historic of medieval cuisine

 Historic of medieval cuisine

A lecture made by Bruno Lauriaux, a professor in medieval history on july 3rd 2012 at the university of Paris, Pantheon Sorbonne, Bnf François Mitterand.

A large number of books of recipes, issued in the XIIIth and XIVth centuries all over Europe from Denemark to Italy and Catalonia are altogether important enough ...

 Historic of medieval cuisine

A lecture made by Bruno Lauriaux, a professor in medieval history on july 3rd 2012 at the university of Paris, Pantheon Sorbonne, Bnf François Mitterand.

A large number of books of recipes, issued in the XIIIth and XIVth centuries all over Europe from Denemark to Italy and Catalonia are altogether important enough to be considered as representative of the cooking in those days (at least for the higher classes); they have therefore been carefully studied by historians. They might first be expected to contain much information regarding the type of ingredients, the modes of cooking, the service....But in the manuscript S108, Museum of Sion (Switzerland), the oldest extract known in Viandier de Taillevent (circa 1250/1320), the information is extremally scarce. The texts are written by professionals for professionals and not for beginners. We cannot know without special notices whether we have a copy of an old book, new recipes or suggestions for the future.

The first cooking books are not illustrated with the exception of illuminated letters. The pictures representatives the activities of a cook appear only in the XVIth century (not before 1570 in book by Scapi ?) in printed books whereas at the same time are also made handwritten copies in luxery editions. These have no illustrations. They are lovely objects possibly drawn form reference books but not meant to be used in a kitchen.

A really useful book for example will be the Registrum Coquine, written about 1430 by Jean de Bockenheim, a cook at the court of Pope Martin V. Recipes are clearly separated from each other, notes are made in the margin and the benefactors of the plates are mentioned (by nationality or social standard; for instance an orange omelette is made for ruffians and debauchees - the dish we had at La Brodière!)

Before the XVth century books are rarely devoted to cooking suggestions only : there is not enough material for a volume. Then various sources are added yp as to make a book. Hundreds of texts are joined : first medival advice (3/4 at least) then, to a lesser extent religious and ethcial matter, domestic life, crafts, astrology....

The Manuscrit 7131 BNF is the translation into latin of a french text (Instructions for the accomodation of foodstuffs, written around 1300) for the benefit of the papacy by a doctor. The original work is therefore written in the vernacular, i.e. written by a cook and not by a learned man. The medical standard in books of cooking is low : such books contain practical recipes but not theory which would have happened, had they been written by doctors. The theory according to which cooking might be considered as some sort of medicine should be lessened.

The reasons for which the recipes given in a book are developped are at variance. In the book by Maître Chicart, a cook at the court of the duke of Savoy, written in 1420, the information is manifold; It is however the birth of the Duchy of Savoy and the book contains in fact the menus of various banquets held upon the occasion; it is therefore primely a sign of prestige: hence the insistance upon the clearness of the containers, the abundance and quality of the ingredients. The grains of Paradise for instance, highly priced, are often used whereas pepper, more common, is scarcely served.

On the contrary, many developments in the Mesnagier de Paris (end of the XIVth ct) are pedagogical. It is maintained at the Court of Burgundy in the XVth century on account of its principles whether ethical or connected with the household.

The same dish may know important changes from the period to another or from a place to another. It is the case of the camelina sauce so common at the end of the middle Ages that is sold ready-made (as well as the green sauce) Large differences may be found between four recipes of the same sauce :

-Early XIVth century : toast, a lot of cinnamon (that gives the sauce its camel colour , i.e. camelina), ginger, long pepper, vinager and verjuice, the whole being mixed and filtered.

-England (XIVth century) the sauce is softened by adjunction of currants. Sweeteners are frequently used in English cooking.

-In Italy (end XIVth century) with strong Iberian influences : the sauce contains milk of almonds, broth, liver, pomegranate juice and sugar which give a bitter-sweet savour very popular by the mediterranean sea.

-Savoy (Maître Chiquart 1320) : white bread, an excellent light red wine, grains of paradise, sugar and salt. Salt is rarely mentioned either because it is not much in use or because it is commun that is no longer mentioned.

In the XIVth century, sugar is very much used in the kitchens whether English (60 % of the recipes in some books) or Italian. It is also found in the south of France but very little morth ot the Loire Valley, except in recipes meant for convalescents. By nature not too warm and humid, it is supposed to suit them..

In the XVth century, it is use to still extended in England and in Italy (where once more under the Iberian influence it may be used in a dish, then powdered with cinnamon over it) Its use is extended in France where it comes into the composition ot fhe camelina sauce, but its presence in a dish may lead to give it particular name, showing that is not a common condiment : it is the case for the dish: "pigon aux raisins"

we are short of information concerning regional cooking. Rather than recipe books travelling accounts should be consulted.


