Medieval Writing
Works on Food and Cookery (3)
Food being the all important aspect of life that it is, information can also be discovered in the works of literary writers. The wondrous Geoffrey Chaucer paints several great pictures in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

Of the Prioress

At meat her manners were well taught withal;

No morsel from her lips did she let fall,

Nor dipped her fingers in the sauce too deep:

But she could carry a morsel up and keep

The smallest drop from falling on her breast.

For courtliness she had a special zest,

And she would wipe her upper lip so clean

That not a trace of grease was to be seen

Upon the cup when she had drunk; to eat,

she reached a hand sedately for the meat.

Of the Monk

He liked a fat swan best, and roasted whole.

Of the Franklin

His house was never short of bake-meat pies,

Of fish and flesh, and these in such supplies

it positively snowed with meat and drink

And all the dainties that a man could think.

According to the season of the year

Changes of dish were ordered to appear.

He kept fat partiridges in coops, beyond,

Many a bream and pike were in his pond.

Woe to the cook whose sauces had no sting

Or who was unprepared in anything!

Of the Doctor

In his own diet he observed some measure;

There were no superfluities for pleasure,

Only digestives, nutritives and such.

From Geoffrey Chaucer 1958 The Canterbury Tales Harmondsworth: Penguin (Translated into modern English by Nevill Coghill)

Geoffrey Chaucer
The Prioress
The Monk
As an alternative to all this plenty, William Langland in Piers the Ploughman describes hard times in the country in time of famine.

"I haven't a penny left," said Piers, "so I can't buy you pullets or geese or pigs. All I've got is a couple of fresh cheeses, a little curds and cream, an oat-cake, and two loaves of beans and bran which I baked for my children. Upon my soul, I haven't a scrap of bacon, and I haven't a cook to fry you steak and onions. But I've some parsley and shallots and plenty of cabbages, and a cow and calf, and a mare to cart my dung, till the drought is over."

From William Langland 1959 Piers the Ploughman Harmondsworth: Penguin (Translated into modern English by J.F. Goodridge)

That early ethnographer, Gerald of Wales, described the ethnic eating habits of the Welsh.

You must not expect a variety of dishes from a Welsh kitchen, and there are no highly seasoned titbits to whet your appetite. In a Welsh house there are no tables, no tablecloths and no napkins. Everyone behaves quite naturally, with no attempt whatsoever at etiquette. You sit down in threes, not in pairs as elsewhwere, and they put the food in front of you, all together, on a single large trencher containing enough for three, resting on rushes and green grass. Sometimes they serve the main dish on bread, rolled out large and thin, and baked fresh each day."

From Gerald of Wales 1978 The Journey through Wales/ The Description of Wales Harmondsworth: Penguin (Translated by Lewis Thorpe)

Gerald of Wales
  Marginal illustration from a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales on Ireland (British Library, Royal 13 B VIII), by permission of the British Library.
Mind you, Gerald's descriptions of some culinary habits of the Irish, as depicted in the piece of marginalia illustrated above, are something else again. According to his account, the new king of Ireland, having just committed an act of indecency with a mare, is sitting in a stew made from the sacrificed animal while he and his chums partake of the concoction. Ah well, you can't believe everything you read!
A poem from a manuscript in the Harleian collection of the British Library, reproduced as An Irish Satire, may give a somewhat less lurid picture.

Hail be ye bakers with your loves smale

Of white bred and blake, ful many anf fale!

Ye pincheth on the right weight ayens Goddes law:

to the fiare pillory ich rede ye take hede. ...............

Hail be ye hokesters down by the lake,

With candles and golokes and the pottes blake,

Tripes and kine feet and shepen hevedes! ........

From Celia and Kenneth Sisam (ed.) 1973 The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse Oxford: Clarendon Press

Tripe, cows' feet and sheeps' heads. You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant!
Food references can come up in all sorts of places, including chronicles. The continuation to the Brut contains a listing of the menu at the marriage of King Henry V. As it was in Lent, every course consisted of fish. Documentary evidence that relates to food consumption can be found in merchants' accounts, household accounts or the accounts of large institutions such as hospitals or monasteries. Records of the nature of charity may refer to food. In fact, food is such a universal, not only a a necessity for survival but as a part of social ritual, that references may turn up almost anywhere.
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