French Food Before Taillevent
To the degree that a popular image of French medieval food exists, it is above all of food made with a rich variety of spices. The slightly more knowledgeable may envision this cuisine as using large game birds (notably the peacock), being served in pasties (pastry shells) or on trenchers and made with some specialized ingredients such as verjuice. But not only are these elements those of highly aristocratic food, they are those of such food fairly late in the medieval period. They are not in the least representative of how most people – including most aristocrats – ate for most of the medieval period (that is, from the fifth to the fifteenth century).
How has this distortion come about?
Consider the start of the relevant entry (by Barbara Santlich) in Alan Davidson's The Penguin Companion to Food:
Medieval cuisine, a food which usually refers to western, or Christian, Europe and to the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. There is good reason for this; almost all we know of medieval cuisine has been derived from western sources, and the oldest surviving culinary manuscript from Christian Europe... was most likely composed in the first half of the 13th century.
In fact, in regard to France, for a very long time most knowledge of medieval food reflected two 14th century sources: Taillevent's Viandier and the anonymous Menagier de Paris. A glance at other major survey works on French food will show that most either go directly to the 14th century or skip very quickly over what came before. The venerable Larousse Gastronomique, in its article on “Cooking”, begins its look at medieval food with a glance at the Merovingians, then lingers on the architectural aspects of medieval cooking before skipping directly to... “French cooking in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries”. That section begins: “It is in Le Viandier, the work of Taillevent, that we find all the information on the culinary practices and table habits of these times”. Though this was already not the case when the Larousse first appeared, it neatly reflects the general sense among food historians that, well, there just is no information beyond certain major sources.
At the very least, this approach makes short shrift of almost a millennium of French history. By Taillevent's time, France had been ruled by two major dynasties and was some centuries into its third. Before the French monarchy began, the Gauls and the Gallo-Romans had been creating what would become France for over another millennium. But further, the fact that information on the food of these times is not as neatly presented as in Taillevent's work certainly does not mean there is no information to be found. Already in the nineteenth century writers on food and local history had unearthed a wealth of information, albeit widely scattered. Since then archaeologists and other scientists have expanded the available data.
Nor have food historians completely ignored these periods. In recent decades, a number of scholars (most European) have looked more closely at these “lost” centuries. Still, it remains true that, to many people, serious food historians among them, “medieval food” means late medieval upper class food.
The tables which follow offer data that will hopefully counteract any idea that there is little substantial to be found on French food before Taillevent. This data is taken from on-going research and is not in any way meant to be comprehensive or complete. While some of it reflects major developments in the relevant period, some of it is chosen arbitrarily from sets of similar facts and does not necessarily imply any larger theme. The point at this stage is not to develop a continuous and coherent narrative but to provide a largely impressionistic mosaic that will leave the reader with a richer, more nuanced view of food and related developments in each of these periods in French history. Still, some broad lines are apparent even in this loosely presented data.
First of all, what was “typical” medieval food?
A glance at the sample meals and ingredients here should make it clear that the most typical medieval food – and across all but the poorest classes – was pork (usually salted), served with broad beans or peas (mature, and so white, peas). Typically this was flavored with pork fat, vinegar or mustard, and additional salt and even pepper for those who could either afford it or (like monks) received these as rations. Contrast this with the highly spiced brewets and large game birds described in the Viandier. Even the most common food of Taillevent's own era (which is also addressed here) more closely resembles the former than the latter.
Archeology has also shown that the medieval French ate more beef than is reflected in the written record and so that might have been substituted for pork in many cases. Since France was a Catholic country, on meatless days the meat would have been replaced by fish, most often herring, though eel and mackerel were also common. Salads and root vegetables may have been included (they were virtually obligatory for many monks), but since they could be picked from kitchen gardens, they tend to appear less in records such as accounts.
Even this however reflects food in the latter half of the medieval period. For a very long time – possibly past Charlemagne's era – the more refined cuisine remained essentially Roman, even if a breakdown in infrastructure and the decline of Rome itself meant that this bore only a fitful resemblance to what had once been served under the Roman Empire. And so “medieval food” must be viewed as existing, essentially, in two separate phases, with a still uncertain break point where Roman influence virtually disappeared and a native upper class idea of dining developed. Certainly, much of the latter was influenced by the Crusades, which not only reinvigorated the spice trade but brought other concepts from Arab cuisine to the West. But it appears that the Roman influence had disappeared before that, so that things like pastry, for instance, were already being reinvented in a French context starting around the time of Charlemagne.
These centuries are also of interest for the developments which lasted beyond them. Several aspects of Old Regime France first appeared over this period:
A number of developments from this period lasted into modern times:
Other developments can be traced within the period. Bread wheat became dominant over the emmer, barley, panic and millet of earlier times and was joined by rye, once unknown in France. The flan began as a flat cake and evolved part way towards the cream-filled pastry shell it still is in some places. The preferred spices changed: the Gauls loved cumin and wild anise; the Romans used a wide range including some (nard, costus, silphium) little used today, but not including cinnamon and only including clove towards the start of the Frankish period; later pepper dominated for a long time, until the spices of Taillevent (cinnamon, ginger, long pepper, etc.) became increasingly popular after the Crusades.
These are only some points which make this under-documented period in French food worthy of study. Incomplete as this research is at this point, readers of what follows may discover others of their own.
France today is arguably more of a “united states” than America. Many regions of France were once independent or parts of other political entities and still retain distinct characters. A Breton and a Basque, for instance, differ far more than a New Yorker and a Californian.
During the period covered here, the French kings ruled over an area that ranged from little beyond the Parisian region to (in Charlemagne's case) most of Europe. The scope here is generally that of modern France, whatever political entity these areas belonged to over time. In a few cases, places close to modern French borders are referenced on the principle that boundaries were then fluid and what was eaten right by that area (such as Alsace) was probably eaten in, at the least, the outer reaches of the now French area. Also, post-Conquest England was ruled by a French (Normand) monarchy which retained its language and distinct character for some time, making Anglo-Normand data useful here as well.
General French history
Since some readers of this site will have minimal knowledge of French history, a brief description of each period is provided. These are of course summaries and anyone with a serious interest in a particular period would do well to read more extensive sources.
This site is meant to inspire interest in its subject and to promote dialogue around it; it has no pretense of being a scholarly resource. At this point the effort which would be required to compile a comprehensive bibliography - never mind footnoting every item - seems better used in furthering the initial research. In a general way, however, the information here is primarily drawn from the following: