French Food Before Taillevent
Comparing early and late medieval food
It should come as no surprise that the food from eras centuries apart varied in a number of significant ways. This table is an informal comparison between early and late medieval food in regard to key points. It is not meant to be either definitive nor comprehensive, and certainly not scholarly (based though it is on extensive research).
Roman, at least in theory; probably much declined by
Charlemagne's time, when garum (a Roman condiment) was still being
used. The more elegant Roman cuisine required both trained cooks
and many imported ingredients, both of which would have been in
increasingly short supply as the influence of the Empire faded.
Native French, but with a strong Mideastern influence. Virtually no
sign of Roman influence remained.
Today, the most widely
known medieval food IS late medieval upscale food.
The main meats known today – pork, beef, lamb –
were already standard, and were eaten boiled or roasted with a
narrow range of flavorings (see below) together with legumes
(typically field peas or broad beans) and bread.
Wine or beer to drink.
Boiled beef served with mustard.
Beef, pork, lamb, eggs, pasties, with some spices (probably in
a mix, rather than used individually).
Fruit, cheese, and/or spicecakes later.
Wine or beer to drink. Verjuice may sometimes have been used as
a drink as well.
Country workers: wheat bread, gruel, pork, beans, dairy
(including butter and cheese) and sometimes herring; verjuice (to
drink?) and goodale (a weak beer), more rarely wine.
legumes (typically broad beans and white peas), dairy, greens.
Barley/rye bread with simple fruits and greens or legumes such
as broad beans, leeks, garlic, etc.
Water, beer or wine to drink.
A slightly better meal would have included cheese or thick
Soups must have been eaten, since so much food was boiled, but
specific mentions of them are very rare. Anthimus does not discuss
them at all (though he frequently recommends boiling as the preferred method for cooking). When Gregory of Tours tells of being offered a soup (of fowl and chick peas) it is clear that this was a common dish.
But the rare mentions of multicourse meals do not mention them at
Soup was one of the fundamental foods of the period and became
the standard opener to a meal.
Well-off Romans followed a loose but set sequence in serving
meals. Gallo-Romans under the Franks seem to have preserved some
echo of this, eating vegetables for instance as the first course.
Otherwise, a sense of different services survived (Charlemagne ate
four, as well as a roast), but probably differed greatly from what
came later and may not have followed any set order.
The sequence of courses was still in flux at this time, even if
hints of the later standard order – starting with soup –
are seen in menus for some large events (like weddings). Many
surviving menus, however, show no discernible order.
Some believe that the idea of a set order came from the East,
having originated in Arab Spain with Ziryab.
Boiling and roasting were by far the most common methods. By
the Carolingian period, boiling may have been done in somewhat
more closed containers, resulting in something like an étoufée.
When ingredients were used they were simply put in to the water
or on the food, not prepared separately before being added (except
possibly in surviving Roman food).
The Romans had used grills for meat and also sometimes steamed
food; these methods survived for a time in upscale cooking, but
Boiling and roasting remained common. Frying or simmering in a
frying pan are also frequently mentioned. Food was sometimes
browned or parboiled before being cooked further.
Cooking became complex, involving several steps and often
separate preparation of a sauce before adding it to the cooking dish.
Grills seem to have been used mainly for fish or to toast
bread. Steaming as a cooking method would not appear in France
again until the late eighteenth century.
No thickeners are mentioned for soups or sauces, though adding
legumes (like Gregory's chick peas) might have sometimes had a
Strained toast or egg yolks, or pea puree, were often added to
sauces to thicken them.
Kitchens and hearths
Kitchens were relatively rare and typically associated with
large households or institutions. Most cooking was done on a
hearth, itself little more than a fire, whether set inside, with a
ring of bricks or stones around it, or outside, where it might
simply be set on the ground (leaving traces of heat for future
archeologists) or, more often, in a shallow depression covered
with clay or chalk. Some cooking was also done directly on the
coals discarded, still hot, in an ashpit.
A distinctive type of kitchen existed in Roman areas as far
apart as England and Germany and centered around a rectangular
construction holding a grill on top, with a workspace by it, and
an arched space at the base for holding wood. Sometimes the same
room held a small (mound-shaped) oven. Such kitchens may have
survived in the Gallo-Roman areas. They lacked ventilation and so
were probably very smoky.
Otherwise, kitchens were often
little more than separate spaces (even separate buildings) with a
hearth and work and storage space.
Simple hearths remained common, but kitchens in large
households had become very complex, especially after the
appearance of the fireplace, a sophisticated structure which not only
facilitated evacuating smoke, but reflected back heat and offered
numerous holders to facilitate cooking. A very large kitchen had
several of these, each dedicated to cooking different sorts of
foods, and a varied and highly specialized staff.
Kitchens were sometimes built directly over water sources and
with facilities for disposing directly of waste.
Roman bakers made a wide variety of breads and some of
these would have been made as long as Gallo-Roman culture endured
independently. For a long time, however, municipal bakers, if they existed at all, were too rare to be mentioned and the profession was essentially attached to a
household. Much bread too was baked at home and often cooked under
Medieval bread in general was simple, probably often round (when baked
in an oven) or flat (when baked under the coals). Some variants
(such as something like a short baguette) are seen in
Charlemagne's time. Shape aside, the finest bread was made of
wheat, others often of barley, rye or a mixture of grains.
In 794, Charlemagne (exceptionally) regulated the price of
bread. Overall, however, enforcing this would have been hard in a
time of uneven infrastructure and spotty urbanism.
The standard leavening was sourdough (the most common Roman
method), though some Gauls had used yeast before the Romans. One
advantage of the sourdough method is that bread leavened this way
lasts longer than yeast-leavened bread, and so breads could be
given as rents, for instance.
The round “boule” is the shape most often
seen in images (which mainly appear around this time). But
starting about the twelfth century, a wide variety of breads (morning bread, servants' bread, etc.) is
named in records and some probably had other shapes. One long (and
probably wide) bread existed in Alsace.
Bread or dough was
also used functionally, notably as a plate that facilitated
slicing (tranchoir, or trencher) and as a kind of bowl
(pastie, or pasty). Though these are considered
characteristic elements of medieval cuisine, they seem to have
appeared late in the period. Trenchers were only used for a few centuries overall.
Puff pastry (“leafed pastry” in French) is
mentioned for the first time in this period. (It would remain
exceptional in baked goods until the twentieth century, when it
became the basis for viennoiserie.)
Inspection and weighing of bread became standard as cities
gained renewed importance and guilds became established.
Regulation of prices, in particular, would remain central to
French baking well into the twentieth century.
The leavening method for bread remained essentially unchanged,
and would until the seventeenth century. From later texts, it
appears that the French were aware that the Flemish, for instance,
used yeast in bread and obtained a lighter product as a result,
but did not, for whatever reason, adopt the same method until the late seventeenth century.
Virtually no sweet baked goods are mentioned (references to
“pastry” or “pastry makers” in
translations typically are misleading). Bakers in households may
have continued to make Roman pastries, but no record survives of
The communion wafer – essentially a small thin
waffle – may have developed around Charlemagne's time and in
its secular form became the wafer, the first native French
The flan – originally a flat cake –
is mentioned early on and probably survived as a kind of sweet
pancake before evolving into a cream-filled shell. But, after an early
essentially disappears from the written record until after this period.
By the start of this period, wafers (oublies) and a
thinner variant (nieules) were common after-dinner treats,
sometimes served as a maistre (“master”), which
may have been either a collection of these or one very large one,
made with white wine in the dough.
Flans (probably already
cream-filled) were sometimes given as rents. A number of other
pastries – darioles, échaudés.
etc – became standard over time, as well as tarts.
Several of these were still
considered varieties of bread, even as they evolved towards
The most common additions to food in this time (during and
after cooking) were vinegar, honey, mustard and animal fat (or oil
in the south).
The Roman condiment garum is mentioned all through the period
and probably remained available to people of any means.
Romans had made a variety of sauces and cooks in great households
may have continued to do so, but in general even when ingredients
were mixed in a similar way there seems to have been no conscious
effort to create specific sauces.
Mustard was the most common condiment (typically used after,
not in, cooking).
The most distinctive flavoring of this era was verjuice, a tart
liquid which often was used in the same way as vinegar had been
previously (even if the latter continued to be used). Verjuice
appears to esentially be the Persian ab-ghooreh
is one of the more obvious signs of post-Crusades Mideastern
(or very fatty bacon) was widely used in cooking and so flavored
wide variety of sauces were now standard and those without private
cooks could buy them from professional sauce makers.
was essentially forgotten; Rabelais would later attempt to
Even in cooking meant to be Roman (like that described by
Anthimus) a very narrow range of spices was used (the Romans had
Pepper was by far the most prized spice. After pepper, the
chief imported spice was cumin, which the Gauls had also liked
(and which also existed in native varieties).
Others included clove, ginger, cinnamon, costus, nard and
mastic. Since these came from the same countries as many of the
spices which disappeared for a time, it may be that the limited
range reflected a change in tastes, not just the (very real)
decline in international trade.
Salt, a French product,
does not appear to have been expensive at this time, since it was
used by hermits and others living simple lives.
Even before the Crusades, a wider variety of spices appeared.
The renewed contact with the East, as well as European kingdoms
there, made more spices available, even if they remained luxuries
for a long time. The popularity of some spice combinations may
also have been due to Mideastern influence, though medical theories
often dictated their use as well.
The principal spices of this time are today associated with
holidays: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, etc. A few – such as
zedouary and Paradise seed – had brief success before
becoming rare. While the Romans had used some of the same spices
found in this later period, the “palette” for the two
cultures was different overall.
Cumin was now used mainly in its own dish (cominée,
or “cuminey”), but otherwise is rarely mentioned in
the lists of spices in ingredients. Pepper lost its primacy and
was sometimes overshadowed by stronger varieties like long
Salt had become expensive and began to be taxed in
this time, making it more so. It became a hallmark of wealth (much
as pepper had been earlier).
Soon after this period, salt
and pepper would, in a simpler way, return to primacy, leaving
the rich mixtures used in this period as
emblematic of its
Honey was by far the prime sweetener at this time (even though
Pliny mentions sugar) and was used on vegetables, for instance, as
well as in what we would consider desserts.
Bee hives had a place similar to sugar refineries in later
times and Salic law includes a number of sections on their theft.
Pliny also mentions that honey was sometimes adulterated with
various reduced wines (sapa, defrutum, etc.) and
these were probably used for their sweetening effect as long as
Roman influence lasted. Cooked wines are mentioned later and may
have served a similar purpose.
Sugar joined honey as a sweetener and was often used in
cooking. But it was first known as a medicine (a trend that would
continue with numerous products, including spirits, coffee,
chocolate and even, possibly, mayonnaise). It existed in various
colored forms as well.
The availability of sugar in turn led to a number of sweets
made with it, such as pignolat, a pine nut candy.
Hazelnuts are often found at archaeological sites; walnuts
appear as well; pistachios and almonds were both imported. None of
these are mentioned with any frequency, nor does any one stand out
in this period.
Almonds became central to much cooking (again possibly because
of Arab influence) and were also used to make a milk used for
fast-days (after dairy was forbidden) but also sometimes with
Other nuts are fitfully mentioned, collectively (nuts for
dessert) or specifically (Villeneuve's marzipan used pistachios).
Drinks (beer and wine)
Primitive beer – cervoise – was associated
with the Germans, wine with the Romans. Both became acceptable
over time, even if beer was considered heathen at first. Wine's
importance in Catholic ritual may be one reason it was produced
all over France.
Though it was often shipped, it does not
appear to have been long-lasting; for a long time the only wines
mentioned by name, like those of Gaza, and Falernian, were
holdovers from Roman times. The shift from amphorae to (still
poorly sealed) barrels may be one reason. Though some of the
regions later known for wine were producing at this time, it is
rare (after Roman times) to see a French wine praised outside its
own region until the end of the period.
The wines of Bordeaux, which had already been praised under the Romans, seem to have gone into decline at the start of this period. The wines of Burgundy, on the other hand, remained important. The wines of Alsace began to develop. Most regions known for wine today were already producing in this period, as well as some (like Brittany and Normandy) no longer viewed as wine producing regions. Some specific places known for wine today, such as Sancerre, were already producing wine, even if these would have no reputation until centuries later.
Cervoise was not made with hops (though other plants, like
wormwood, were sometimes added to it which would have had the same
preservative effect); as this began to be done (possibly as early
as the ninth century), the drink started to evolve into beer.
Wines were now known by region. The wine of Beaune became
popular and would remain so through the eighteenth century. The
wines of Alsace, Gascony and other regions were exported to
Cervoise was still common by the twelfth century, but beer
became the main brewed grain drink (The former is sometimes
referred to as “ale”, to differentiate it; today the
distinction between beer and ale however is based on the type of
A number of other drinks were made, either for pleasure or for
health. One was a wine made with mulberries (though it often
included grape wine as well).
Cervoise was often drunk with wormwood (and sometimes honey, to
offset the former's bitterness). A drink – aloxinum –
was also made of wormwood mixed with wine (or possibly other
beverages) and endured for several centuries, even if mentions of
it are sparse.
Conditum, a Roman spiced wine, seems to have persisted
for some time and would have been the closest thing in this period
to the spiced wines which later typified the medieval period.
Pear and apple cider were both made, but never widely popular.
The idea of drinking fruit juice on its own does not seem to have
taken hold, even in wine-producing regions where tasting grape
juice would have been part of the production process.
A number of specialty drinks, such as one made with fennel, are
Despite a widespread claim, people did drink water and seemed
to have had no concerns about its being unhealthy. Even medical
authorities only warned about specific types of water (like fetid
water) or that water itself was “cold” (in humoral
terms) and not nourishing. But the idea that medieval water was regarded as
particularly unhealthy seems to be a modern (and erroneous) one.
Cider became popular in this period in Normandy, though it was
rivaled by beer.
A number of spiced wines – piment, hypocras,
etc. – became standard after-dinner treats. (It has been suggested, though without specific evidence, that this was a way to use otherwise undrinkable wine.)
Spirits were discovered in this time, but were limited to
medical use past the end of the era.
Though citrus fruit became more common, the idea of drinking
lemonade, for instance, does not seem to have appeared until
centuries later. There are hints, however, that orangeade was
Both the Romans and the Franks loved pork, which is the meat
most often mentioned in records. But archeology shows that beef
was eaten far more than previously thought – probably by the
poorer sort, since it was typically eaten after several years of
labor and so would have been tougher. Even pork was probably lean
and stringy, and a red meat, in this period.
The Germans in general were said to eat horsemeat (the Gauls
had eaten both that and dog). No documentary mention of this
exists in regard to the Franks, but archeaology shows that horses were eaten more going into the medieval period than they had been during most of the Roman era. A pope later forbade eating horse,
which was considered a pagan custom. Still the practice persisted into the ninth century.
Pork remained popular, even among aristocrats. But at one
annual public meal, for instance, beef was served and it would
soon outstrip pork in importance, even among the better-off. (One reason may be that horses
were now used for farm work, allowing more varied treatment of
Hippophagy (already minimal) declined and seems to have
completely disappeared from France by the end of the medieval period. It only reappeared in the nineteenth century,
when “hippophage” societies promoted eating horsemeat.
Chicken was already commonly mentioned; pheasant was often
mentioned in a similar way.
Chicken retained its importance; geese and ducks now became the
most prominent secondary barnyard birds.
Though both the Gauls and the Franks loved to hunt, game was
not a major food source for either. Still, in this time, hunting
remained open to everyone (restrictions were by property, not by
The giant bovine called an auroch or ursus was still
regularly hunted (it would be extinct by the seventeenth century).
Wild asses – a delicacy to the Romans and so to their
immediate successors – were also hunted. Elk (per some ambivalent references) may also have existed in France at this time.
Boar and deer were both popular both as food and to hunt.
Though hare was hunted, rabbits were still rare for most of this
Game of this time was more familiar in modern terms. Auroch
must still have been hunted, since they ultimately were wiped out,
but are not mentioned.
While some large birds, like peacock, were often raised
domestically, a number of the birds found in upscale cuisine of
this time were game birds.
Boar and deer remained popular. Rabbits were now more common.
Hunting was increasingly restricted by class, even though this
was still in flux in this period. But in general, it became less
possible for the poor to simply hunt their own food.
Camels were still found in France in the seventh century. Since
(per archeology) they had been eaten under the Romans in Gaul,
they were probably still eaten by some under the Franks.
Numerous fish are praised in several texts and private fish
ponds continued from Roman times. But no one fish is consistently
mentioned, even though the Romans had had their favorites, such as
A wide variety of fish were sold in markets and some stand out
in recipes, such as lamprey. Herring became the standard fast day
food for the less well off. Eel also is frequently mentioned.
Whale meat was also sold in Paris markets and considered fish.
It is easy to overlook greens in this period, since they
typically appear neither in inventories (often being home-grown in
kitchen gardens) nor lists of food. But accounts of gardens with
varied greens and other mentions make it clear they were part of
the diet. Anthimus, for instance, lists lettuce, orach and other
greens as foods at Theuderic's court.
Monks and nuns in
particular were often constrained to eating these.
were probably served with oil and salt. Whether they were cooked
or raw is not always easy to say (Anthimus mentions both).
Doctors had more particular interest in these in the later
medieval period. Villeneuve (13th c.) says that lettuce
and purslane can be eaten raw, but that most greens should be
boiled, then fried. This is exactly how the Menagier de Paris says
to prepare some greens. But it also lists some as raw, served with
The Germans in general were known for loving dairy and Anthimus
mentions this under the Franks. Milk however is rarely mentioned
on its own, perhaps because it did not keep well. (Fortunatus
speaks of fresh milk as a special treat.) This said, St. Genevieve is said to have drunk milk with grilled fish in her old age.
Cheese was common but not distinguished by region (since each
region probably ate its own). Some was long-lasting enough to
travel, but transporting it does not seem to have been common.
Milk was one of the drinks served from a fountain at a public feast. It was popular enough to be banned (in 1365) on fast days.
It was used in some bread as well.
Brie cheese was popular enough to be exported to England.
The distinction between foods considered meat or meatless
evolved through the whole middle ages. Soon after Clovis had
converted, all Catholics (as opposed to just the clergy) were
required to fast for Lent.
For most of the early medieval
period, birds (which in the Bible were made on the same day as fish)
were considered meatless. This changed under Charlemagne, but fat
then became an acceptable fasting option for canons who did not
have access to oil.
It is not clear how rigorously fasting was enforced beyond Lent
(on Fridays, in particular).
Until Charlemagne's time, a significant number of people
remained pagan (worshiping Thor and Odin or Roman gods, even
possibly old Celtic deities) and so presumably ignored these
The difference between meat (gras) and meatless (maigre)
was now fundamental to French cuisine.
Canons had been allowed (since Charlemagne) to use bacon fat on
their food, but some people used butter in its place, even
though the status of dairy was uncertain. In 1365, a Church
council specifically forbid using milk and butter at Lent. This
would have made almond milk (which was already used, but sometimes
with meat) all the more important.
Serving and cooking ware
Most people probably used wood or earthenware dishes. Cooking
was often done in pottery as well; pots have been found with holes
Metal of any sort was a relative luxury.
Merovingian pottery is distinctive, with a carinated/biconic
shape. Carolingian pottery is more spherical.
Glass was precious enough that bottles, for instance, were
valued objects, but common enough that glass drinking vessels were
not unusual (for the merely comfortable, as opposed to the rich).
Typically these were literally “tumblers” – that
is they had rounded
bottoms which prevented them from being set down.
In a time before forks, when knives and (perhaps less often) spoons were the main utensils, natural objects may have been used as well. Anthimus says that one dish of foamed egg whites can be eaten with a spoon "or a new growth" - possibly a bit of grape vine or even the leaves, recalling Virgil's image of a woman using leaves to skim foam off cooking defrutum, for instance.
More cooking was done in iron pots (which may have helped
reduce female mortality by increasing the iron in the diet).
Pottery was more varied, sometimes squatter,
elongated than early medieval ware and including more
eccentric forms, such as polylobed.
Glasses more often had flat
bases which allowed them to be set down.
Informal utensils were still used; the Liber de Coquina says to eat lasagna with "a pointed piece of wood."
It is generally believed that forks did not come into use in France until centuries later, but an inventory for Charles V mentions, intriguingly, "forty-three spoons, and forks".
Scattered mentions in this period show doctors giving orders
about food, as when Charlemagne's tried (unsuccessfully) to
convince him not to eat roasts in old age.
On the other hand, there is no evidence of doctors
systematically defining recipes and menus. The most famous dietetic of the period is Anthimus' to the Frankish king Theuderic (Thierry) and we have no proof that that had much practical affect on its royal recipient.
Doctors and cooks in large households seem to have worked
closely together and the extensive use of spices seems to have
been as much a matter of medical theory as taste. Many of
Taillevent's recipes, for instance, are aligned with medical
opinion of the time (see Terence Scully's close analysis of these
in terms of humoral theory).
The Romans had crafts guilds called collegia for bakers, pork butchers, etc. These would have existed at the start of Frankish rule. When they disappeared is not clear and whether they evolved into the later corporations is debated.
For most of the early medieval period there is no direct evidence of such organizations. Essentially producers of food had no recorded authority or impact as a group on the guidelines for production in general.Charlemagne banned sworn organizations, so it is very unlikely that these existed in his time. However a century later the first evidence appears of bakers, for instance, being treated collectively, which implies at least a loose organization.
The first substantial evidence of corporations appears around the twelfth century; but several claimed to have existed at that point for several centuries. By the end of the period, their influence on various aspects of production, especially on quality control and boundaries between trades groups, was already profound and would remain so for the remainder of the Old Regime.
If cities declined at the start of the medieval period, they hardly lost all importance. Each had their bishop (with the attendant household and visitors) and when the Church held councils they were typically in large cities. Several too were royal capitals. A number had mints. So it is very likely that some form of urban infrastructure existed for feeding official visitors, supplicants, pilgrims, workers, etc.
Unfortunately, almost no direct evidence exists for such activity after the Romans and before the Capetians. Beyond royal courts, virtually all information about food for this period comes from estates and monasteries. Nor does any legislation address specifically urban institutions.
As existing cities revived and new ones arose, more and more of the recorded activity around food was urban. Notably, legislation regarding food primarily concerns urban institutions.