We often think of Medieval peasants as living utterly terrible lives – and for the most part, they did. From what we know if their diets, however, they probably didn’t eat as badly as we tend to think.
When peasants are shown in modern media, they’re often shown living off of a really meagre diet of bread and cheese, with the occasional bowl of thin gruel to wash it down. No doubt there were some who lived this way. But for the most part, Medieval English peasants were eating another staple – one that would actually have been quite healthy. It probably didn’t taste bad, either.
This food was pottage. (So called because it was cooked in a pot over the fire.)
Pottage was a staple peasant food because it was so simple – all you needed was water, vegetables, and some herbs – and in rural areas, there would have been at least one neighbour growing a small herb garden out back, if you didn’t have one yourself. (Urban lower-class food was an entirely different matter, I’ll cover that separately.) Pease pottage and cabbage pottage were both common, since those vegetables were grown in abundance, but any vegetable would have worked.
Pottage wasn’t just a dish for the peasantry, though – it was eaten all the way up the social ladder, including by the king himself: a few pottage recipes appear in The Forme of Cury, a 1300s cookbook written by the chefs of the royal household. They’re actually the first recipes included in the book:
- Ground beans,
- Drawn beans,
- Pork gruel,
- Cabbage pottage,
- Turnip pottage.
So, for the curious amongst you, here are the recipes, roughly translated (I know I’ll be giving these a go at some point.)
Dry some beans in an oven or kiln, remove their hulls, wash them and boil them in a ‘good broth.’ (Use an OXO cube.) Eat them with bacon.
Boil some beans, grind them up in a mortar and mix with a ‘good broth,’ then add roughly minced onions. Colour with saffron.
Very simple recipe – set the gruel on the fire, grind some pork in a mortar, strain the gruel and serve together. (Forced in this context means enriched – with meat.)
Caboches in Potage
Quarter some cabbages and boil them in ‘good broth,’ with minced onions and the whites of leeks cut small. Add saffron and salt, and enrich with powder douce. Powder douce was a common sweet spice combination in Medieval times, and likely contained varying amounts of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and sugar – depending on the cook, time period and region. (As you might be able to tell, this was a very fancy pottage – most peasants couldn’t hope for something this good.)
Rapes in Potage
Wash, dice into squares and parboil some turnips. Boil them in a ‘good broth,’ add minced onions, saffron and powder douce.
There you have it! Good luck, if you do decide to make any of these. The finished product some be something like a very thick stew.