamprey or rarer fish, such as sturgeon. Roast swan might be served and even heron, cormorants, puffin and storks. Pork was very popular and a medieval favourite was a boar's head, which might be stuffed with other meats, such as goose, pigeon or venison.

3. Pastry pies were popular at banquets and these would have been filled with various kinds of meat, from venison to pigeon, as well as hard-boiled eggs.

4. Sweet dishes, such and jellies and sugarplums, were again mainly the preserve of the wealthy, including dukes, kings and princes. Sugar was rare and expensive in the medieval period. According to the historian Paul Lacroix, before the Americas were discovered, sugar came from certain Greek islands, such as Candia. This island gave its name to the modern word, "candy".

5. Spices were popular for expensive foods in the Middle Ages, especially after the Crusades when many Europeans in the Holy Lands had encountered delicious spices for the first time. Some spices were worth their weight in gold, or even more. Popular spices during the latter part of the Middle Ages included pepper, saffron and cinnamon.

6. Fresh sea fish for banquets were sometimes hard to come by. Roads were often poor and bringing in fish from sea ports was not always possible. Fish farming, using stew ponds, became popular from about the thirteenth century to provide a regular supply of freshwater fish including carp, bream, eels, tench and pike. A number of fish ponds were attached to monasteries because monks were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays, because of religious vows. Freshwater fish, and salted fish, would have been served at most medieval banquets.

7. Large cooked birds such as swans and peacocks were often brought to the table with their feathers attached - or re-attached, to give the impression that the bird was still alive. These were set down on raised platforms in the centre of the table, and so they were called "raised dishes".

8. Wine was already a popular drink for medieval banquets, especially in France where there were many fine vineyards. Then as now, grapes were pressed to make wine. But medieval people also made wine from other fruits such as cherries, raspberries and even pomegranates. Mead was also a popular drink, as it was for the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings many centuries before, during the so-called Dark Ages. Mead is made from honey and is sweet.

9. Entertainers such as musicians, jugglers and storytellers would have performed for the guests at medieval banquets. Dancing would also have been popular. A minstrel may have played a harp or another instrument such as a fiddle or a lute.

10. Medieval people used knives at the table, but no forks. Forks had not been invented yet. They had spoons for stews and soups. They had cups and bowls. Often medieval people ate with their fingers. Plates were called trenchers are these might have been made from wood or metal or even stale bread. Bread trenchers would be eaten after they had been used as plates or they might have been given to the poor, as an act of kindness.

Gary Bills is a graduate of Durham University, where he studied English Language, Medieval Literature and Medieval History.

Eve of St Agnes.

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