One of the most common elements of the medieval diet was meat and generally it came from cattle, sheep and pigs with game and poultry making up the remainder. So essentially, what we are saying is that domesticated animals were the primary source. It is important to understand this and the reason why – ie. animals that people could keep easily themselves as opposed to having to hunt. In terms of cattle and sheep, they could not feed themselves in winter so to avoid the cost of providing fodder, it was the accepted rule that they were slaughtered at that time of year and joints were salted or smoked to preserve them. Pigs could forage for themselves and were capable of fending off attacks from predators, so they became the favoured animal kept by poorer medieval people. Interestingly, cows, sheep and pigs were smaller than today, so they offered less meat for consumption.
Types of Medieval Meats
Red meats – this was the most commonly eaten meat with beef at the top of the list followed by mutton and pork. Fresh meat was usually roasted and older meat boiled. Pickled pork or bacon was generally the staple of poor people through the winter. The word mutton was derived from the French ‘mouton’ after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Goats were kept as much for their milk as for their meat. Beef and red wine stew was a popular dish at castle banquets.
Game – with the Norman conquest came the practice that all game animals belonged to the nobles of the day. Poaching was regarded as an offence – serious enough to sometimes warrant execution if the poacher was caught. Nobles would often hunt wild boar, deer and sometimes wild bull. Roasted cuts of venison and wild boar were deemed fare fit for any nobleman. The only game that poorer were able to hunt for themselves included hares and rabbits.
Poultry – hens, pheasants, partridges, ducks and geese were the most common small birds and game birds eaten in medieval England. Wealthy landowners would enjoy hunting wildfowl using falcons and they often had their own dovecote and poultry yard to breed their own birds. For special celebrations they would serve much more ‘exotic’ birds such as the bustard, swan and peacock and at a lavish feast the range was sometimes even more unusual – including crane, curlew, heron, plover, blackbird and lapwing.
The traditional English nursery rhyme ‘Sing A Song Of Sixpence’ takes its origins from just such lavish banquets. It refers, it is believed, to a pie that was baked beforehand, allowed to cool, then had live blackbirds placed inside and was resealed so that on opening the birds all flew out – much to the amazement of the banquet guests!
Poorer people generally kept hens; they were easy to look after and feed. They kept them mainly for their eggs. Eggs were deemed precious, so they generally refrained from eating their own chickens, preferring to catch wild birds instead for their meat. You can read more on this page about meat recipes and take a step inside the medieval mind and how it viewed cooking.