I was at a writer's retreat this weekend when one of my friends posted a link on Facebook for an article for writers about food in fantasy. I happily clicked through, expecting to see a nice bit of writing that would dispel the common myths about medieval European cooking - after all, there's so much more information available now, and all the old bunk about the middle-ages was debunked a decade ago, right?
Sadly, it was not to be. As the other writers around me can attest, I made all sorts of noises as I read the article, including gasps of disbelief and strangled cries of mental anguish. It was ok through the first five paragraphs, but after that it completely went off the rails.
So, of course, I am compelled to post a rebuttal. Are you surprised? I didn't think so.
Some of what the article says about sugar (the origins, the early use of other sweeteners-primarily honey, etc.) is essentially correct. But it implies that sugar in Europe was incredibly rare and expensive.
"Sugar was still a luxury in Europe and America until the 18th century, when demand led to the creation of sugar plantations in the New World, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and India, using slave and indentured labour."
"In a fantasy world similar to our Europe at any time up to the 18th century, sugar would most likely be a rare and expensive commodity."
Based upon the prices in 15th century London (Prof. John H. Munro, University of Toronto), a craftsman's daily wages could buy a half pound of sugar. Yes, that's a lot of money, but it's also a half pound of freakin' sugar for a single day, which is about double the current level of US sugar consumption per capita.
This is not to say that they were eating that much sugar back then, but rather that (for the growing middle class and nobility) there was plenty of sugar to be had. If the characters in your fantasy world are poor then they'd probably have stuff sweetened with honey, otherwise they can probably get sugar.
The article clearly suggests that meat consumption was not what it is today.
"Without the large scale farming and production that we know today, meat would be less common and much more expensive."
The main reason that modern society requires modern levels of meat production is that we have a very small percentage of our population that actually produces food. Everyone else builds stuff, moves stuff, or pushes paper (or data) around. The few "farmers" we have must do a lot more work to feed everyone.
Yes, medieval agriculture did produce less meat, but they also had way fewer mouths to feed.
There have been a bunch of recent studies which tested the levels of carbon, nitrogen, and iodine in medieval skeletal remains to determine the relative consumption of meat, plants, and fish. They've all shown that medieval meat consumption wasn't out of line with that of the modern diet.
What's more, one study compared the level of meat consumption between the poor and the wealthy and concluded, "No convincing case for social variation in diet can nevertheless be made by comparing isotopic with archaeological and anthropological data."
It's also worth noting that documents from medieval prisons show that prisoners were fed up to two pounds of meat per week. If meat were as scarce as the article suggests then I expect there would have been long lines of people waiting to get thrown in jail.
One final criticism on the topic, the article says:
"Even if a poor family lives next to a wood full of game, they may not necessarily be able to hunt there."This is technically true, but the poor family could easily raise chickens and pigs for their own consumption or to sell ... and they usually did.
Fruits and Vegetables
The article goes on to discuss the consumption levels of other foodstuffs, and starts off with a statement that is, at best, wildly inaccurate.
"Vegetables are probably going to make up the main bulk of a fantasy character’s diet in any period or setting, unless the character is very rich."
As shown in the section above, the poor got plenty of meat. Further, a huge amount of the daily caloric intake for all classes took the form of bread. The poor got bread from a mixed variety of grains (sometimes called "maslin bread") and the wealthy got fine, white bread (called "manchets" or "paindemain"). Workers in England's manoral system received one or two meals a day as part of their pay, and those meals were often documented to include a full pound of bread per person.
Yes, they ate lots of fruits and vegetables. Whatever was in season was going to be eaten (or preserved if possible), however they were not "the main bulk", regardless of social class. Further, there is plenty of documentation that shows the medieval nobility often had the same health issues related to a crappy diet that we have now: diabetes, obesity, and gout. So some of them (like some of us) didn't eat enough fruits and veggies.
Then there's this little snippet:
"Potatoes, conversely, are notorious for growing almost anywhere."I think that sentence made me gag a few times. Yes, potatoes grow everywhere ... except for anywhere outside of the Americas before the year 1500. Potatoes are a new-world plant. They didn't have them in medieval Europe. So, just ... no.
Go ahead and look at Professor Monroe's page again. Spices were expensive in medieval Europe, but they weren't that expensive. Meat pies sold to the working class in the local market would likely have some spice (probably cinnamon). Saffron, which currently is and always has been the most expensive spice in the world, is included in about half of the recipes in medieval cookbooks. Yes, those books were meant for nobles and the middle class, but they were still consuming an incredible amount of spices each year.
From rough calculations, I've figured that spices were about ten times as expensive then as they are now (based on "minimum wage"). That's pretty pricey, but not out of reach ... even for the working class.
The paragraph on water is just plain wrong. Medieval Europeans drank plenty of water, and most of it was perfectly safe. The alcohol content in medieval wine and ale wasn't high enough to kill off parasites. Wells back then weren't any more polluted than they are now.
It can be very useful for writers to consider food for their settings, and adding food references to stories or games set in a medieval fantasy world can add a great amount of realism. Just be sure to get your information from a reliable source.