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An overview of the stories

Comparison of early/mid and late medieval food



Pepin the Short (752–768 )

Carloman [co-ruled with Charlemagne] (768–771)

Charlemagne (768-814)

Louis the Pious [or Debonaire or Fair] (814-840]

Lothair I (817-855)

Louis II the Stammerer (844-875)

Charles the Bald (840-877)

Louis III (879-882)

Carloman II (882-884)

Charles the Fat (885-888)

Odo of Paris (888-898)

Charles III the Simple (893-922)

Robert I (922-923)

Rudolph (923-936)

Louis IV (936-954)

Lothair (954-986)

Louis V the Lazy (986-987)

Pepin the Short's grandson, Charles, established so effective a monarchy that his dynasty – the Carolingians – bears his name and he himself was called “Charles the Great” - Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus). Ultimately he ruled, as Holy Roman Emperor, over most of Europe. His reign constituted a “renaissance” after the decline of the Merovingian period, but his successors were less successful and his grandsons divided up the empire, leaving France much reduced. Meanwhile Viking incursions and other disasters further weakened the country.

Over subsequent generations the area ruled by the French kings grew smaller and their rule less certain. By the time Hugh Capet, a powerful noble, assumed power in 987, he ruled over an area of about 400 square miles and the rest of the country was divided into numerous fiefdoms or was part of other nations.

For more about Carolingian food, see Feasting with the Franks.


A wealth of information exists on the agricultural products and even some customs of Charlemagne's own time (too much to present at all comprehensively here), but frustratingly little on specific dishes, spices, etc. Information is far sparser on subsequent reigns.

Charlemagne himself ate simply (four services and a roast), but could entertain lavishly when required. He also had ample contact with Byzantine, Persian and Arab cultures, all of which had complex cuisines. This and passing mention of ornate meals suggests that cuisine remained very complex (at least for the rich) in his time and probably still made use of various spices; but virtually no specific meals or dishes are recorded.

Continued use of garum and specifically Roman spices suggests the persistence of (probably much declined) Roman cooking. But already at the end of the period Hincmar, a French bishop visiting the East, spoke with disgust of garum, which is not mentioned after this time (until Rabelais tried to recreate it).

Soups, mentioned previously but rarely, are mentioned more.

One later author said that on feast days monks ate such delicacies as pies with peppered meats, eels with eggs, lampreys, fish stuffings beaten in a mortar, pike with black pepper, beaten milk, flans, roasted pork, all with wine and hypocras. (To verify with period sources..)

The senechal (later administrator of a region) managed a great household, much like a head butler. The hunters reported to him and administered game stocking, etc. Falconers and a “bottler” (responsible for drink, not then in glass bottles) similarly reported to the senechal. He could also direct the actual service of a meal.

In 793 and 868, famines were said to have led to cannibalism; in 821 continual rain ruined crops and led to little wine, sour and flat; in 843, unrest led to desperation, such as people mixing flour with dirt.

Louis the Pious is described as sitting on couches (Roman style) for an official meal. His tablecloth was laid over fleece. Hands were washed before meals, but napkins are now mentioned as well.


Meat on Charlemagne's estate was to be taken from lame but healthy cattle (others were reserved for work). Fattened cattle and pigs were kept for both tallow and lard.

The meat of a hare was said to be good for dysentery and its gall, mixed with pepper, a cure for pains of all sorts.

An anecdote tells of Charlemagne eating parsley-ed cheese.

Charlemagne's 'ornamental birds' – peacocks, pheasants, ducks, pigeons, partridges, and turtle-doves – were probably also eaten. Among other things, this shows the continuity of peacock as a royal food across the centuries. Fattened geese and (more) chickens were kept as well.

Hunting of whales by Flemish fishermen is described using spears and boats.

Aurochs and buffalo were still hunted in France.

After a hunt (by Louis the Pious), a meal was held in a hunting lodge built of branches and covered with cloth. Fatty entrails of the slain animals were roasted and served. The animals killed included stags, bears, does, and boars.


It is probably during this period that the mortarboard plow and the three-field system of rotation came into general use in France. The latter implied the increased use of legumes.

Marl, known to the Gauls, seems to have fallen away and carrying it was resisted as a new obligation by tenants in 864. Medieval peasants soon used a great deal of it, distinguishing between black and white marl, and the names of both localities and families reflect this. In practice, the word referred to a wide range of substances, peat among them.

Trees were grafted.

