Come one and come all to the working life of the Medieval English peasant. A glamorous life? Well, working all day for your landlord, or simply lord, doesn’t seem that appetizing per se. However, when you look at the diets of these low-class workers, we can appreciate the resilience of a people to do the best they could with the resources available to them.
Surprisingly if we looked at the sheer caloric intake of the Medieval English peasant, we’d gawk; straight up gawk. Their consumption would range at a minimum at at least 3000 plus kcals. It goes to show how sedentary we have become but straight out of the rabbits hole, that number is for the peasant-folk. In a feudal system, the peasant folk, those that could barely scrimp, had to consume such caloric intake to serve as the underpinnings of the feudal machine.
Liquid calories in the form of ale
Take Medieval England for instance. If we examine the main diets of the time, ale will be considered a staple of the medieval peasant. This concoction of grain, water and fermented via yeast, ale was used in England for its nutritional value, hydration, and of course, inebriation. Surprised by the use of nutrition?
The primary use of nutrition would be in caloric content and therefore as a source of energy. Modern researchers have come up with the numbers that alcohol in general contains about 7 grams of energy per gram of substance, therefore making alcohol and thus ale, a greater source of energy per gram than both proteins and carbohydrates.
Its no wonder that ale was a staple of the peasant’s diet in England. Long work days means time is of the essence. Drinking your energy is more convenient than chewing and eating it. That’s where we obtain figures such as 3 pints of ale on an average day by an average peasant. Almost 500 calories of energy simply through liquids.
Pottage: The Stew of Medieval England
Another staple dish of the medieval peasant was pottage. Pottage was a very hearty source of nutrients and energy. The name in fact, derives from the french meaning, ‘inside a pot’. This thick stew was unique in its use in Medieval England for its popularity. In fact, English physician and traveler, Andrew Boorde wrote in his book, Dyetary of 1542, that “Pottage is not so much used in all of Christendom than it is used in England.” Moreover, the dish would include select herbs to enhance flavour. Parsley was known to be a favourite by English pottage-makers for it being a ‘good pottager.’
Part of what seems might be a factor in the prominence of this dish in the busy lifestyles of the English peasant would include how economic the food would be. Protein from non-meat sources as well as fibrous vegetables would make this meal the most bang-for-your-buck type of dish. With the economic restrains placed on the medieval English peasant, pottage would have posed one of the best compromises with good nutrition and economic power for the lowest rankers in England’s social hierarchy.
Lifestyle of the English Medieval peasant
Medieval historian, Jean Froissart describes the life of the English peasant as:
It is the custom in England, as with other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the common people, who are serfs. This means that they are bound by law and custom to plough the field of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain; they must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind. Written in 1395
Not only would the peasant be called to work on the lands of his lord but was dutifully bound to also work on the Church’s lands. No compromise could be reached, as to go against the church cited a public admittance to sinning. Working double time was not enough. A peasants resources were incredibly restricted. Taxes, as tabulated by the King’s “Doomsday” book would cut deep into the peasant’s earnings, leaving little for sustenance. For that reason, peasants could not regularly afford the luxury of eating meat daily and many of the alternatives like cheese were counted upon for some semblance of balance in diet.
However, in describing English peasants in particular, the diet of the medieval peasant has been observed as inadequate to say the least. Substandard living and chronic disease would leave those on even such modest caloric intakes prone to malnutrition. Iron deficiencies, and other causes of early mortality are a testament to the poor nutrition that these peasants received as a result of heavy demands by their upperclassmen.
Ultimately though we can learn from their nutritional resilience to adapting to their environment to some degree in order to survive through the challenges of Medieval life. Pottage, bread, and ale, were the life blood of the Medieval peasant for the majority of the Middle Ages. It is through this nutrition that these peasants managed to deal with the workloads that were demanded of them.
Harvey, John H. “Vegetables in the Middle Ages.” Garden History 12.2 (1984): 89. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.
Kerthjalfadsson, Tofi. “Recreating Medieval English Ales.” Recreating Medieval English Ales. Carnegie Melon University, Dec. 1998. Web. 13 June 2015.
Froissart, Jean, and J. E. A. Jolliffe. Froissart’s Chronicles. London: Harvill P., 1967. Print.
Kathy L. Pearson (1997). Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet. Speculum, 72, pp 1-32. doi:10.2307/2865862.
Trueman. “The Lifestyle of Medieval Peasants – History Learning Site.”History Learning Site. The History Learning Site, n.d. Web. 13 June 2015.