Wich sugar was used ? Cane sugar. It came from India, through Mohammedans, then imported into Europe from the XIIth century, cane grows in Sicilia and Spain.

Who was Guillaume Tirel alias Taillevent ? Probably a norman orignin (around St Lô) he first worked at the Court of Jacques d'Evreux before joining the Royal Kitchens. He has not written his "viandier" himself, no did he add much to it. He has only set his name to a collection of pre-existing recipes. The archives concerning him were lost during the bombardments in 1944. His graving stone lies in Saint Germain en Laye.

How many "Viandiers" are there ? About five plus on printed in 1486, plus one in Orleans, plus one in Saint Lô (these were destroyed). The most complete was printed by Terence Scully (Ottawa); the shortest manuscript is the one of Sion, the longest is at the Vatican Library (written in France in 1450, it contains fully developed recipes)

Which vinegars and fats were used ? Besides Vinegar was found cider vinegar in England. The use of fats of animal origin depends on the interdictions regarding the days of abstinence : the rules about butter vary according the period of the year, the region or the year itself. Many English recipes can be found with olive oil, and many Italian recipes with butter.

What is a viandier (a book concerning food) ? The word comes from "viande" originally meaning food. The meat of an animal is named "char".

Are there any pastries ? The pastry-cook is in charge of making tarts or pâtés. A lot of his production is to be taken away.

Do the articles annexed to the books concern a particular sort of recipes ? Not on principle but a catalan book contains religious precepts regarding mainly food to be taken away.

It is difficult to state a gastronomy between church and University. Greediness in the christian tradition, an incorrect and reducing translation of Latin "goula" is a capital sin. It is even a vice rather or a feature of the personality. It is not serious itself but it may lead to other disorders. "the tree of vices" (FR 9220 BNF) contained in the "orchard of Soulas" and written in 1300 shows in the shape of a tree the various sins; luxury, pride, envy, sadness (it would now be depression), misery, anger, goula. This one is a source to other excesses : impurity, unmastered and uninterrupted talking, debauchery, drunkenness, stupid jolliness, indecency, stunned senses. In hell, sinners are rip what they have sown. On the picture called "I golosi, realized by Taddeo di Bartolo in 1393 and representing the Last Judgment, the ones convinced of "goula" are held by demons, by a fully-laid table, unable to taste the dishes offered. The calendar of the shepherds on the contrary shows guilty people forced to eat revolting things as toads of excrements. Despite Saint Augustine's opinion that sets "pride, ahead, "goula" is generally considered as the worst of sin. It is the first on committed by Adam and Eve that caused their expulsion from Eden. Thus the Devil tries to tempt Jesus by advising him to change stones into bread while he stays in the desert. In the Old Testament Eseau sells his brother Jacob in birthright for a plate of lentils and in the New Testament, the head of John the Baptist is presented to Herold during a banquet. Some can see in the preoccupation of food the beginning of decay. Saint Ambroise (bishop of Milan from 374 to 397) gives a culinary version of Genesis : on the first day the inhabitants of this world fasted to begin with. Also in the second day. On the third day, the fields offered them food : but discipline had it that fast was maintened. And so it was until the sixth when the animals were meant to be used as food. For Saint Ambrose it is the beginning of the end of the world. Food is ambivalent inasmuch as it is necessary to our living but leading us to Evil: it must therefore be limited. "Goula" is a sin in many way. Robert Grossetête who became Rector of the Francisans in Oxford in 1224 details them and classifies them intot two categories :

1 connected with foodstuffs :

- an excessive consumption of food and drinks

- a full enjoyment of meals (no question of gluttony here)

- a research of seasonnings

- the absorption of common meals with greed and delectation

- eating without being hungry

- a will to anticipate the times of meals 

2 Sins of talk

- complaints against what delays the meals

- complaints against the cook if the food is no good

- complaints against the prior if no extra food is supplied (a common practice in monastries)

- complaints against the other monks if they given bigger shares

- speak out shameful, indiscreet, bold words that set off anger, laughter and discord.

Moreover the desire for good food and the one for the flesh (The sexual desire) are brought together, would it be only for the proximity of the belly and the genitals. An excessive taste for food is considered as the root for sexual desire.

