“Cooking and Dining in Medieval England” by Peter Brears

Peter Brears writes in the Introduction of his book that his approach:

“…should bring a completely new appreciation of the practical and human factors which late-medieval society sought to control through record-keeping and building design. Just as important, it should provide readers with a detailed introduction to late-medieval household life, enabling them to make more of their visits to historic sites, to make their medieval events and re-enactments more interesting and accurate, and to try authentic medieval dishes in their own kitchens and dining rooms. This is not mere flimsy argument, but a potent way in which people can gain a real knowledge of England’s social and culinary heritage. Despite its bad press in the late twentieth century, England has one of the world’s longest, finest and best-documented cuisines, one well worth further study and appreciation.”

It is easy to see how “Cooking and Dining in Medieval England” won the Andre Simon Food Book of the Year Award in its year of hardback publication by Prospect Books, 2009. Tom Jaine, the owner of Prospect, has now reissued it in paperback format. It is a work of consummate scholarship and insight, delving into every corner of the sourcing, preparation, eating and serving of food in that long and remote period of history that spans from the 5th to the 15th Centuries, the Middle Ages.

Brears is not only an accomplished author, but also an illustrator and a museum advisor to English Heritage and the National Trust. He created the book’s many black and white line drawings, of such painstaking, architectural and still life detail that they bring to life every facet of the buildings, kitchens, people, ingredients and ceremonies of the era. Cottages, farmhouses, manor houses and castles up and down the land have been researched to analyse the tools, equipment and techniques of medieval cookery. This book is an ambitious food and social-history encyclopaedia of how people lived and ate during a period of history known mainly for its political turmoil, social change, burgeoning nationalism and the black death.

When it comes to how people cooked and ate in that époque, prejudices are dispelled.

“Popular historical films from the 1930s to the present day show the Middle Ages at table in terms of dirt, squalor, belching and throwing food around. In fact most medieval households were kept exceptionally clean. A medieval peasant would have been shocked by the manners on display toady in fast-food restaurants.”

This book begins in the counting house, where the household coffers were counted and money allocated for wages and goods by the Lord Steward, the Treasurer and the clerks. Although taking reference benchmarks from prestigious buildings of the era, Brears also considers the kitchens of the peasant and farming class. From the wood and coal yards, to water supplies, the dairy, the brewhouse and the bakehouse, we begin to understand how very complex and labour intensive life was in the medieval era. Carrying timber or hauling coal for fires, drawing water for cleaning and cooking, churning milk to make butter and cheese, brewing hops to make beer and baking bread, the Medieval household was a hive of constant activity during the daylight hours.

A large number of recipes has been transcribed, edited and published from the period, and some do not seem very much removed from what we would make today in our own kitchens {tarts, pies, breads, soups and stews included}.

One of the most interesting sections deals with pottage, that most staple of the meals of the middle ages. Pottages were made from vegetables, meat, fish, cereals, nuts and flowers.

“It has often been said that the past is a foreign country, and this concept is particularly relevant to pottages – they are amazingly different to virtually all the dishes with which we are familiar today.”

Upon reaching Chapter 22, after examining everything from the architecture and construction of kitchens, the buttery and the pantry, confectionery and wafery and the planning of meals, you come to the heart of the matter: table manners.

“Manners were one of the most important indicators of status and education in medieval England, and so were carefully formulated, taught and observed across most levels of society.”

From basic food handling to place settings, food passing etiquette and table talk, it is fascinating to see the layers of hierarchy and social delineation between the “upper and lower crust”. Dining in the Lord’s chamber indicated a degree of separation between the ranks of the nobility and the rest of the household, and Brears has produced 39 detailed vignettes to show how the tablecloth was laid, where cups, trenchers, salt and spoons were placed, how capons, hens, peacocks, geese, rabbits, venison, fish, pies and puddings were served and how the whole elaborate ceremony and its accessories were then unravelled and put away at the end.

In the “Great Feasts” chapter, there are 70 line drawings, depicting the pomp and circumstance of dining with kings, prelates, nobles and lords.

“For these days of high festivity the usually bare walls of the hall would be hung with rich textiles and tapestries, transforming the interior from a basic staff canteen into a massive state apartment.”

This is a great and gripping narrative, you will not be able to put this book down because the characters and methodologies within its pages will leave you wanting more. Peter Brears has created an invaluable study of great merit, yet another treasure in the Prospect Book chest.

Further Information

Prospect Books: www.prospectbooks.co.uk

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