Food in the Middle Ages: 15th century

The Decameron, Flanders, 1432

In the 15th century people lived by the saying “you are what you eat”, what you ate determined how you felt. The ancient idea about the four fluids in the body was still going strong. Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile had to be in balance for your health to be good. To do this, you had to think about your diet. Just as the fluids were four, so were the types of people. The ones who were dominated by blood (sanguine) had a good temper and were optimistic. Those with too much phlegm (phlegmatic) were inclined to sloth. Too much yellow bile made you ill tempered (choler) and those with too much black bile were gloomy and prone to depression (melancholy). But eating the right food, cooked the correct way, would manage all this and keep you well balanced. A person with too much yellow bile was considered hot and dry, had to balance this with food that was cold and moist, like cucumber or fish. Sloth was cold and moist, and treated with hot spices. The sanguine were considered hot and moist and had to stay away from red meats. Fruits were seen as cold and moist and was prescribed people with hot tempers or those living in hot weater!

From German cookbook, Kuchenmaistrey, 1485

Authors seem to see the 15th century as a changing point when it comes to food. It’s still very much typically medieval with oungent spices, tart with vinegar and verjuice and always cooked in at least two stages, like first roasted and then simmered in broth to create layers of flavour that could be quite complex. The spices were at the beginning still a sign of an affluent and sophisticated table, but later on, a new style of cooking appears. A more simple and lighter cooking emerges from Italy and spread it’s way over the continent in the next century. Simple ingredients available to a bigger group of people than the elite became more prominent. But cooking also started to have more national features, but in terms of ingredients and the way they were used. For instance, a cookbook from the German area had a big proportion of baked pastries that wasn’t found in other areas.

Unknown painter

Show pieces and dishes were quite common in the medieval high society and there’s a banquet in 1453, hosted by duke Philip of Burgundy in the town of Lille, there was a pate containing 28 musicians. In some countries, the government tried to ban show pieces like that. Another tradition in royal circles was to break drinking glasses during parties. At a Danish party at Kronobergs castle, they could smash up to a couple of thousand vessels during one single party.

An Italian banquet in 1473 took six hours and was hosted by Cardinal Riario. It contained 40 dishes such as roast peacocks, herons, stags and even a grown bear! Not everything was served because it tasted good. For instance, the served bread was gilded to show the wealth of the host. A feast was a great way to show your wealth and power. Even the way you seated people showed the difference in power.
Around the same time, the first printed cookbook reached the market in Italy. De honesta voluptate et valetudine (On honest indulgence and good health) written by Bartolomeo Platina in Rome. His target group, according to himself, were those who wanted good health and a clean life. It contains recipes on fruit, vegetables, freshwater fish, pies, porridges, ravioli, broths, soups, egg dishes, roasts and more! The upper-class dish blancmange, common to most of Europe during the Middle Age, gets a space in the book. Peeled almonds and breast of a capon (a fatty rooster), pounded to a pulp and then cooked in spices and sugar. The goal was to get the tone as light as possible, the whiteness was important. It could be poured over meat or flavoured with spices like saffron or cinnamon and the capon could be varied for various types of fowl.

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Janvier, painted by the Limbourg Brothers, 15th century

The late middle ages had a huge enthusiams for sugar. Platina made the point that no dish wouldn’t be improved with sugar. Previously sugar was used like a universal seasoning like salt, but at this point in Italy, it was used purposely to make sweet dishes. And the rest of Europe soon followed. Even the early forms of pasta that got created around this time, maccheroni and vermicelli, didn’t escape the sweet. They could be cooked in broth, milk or almond wilk and served with cheese, spices and sugar.

/Herrin Gele Pechplumin
(Magdalena Morén)

(The information is from following sources:
Anne Willan (2012), The cookbook library
Pia Gadd (2001), Mat i myt och historia
John Dickie (2008), Delizia! The epic history of the Italians and their food)

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Filed under 15th century, Food

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