Manuscripts in the Kitchen

By Jenny Weston

(My apologies if you received an e-mail with an unfinished version of this post a few days ago— A case of hitting the wrong button while writing)! 

The holidays are upon us! During this festive season, we can all look forward to heading home for a break, catching up with friends, and of course enjoying a few delicious meals, which brings us to this week’s holiday blog topic of—manuscripts in the kitchen!

Luttrell Psalter, f. 207v © The British Library

Chef with a terrifying knife, Luttrell Psalter, f. 207v © The British Library

Despite the fact that I have spent a considerable amount of time studying medieval history (and one would hope my view of the Middle Ages would be somewhat accurate), when I think of medieval food, I can’t help but imagine a portly woman stirring a giant pot of turnip stew over a crackling fire—or perhaps a merry dinner party, with some kind of gigantic roasted animal displayed in the centre of the table. Admittedly, my understanding of ‘medieval cuisine’ is probably more informed by my interest in bad medieval-themed movies, rather than actual scholarship.

So what were the medievals cooking up in the kitchen all those centuries ago? What type of ingredients were they using and how did they prepare them? To answer such questions, we can look to manuscript illustrations, some of which give us helpful clues as to what the medievals were snacking on (click on the image for a closer view):

Having identified some important medieval ingredients, we can now shift our attention to how medieval cooks may have prepared food in the kitchen. What types of recipes were they following? While medieval cookbooks are rare, they do exist, and they can give us a fairly good idea of what types of dishes were on the medieval menu.

One of the most popular 14th-century French cookbooks was the Viandier de Taillement. 

Modern Edition of the "Viandier de Taillevent"

Modern Edition of the “Viandier de Taillevent”

This book contained a number of different recipes, such as ‘Chicken Hotchpotch’, ‘Pork Intenstine’, and my personal favourite, ‘Jelly of Slimy Fish’. (For an online edition of these dishes, click here).

Having looked through the Viandier (and a few other medieval recipes) it is fairly obvious that most dishes (for fancy occasions) incorporated red meat or poultry —there is even a guide to cooking pigeon properly. That being said, the medieval cook was apparently not opposed to adding various vegetables, including chard, cabbage, turnips and leeks, as well as spices, such as cumin and saffron.

I also found it interesting to learn that most fruits and vegetables were cooked, as it was widely believed that raw foods carried disease. And, despite my original belief that most medieval dishes were fairly simple (roasted boar, leg of lamb, cabbage pie), some banquets and festive feasts presented a fun opportunity for medieval chefs to get creative. The following online cooking video (from the series Heston’s Medieval Feast) follows a rather spectacular medieval recipe for making meat look like shiny fruit.

(Vegetarians beware! The first part of the video involves the graphic preparation of a bull’s testicle

The Medieval “Meat Fruit Bowl”:

And so it appears that the medievals also had fun in the kitchen, cooking up new creations and experimenting with interesting recipes. Perhaps over the holidays you might even find the courage to try out some of these medieval dishes yourself (though I doubt that any of your dinner guests will enjoy being served ‘Jelly of Slimy Fish’). Happy Holidays!

Tasty Meal together, Luttrell Psalter, f. 208 © The British Library

Festive feast! Luttrell Psalter, f. 208 © The British Library

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