Grown in Charlemagne's gardens (translations and identifications vary): Fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, kidney-bean, cumin, rosemary, caraway, chick-pea, squill, gladiolus, tarragon, anise, colocynth, chicory, ammi, sesili, lettuces, spider's foot, rocket salad, garden cress, burdock, penny-royal, hemlock, parsley, celery, lovage, juniper, dill, sweet fennel, endive, dittany, white mustard, summer savory, water mint, garden mint, wild mint, tansy, catnip, centaury, garden poppy, beets, hazelwort, marshmallows, mallows, carrots, parsnip, orach, spinach, kohlrabi, cabbages, onions, chives, leeks, radishes, shallots, cibols, garlic, madder, teazles, broad beans, peas, coriander, chervil, capers, clary. and house-leeks.

From audits of specific estates: Lily, putchuck (costus), mint, parsley, rue, celery, libesticum [ligusticum] sage, savory, juniper, leeks, garlic, tansy, wild mint, coriander, scullions, onions, cabbage, kohlrabi, betony

Trees: Apple, pear, plum, sorb, medlar, chestnut and peach; filberts, walnuts; quince, hazel, almond, mulberry, laurel, pine, fig, nut and cherry


Charlemagne's estate inventories mention wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt.

In 794, the price of bread and wheat was regulated.

Bread was still referred to only as “pain”, without differentiation (beyond the grain used). It was long-lasting enough to be given as a rent by serfs (and simple enough to be made by them). Charlemagne's own cooks made “works of fine flour” – meaning better breads? Pastries? Rye bread was mentioned for servants.

Biscuit – twice baked bread for travel, etc. – was also mentioned.

Communion wafers and pain benit (better bread given by congregant) were the first signs of baking beyond breadstuffs; that is, of the basis for pastry and cake. In 862 ingredients for a pastry were specified: wheat, eggs, honey. (It may be that some Roman ideas of pastry persisted; but if so these did not survive into later centuries.)

In the ninth century, a. monastery got thirty flans a year. Flan (formerly a flat cake) may now have been slightly raised and filled (like pizza).


Charlemagne: “The stewards are to see to it that no one dares to crush the grapes with his feet”. The wine press may have been new. Grapes were probably brought to the press straight from the vine (not after fermentation).

Hops are mentioned in association with malt, but their use in beer is not yet specifically recorded. Stewards brought mash to the palace along with brewers capable of making cervoise (which therefore – lacking hops – probably did not keep). Cervoise was also delivered pre-made however.

Beer, cider, perry or any other suitable beverage” was kept ready for the emperor. An audit of one estate mentions mulberry wine, cooked wine, and mead.

Theodemar allowed monks “a honey potion”.


Charlemagne was given large amounts of Eastern spices by Persian ambassadors; a visitor to his palace spoke of “spiced” dishes. One anecdote hinges on a rat being preserved in “aromatics”.

There is evidence of the import of cinnamon, nard, and clove, but pepper was becoming the dominant spice.

One of the spices grown on Charlemagne's estate was putchuck (costus), which may or may not have been the actual Indian spice, but presumably was thought to be (by its name). Costus and nard, two characteristically Roman spices, would soon disappear from lists of French spices.

Garum was still used but sometimes was made in France. One period recipe survives: “Take fish, salt, anise, stir it each day, mix in herbs: mint, fenugreek, laurel, sage, etc. All this must be half-cooked, taken off the fire, strained, then kept in tightly closed vessels.” (This is very different from the Roman version.)

Seasonings for commoners: Pork fat, vinegar, and mustard; even nominally vegetarian monks might flavor greens with pork fat. The earlier use of honey on vegetables may have persisted but is not mentioned.


Charlemagne listed foods for fast days: “Vegetables, fish, cheese, butter, honey, mustard, vinegar, millet, panic, dried and green herbs, radishes, turnips, horseradish”.

Charlemagne himself “bent” the rules for Lent. But his laws for the Saxons prescribed death for anyone who failed to keep the fast . This has been cited as saying he made death the penalty for not observing fasting, but the rule was limited to the Saxons (who had been a thorn in his side; and even for them it allowed exceptions).

Keeping fast days became more regulated. In 797 Theodulf allowed eggs and milk during fast days; in 817 a Council at Aix-la-Chappelle forbade poultry to monks except at Easter and Christmas; most people continued to regard birds as “fish”. The council acknowledged the difficulty of getting oil in regions where butter was forbidden as seasoning during Lent, etc., and allowed the use of animal fat or lard “juice” in its place.
The same council forbid monks from eating fruit and greens (their ordinary fare) between meals.