A different view appears at the end of the Middle Ages (from the XIIIth century onwards) with St Thomas d'Aquinas. They begin to state that an excess of food bring ill-health. It may be a means for the clergy to convince the laity to be moderate. The notion of taste is changing. Trained Aristolian, Saint Thomas Aquinas declares that eating corresponds to natural necessities, that the deriving pleasure is also natural and necessary : therefore it cannot be bad. Food brings well-being and encourages sociability, moral virtues

You should not be in search of ascecis but of temperance, a right average. The "goula" is a sin when disordered and unbalanced. It can be only a venial sin when it does not become an aim for the sinner. For Saint Thomas d'Aquinas, as opposed to the statement of Aristote and Cicerto, taste becomes a capital sense insamuch as it enables to distinguish the good foodstuffs form the bad ones "Fuller Brooch" a work of the IXth century (At the british museum, London) stes eyesight over the other senses since it allows to perceive God. Just under is to be found hearing, thanks to which on can hear the world of God. The other senses are beneath. An allegory of Adam de l'Isle (XIth century) shows five horses, symbolising the five senses : first come eyesight : a winged horse, swift and universally admired; then hearing; the animal is somewhat and still less swift. Taste is heavy, slow : it drinks and eats unreasonably. Last comes touch, hardly a horse, rather an ass looking down all the time. Other senses may happen to come first in some works but it is on rare occasions.


Medieval flavors from Avicenna's Canon, there are 8 different flavors: sweet (represented by honey), fat (butter), bitter (nuts), acid or sour (vinegar), austere tightened (unripe citron - related species of lemon), bitter, and piquant (spices). Other texts give: insipid (the white of egg )


This classification is not suited to the four elements (air, earth, fire and water), but there are conversion tables  such as Bartholomy the Englishman (Book of properties of things, fifteenth century) :


Piquant XXX XXX      bitter warm XXX XXX     salt XXX XXX    

fat XXX XXX    soft temperate XXX XXX
insipid XXX     acid XXX     austere cold XXX    sour XXX 


In The thirteenth century, Aldebrandin de Sienne, living in Champagne, wrote in French the "Plan body" diet book for a fairly large public. Here may be seen the advent of dietetics for the whole population.  
  The Tacuinum Sanitatis is a translation of a book written in Baghdad by Ibn Butlab in the Xth century. It contains tables presenting the qualities of foodstuffs. In 1260, the Latin version is written in 1260, probably for the account of the count of Manfred of Sicily. The second is published in Italy in the XVth century. Two texts are published : the first one, quite complete, is a good adaptation of the original. The second is published in Italy in the XVth century, finely decorated, each page contains an illustration with little text. Cream cheese is described as cold and wet. It is better if it comes from the tempered milk from healthy animals. On the positive side, it softens and fattens the body, but it causes constipation; this unfortunate event may be avoided by almonds and nuts (warm and dry nature). 

A Greek legend will have it that medecine was invented as a consequence to an alimentary problem.   It is believed in the Middle Ages there was a correspondence between the human body on which four moods operate (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile), in conjunction with the 4 elements. Blood is warm and humid as air, and melancholy, cold and dry, corresponds to phlegm or earth.It influences foodstuffs : fowls that live in the air are also warm and humid whereas roots, in contact with the earth, are cold and dry. To keep one's health, a man must consume food that allows him to keep a balance between his moods. His food will vary according to his temperament.

In case of illness, it is necessaray to consume foodstuffs that will compensate the excesses of moods, one way or another : thu, a feverish patient will eat curcubitaceae, melons, salads, raw vegetables, hardly recommended to people in good health.

The balance of a person a change with age, sex, season, geographical place; when ageing, one becomes colder and drier.

The classification of food, one way or another, also contains four degrees. When the degree is low, consumption is without any danger; otherwise it should be handled with care.

Many profitable foodstuffs are warm and humid; they go along with human body. Their being warm makes digestion easier, which is considered as a second cooking after the one made in the kitchen. Raw or cold eating is dangerous : the stomach must then do all the work : a pope is supposed to have died by eating too many melons. The excess of some foodstuffs must be compensated by the accompaniment for instance of wine or salt with the melon. This fruit should be had at the beginning of the meal as it may not be cooked enough if something else is eaten.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the care given to the body become familiar in the courts. The treaty of dietetics by Michel Savonarole (1452) is luxurious; richly decorated, it is intended for a prince. The matter involved is considerable, since it fills up the book.

Books of recipes can also be found, written by doctors to the benefit of the sick, presenting food copying other dishes. The Musandinus (XIIth ct) explains while by which you give chicken the appareance of beef, you blanch a dish, how you prepare the paste of a pie if the patient wishes to eat it...In a word, doctors in the Middle Ages consider that the patient will eat better, and therefore will recover sooner, if the dish is appetizing (nothing to do with the cooking in our hospitals)


How does the classification of foodstuffs enter one category or another ? It happens that experiences are made to reconsider the classing even if it is in contradiction with older statements. Practically, the influence of medecine over common cooking is no more important than it nowadays.

