Medieval Europe and the Rise of Regional Cuisines

Early medieval towns tended to be governmental and ecclesiastical sites. They would have a count, a high government officer, a great monastery, and a bishop, and a small community of merchants. Later on, these towns would become faux-burgs, where a small group of part-time merchants would gather on the outskirts of town.

Meat

While the late middle ages were considered a period of culinary decadence, their cookery has never been explored in great detail. Nevertheless, there are numerous references that document the customary foods of aristocratic European societies. These recipes, which have been translated into modern English and made available for the general public, show a diverse range of dishes that suited the lifestyle of the wealthy. In this book, Dr Scully explores the theory and practice of medieval cookery, demonstrating its interconnectedness with regional food culture. Detailed descriptions of six medieval regions are presented by food historians.

Spices

The Middle Ages was a time of spice trade, and spice buyers spanned a wide range of social classes. They ranged from lords to bourgeoisie and craftsmen. Spices were a major part of medieval gastronomy, and the elite consumed them in massive quantities. They were used to treat disease and promote well-being, as well as to perfume important ceremonies. They were also symbols of beauty, affluence, taste, and grace. As a result, spices drove the trade and commerce of medieval Europe.

Churches


The Church was the major distributor of charity at this time, offering alms to those in need, running basic hospitals, temporarily housing travellers, and providing places of sanctity. They also provided an education for their clergy, and many of the texts and artworks of the time came from the Church. This education was uncommon in the agrarian societies of the Middle Ages, but the Church’s influence on art, culture, and religion was profound.

Illiteracy


In the Middle Ages, literacy rates fluctuated irregularly. It grew most rapidly among the middle and upper classes, men, and towns. The rate of illiteracy among gentry declined from 30% to almost zero by the 1600s, whereas illiteracy rates among day labourers remained well above 90%. Despite this variation, historians tend to use more direct indicators of literacy. For example, the ability to sign documents is often considered a standard and universal indicator of literacy. Nonetheless, it highlights the extent of social divisions, even if illiteracy rates did not change as drastically.

Peasants
The period between the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe and the Renaissance is often referred to as the “medieval” period of history. This is a time when economies were decentralized, long distance trade slowed, and literacy almost disappeared. Self-sufficient estates began to appear in western Europe. A feudal society emerged, and food was prepared in regional styles. The spread of Christianity shaped the landscape of medieval society.

Knights


During the Middle Ages, knights and lords were aristocrats steeped in military culture. They were trained from a very young age to fight and to defend their lords. They would participate in mock battles, known as tournaments, to earn the honor of serving the lord. The knights lived in the halls of their lords and were usually provided with small fiefs.

Churches in Medieval Europe


The term “regional” is derived from the Middle Ages, when various regions developed their own unique specialties. The rise of the Middle Ages was also accompanied by the rise of literacy. The word “clerk” is linked to the word “cleric,” as it was the only profession expected to be literate in medieval times. The local priest would instruct boys to become clerics by teaching them to read and write. The boys were sent to a monastery to continue their education, with their lessons centered on grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

Foodways in Medieval Europe


As Europe’s population grew during the twelfth century, foodways were in flux. Populations reached a peak before the great plague in 1348, but it did not end there. The continent’s deteriorating climate contributed to poor harvests and famines. In 1347, the Black Death struck, killing a third of Europe’s population within five years. The region paid a heavy price for resuming trade. The first outbreak of plague was in the Genoese outpost of Caffa, north of the Black Sea. This plague spread rapidly along trade routes and reached Scandinavia two years later.

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