Penitential books” (not always approved by the Church) laid out strictures such as these: a wounded stag touched by a wolf, dog, bear or fox was not to be eaten; if a chicken drowned in a well, it was to be emptied; if certain small animals fell in a barrel without dying, the wine had to be purified with holy water; if the animal died, it could not be drunk at all; oil or honey contaminated by an animal could be used for lighting or medicine; a dead fish in a fish pool was not to be eaten; pigs and hens which had touched a human cadaver were to be thrown to the dogs and not eaten or used to breed, but a fish in the same case could be so used.

Christians were forbidden to eat Jewish unleavened bread. (In the East, where everybody ate unleavened bread, this was problematic and had to be clarified as meaning only the bread used in Jewish rites.)

Saxons who ate an accused witch's flesh were to be punished with death.

Charlemagne forbade sworn associations of any sort, probably including nascent guilds. But in 831 the St. Riquier Abbey already collected rents from trades as groups (bakers, butchers, winemakers, taverners, etc.), showing a de facto organization.

Fines distinguished between nobles and freedmen.


Bishop's ornate feast (which went well beyond the emperor's and embarrassed the latter's envoys):

Cups of every shape, filled with diverse drugs and perfumes [probably meaning spices], and crowned with herbs and flowers which had all the brilliance of precious stones and the shine of gold, and spread a vivid scarlet. On their side, pastry-makers, butchers, cooks, pork butchers prepared everything which could stimulate the appetite of stomachs already full, and put into this an art which was never used in the meals of the great Charles.”

Supplies for missi (royal envoys):

Under Charlemagne (echoing Constantine's specifications; i.e., some of this may have been theoretical):

White bread, wine, cervoise, bacon, butcher's meat, pigs, suckling pigs, sheep, lambs, geese, pheasant, chickens, eggs, oil, garum, honey, vinegar, cumin, pepper, costus, clove, spikenard, cinnamon, mastic, dates, pistachios, almonds, salt, oil, vegetables and grains.

Under Louis (817) (specified to limit abusive demands):

Bread, pigs, 1 suckling pig, drink, hens, eggs.

Under Charles the Bald (843):

Bread, wine, oats, a suckling pig, two chickens and eggs.

Food for canons:

Bread, wine, cheese, dry legumes (broad beans and peas), poultry, eggs, fat.

Some had spiced wine, pork and mutton.

Benedictine monks during Lent (once a day):

Eggs, fish, cheese. For Christmas and Easter, poultry added for eight days.

Fast days, Fridays and Saturdays: Two cooked soups allowed, but some had bread and garden greens without wine.

Other days: Three cooked soups, a fourth on Sundays. Drink at noon.

Summer: A fruit and a glass of wine after nones, honey wine for those who had done haying.

Benedict's rule:

Two daily soups, a dish of vegetables, a pound of bread, and wine.

Fat (grease) allowed on daily food, fat in soup except Fridays.

Poultry allowed at Christmas and Easter.

Canons at Metz:

2 meals a day, bread as needed, a soup at noon, one ration of meat for two; if no soup two rations of meat and bacon.

Lent: at noon, one portion of cheese for two and a soup. If no fish or vegetables, a third dish.

Evening one soup for two.

Wine (in different amounts); beer allowed (greater quantity) if no wine.

At monastery:

Bread for poor of meteil (maslin, a wheat-rye mix)

Better for field workers: "vassals' bread" (wheat and spelt)

For monks: small, medium and large loaves (presumably of wheat)

Field workers got bread, "beer" (cervoise) and vegetables, "bacons" (approximately, shoulder or buttock hams).

For sick and poor at abbey: Bread, cheese or bacon, vegetables, eels or fresh cheese [probably on fast days], meat (veal, mutton or horse - but no pork). Drink: cervoise ("beer").

Monks: Bread, wine, a pulmentaria (soup with garden greens, etc); allowed to put bacon in soup.

956 ration for traveling judge-advocate in Alsace:

A lamb, bread and wine for summer sessions, with a year-old pig replacing the lamb in winter.

Around same period, for other areas in Alsace: Bread, wine, pepper, wax, goblets and plates and a pig or a lamb, depending on the season; capons, hens, and hams are mentioned as well. Another area provided bread, wine and cheese (also oats, which could be for people or horses).

June 16, 2012