Why did the us of  almonds diminish so much during the Middle Ages ? The milk of almonds was subsituted to the milk of cows during lent time. From medical point of view, almonds have great qualities of warmth and humidity. The use of almonds decreasing progressively and not suddenly

The taste of dishes and of words in the literature at the end of the Middle Ages : on account of the sin of 'goula', it is improper to delight in having food. In the late medieval litterature, it is then done in biassed way "The life of Saint Herring" tells the story of a Saint, made a martyr in a thousand ways : roasted, braised with peas...etc. Pretexting the Holy Scripture, we are entitled to all the ways how to prepare herring, a fish particulary common in the days of abstinence scattered all over the year (one out of three) In "the nine galant knights of greeds" more or less inspired from the history of "the nine gallant knights of greeds" more or less inspired from the history of "the nine gallant knights", the Biblical characters have had some relation to food, particulary Noah who got drunk.

The "Cena Cypriani" (Vth to VIIIth ct) presents a meal offered by the King who also invites Biblical characters who bring some food connected with them, sometimes in a very subtle way; Eve, Noah, Jesus come with grapes ('passus' in latin not so far from 'passion')

This kind of litterature seems  to be highly appreciated from learned men but diconsidered by the church, in his 'Roman du Comte d'Anjou' (XIVth ct) Jehan Maillart tells the story of the Count's daughter who escapes her father's concupiscence. She is given hospitality by a poor peasant who can offer her nothing but black bread. It is an occasion for the girl to lament and count up all the fine dishes she was used to : fowls, spiel, sea fish or river fish, etc. The very sauces and even the preparations are detailed. It is not only a list of dishes but actually what was eaten in the higher classes. In anticipation to the books of cooking, he quotes the meat pies and the patties, three generations before the recipes can be found elsewhere.

Chaillou de Pesti adds the story to his "Roman de Fauvel" (1314, a sharp criticism of the society in his time. In the XII and XIIIth centuries, such grammarians as Adam du Petit Pont write lexicons in which the decription of the foods, and even at times of the recipes, hold an important part. Perhaps did they find a means to make it easier for their pupils to get acquainted with the works.

Another way of discussing food is to denigrate it, taking all the time to speak of it at length. That is what Nicolas de la Chesnaye does as butler at the court of Louis XI in his allegory "the Banquet condemned" 1507, Dinner, Supper and Banquet offer three meals to their friends : Pastimes, Greed (fat and fond of grease) Delicacy (who has little, perhaps a pie if it is warm and crusty) and Habit. But they have also paid three rascals : Apoplexy, Gout and Gravel that they may attack the guests during dinner then banquet. Greed and Delicacy die, the survivors sue the organisers of the snare, under the command of Low Diet, temperance and others. Supper is forgiven because two meals a day are a necessity; but it is relegated six leagues from Dinner as digestion takes six hours  between both. Banquet is condemned to death and strangled by Low Diet. It is definitely moral in the end but the author has much written about the three meals, included the sauces involved (Sauce Robert or Sauce Madame).

Even Saint Bernard when he gets angry against the Clunisians whose habits are rather laxist, describes lengthfully, perhaps with a touche of sadism how to prepare eggs.

In 1224, Raoul de Oudec (or de Houdan) telles in "A dream of Hell"a journey to the kingdom of the Devil. Sinners are cooked according to their crimes : the fat of moneylenders is melted : prostitutes are cooked in green sauce, heretics in a Parisian sauce (we don not know what it is), the tongue of false litigants is fried. The main ingredient is human flesh but all seasonings were used at the time when the tale was written

Severals versions of "Carême et Charnage"(lent and flesh) can be found, a play performed immediately before lent time. The first one consists mainly of herrings whereas Flesh carries with thick soup, sausages, chitterlings, dairy produce etc...In the conflict opposing them, Flesh is the winner but it gives Lent the right to come back every year six weeks and three days.

The " Council of Apostles" is a list of phrases, often connected with food : "tripes of Saint Denis", "Geese of Beauce", "Cheese of Brie", "Congers of la Rochelle"...etc. It may be a poet repertory for poets in quest of inspiration. At least does it bring out the specialities of each region : for instance, it confirms the taste for cheese of Brie, appreciated in Paris as early as the XIIIth century and described in the XVth as provided with a white crust and a golden side.

Eustache Deschamps (1346/1410) a poet and a courtier, invents what might be be called an erotico-culinary farewell when he complains having to leave Brussels, its bath-house maids, its wines, its meats, in fact his pleasures. He dreads Flanders and its bread, so black, Germany and its beer, too sour, and misses the fine cooking of France. It states some patriotism in the way of food. In his works, Deschamps praises temperance, criticizes excess, magnifies the simple diet of Labourer, but as obviously a definite taste for good food, in large quantities if possible.

At the end of the Middle Ages, society shows a growing interest in food, in literature, books of cooking and dietetics, and approaches little self-care and well-being that will be fulfilled only several centuries later.



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