A Common Diet

“English peasants in Medieval times lived on a combination of meat stews, leafy vegetables and dairy products which scientists say was healthier than modern diets.”
~ Frédéric Leroy

There is an idea that, in the past, the poor were fed on bread while the rich monopolized meat. Whether or not this was true of some societies, it certainly wasn’t true of many. For example, in ancient Egypt, all levels of society seemed to have had the same basic high-carb diet with lots of bread. It consisted of the types and amounts of foods that are recommended in the USDA Food Pyramid. And their health suffered for it. As with people eating the same basic diet today, they had high rates of the diseases of civilization, specifically metabolic syndrome: obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Also, they had serious tooth decay, something not seen with low-carb hunter-gatherers.

The main difference for ancient Egyptians was maybe the quality of bread. The same thing was true in Medieval Europe. Refined flour was limited to the wealthy. White breads didn’t become commonly available to most Westerners until the 1800s, about the same time that surplus grain harvests allowed for a high-carb diet and for the practice of fattening up cows with grains. Unsurprisingly, grain-fed humans also started become fat during this time with the earliest commentary on obesity coming from numerous writers of the era: Jane Austen, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, William Banting, etc.

In the Middle Ages, there were some other class differences in eating patterns. The basic difference is that the feudal serfs ate more salmon and aristocracy more chicken. It is not what a modern person would expect considering salmon is far more healthy, but the logic is that chickens were a rare commodity in that the poor wouldn’t want to regularly eat what produces the eggs they were dependent upon. Besides the bread issue, the Medieval aristocracy were also eating more sugary deserts. Back then, only the rich had access to or could afford sugar. Even fruit would have been rare for peasants.

Feudalism, especially early feudalism, was actually rather healthy for peasants. It’s not that anyone’s diet was exactly low-carb, at least not intentionally, although that would have been more true in the centuries of the early Middle Ages when populations returned to a more rural lifestyle of hunting, trapping and gathering, a time when any peasant had access to what was called the ‘commons’. But that did change over time as laws became more restrictive about land use. Still, in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, health and longevity drastically improved for most of the population.

The living conditions for the poor only got worse again as society moved toward modernity with the increase of large-scale agriculture and more processed foods. But even into the late Middle Ages, the diet remained relatively healthy since feudal laws protected the rights of commoners in raising their own food and grazing animals. Subsistence farming combined with some wild foods was not a bad way to feed a population, as long as there was enough land to go around.

A similar diet was maintained among most Americans until the 20th century when urbanization became the norm. As late as the Great Depression, much of the population was able to return to a rural lifestyle or otherwise had access to rural areas, as it was feasible with the then much smaller numbers. Joe Bageant describes his childhood in a West Virginia farming community from 1940s-to-1950s as still having been mostly subsistence farming with a barter economy. We’ve only seen the worst health outcomes among the poor since mass urbanization, which for African Americans only happened around the 1960s or 1970s when the majority finally became urbanized, centuries after it happened in Europe. The healthier diet of non-industrialized rural areas was a great equalizer for most of human existence.

The main thing I thought interesting was that diets didn’t always differ much between populations in the same society. The commonalities of a diet in any given era were greater than the differences. We now think of bread and refined flour as being cheap food, but at an earlier time such food would have been far more expensive and generally less available across all of society. As agriculture expanded, natural sources of food such as wild game became scarce and everyone became increasingly dependent on grains, along with legumes and tubers. This was a dramatic change with detrimental outcomes and it contributed to other larger changes going on in society.

The divergences of diets by class seems to primarily be a modern shift, including the access the upper classes now have to a diversity of fruits and vegetables, even out of season and grown in distant places. Perception of grains as poor people food and cattle feed only become a typical view starting in the 1800s, something discussed by Bryan Kozlowski in The Jane Austen Diet. As with the Roman Empire, the poorest of the poor lost access to healthy foods during the enclosure movement and extending into industrialization. It was only then that the modern high-carb diet became prevalent. It was also the first time that inequality had risen to such an extreme level, which forced a wedge into the once commonly held diet.

The early Middle Age communities (more akin to ancient city-states) established a more similar lifestyle between the rich and poor, as they literally lived close together, worshiped together, celebrated Carnival together, even ate together. A lord or knight would have maintained a retinue of advisers, assistants and servants plus a large number of dependents and workers who ate collective meals in the main house or castle. Later on, knights were no longer needed to defend communities and aristocracy became courtesans spending most of their time in the distant royal court. Then the enclosure movement created the landless peasants that would become the working poor. As class divides grew, diets diverged accordingly. We are so entrenched in a high inequality society, we have forgotten that this is severely abnormal compared to most societies throughout history. The result of greater inequality of wealth and power has been a worsening inequality of nutrition and health.

* * *

Reconciling organic residue analysis, faunal, archaeobotanical and historical records: Diet and the medieval peasant at West Cotton, Raunds, Northamptonshire
by J. Dunne, A. Chapman, P. Blinkhorn, R. P. Evershed

  • Medieval peasant diet comprises meat and cabbage stews cooked on open hearths.
  • Dairy products, butter and cheese, known as ‘white meats of the poor’ also eaten.

The medieval peasant diet that was ‘much healthier’ than today’s average eating habits: Staples of meat, leafy vegetables and cheese are found in residue inside 500-year-old pottery
by Joe Pinkstone

They found the surprisingly well-rounded diet of the peasants would have kept them well-fed and adequately nourished.

Dr Julie Dunne at the University of Bristol told MailOnline: ‘The medieval peasant had a healthy diet and wasn’t lacking in anything major!

‘It is certainly much healthier than the diet of processed foods many of us eat today.

‘The meat stews (beef and mutton) with leafy vegetables (cabbage, leek) would have provided protein and fibre and important vitamins and the dairy products (butter and ‘green’ cheeses) would also have provided protein and other important nutrients.

‘These dairy products were sometimes referred to as the “white meats” of the poor, and known to have been one of the mainstays of the medieval peasants diet. […]

Historical documents state that medieval peasants ate meat, fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables.

But the researchers say that before their study there was little direct evidence to support this.

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