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Column: What was Christmas food like in medieval Ireland?

Pottage, cheap pies and lethal take-aways; medieval spreads weren’t too appetising for commoners, writes Fin Dwyer.

Fin Dwyer

WE OFTEN HEAR how the spirit of Christmas is lost as people use the festive season as an excuse to eat and drink to excess. While it may be true such concerns are nothing new. In 1367, the archbishop of Dublin Thomas Minot complained people were not engaging in religious observance on holy days but instead spending the days in “taverns and drunkenness and other illicit acts of pleasure”.

While The 12 Pubs of Christmas phenomenon might be a recent craze, Archbishop Minot would still no doubt find our drinking more refined. In 1300 a patron of a Cork tavern lost his left eye when someone threw an oyster shell over his shoulder, while a woman was wounded when a horse was maliciously driven through a tavern in Wexford in 1302.

A Christmas without turkey

While such boozing has long been part of our festive celebrations, our Christmas food has changed dramatically. Some of the key components of a modern Christmas dinner were unknown in medieval Ireland – turkey, spuds and indeed cranberries would only arrive in Europe after the conquest of North America began in the 16th century. While hard to imagine without turkey, festive dinners – for the rich at least – were no less indulgent than they are today.

If you had the money, there was a vast array of succulent foods indeed the medieval food market was far more diverse than we might imagine. Roast lamb, beef, fowl including capons (castrated roosters) and pastries survive in accounts from 14th century Dublin. Other documents mention larks roasted in cinnamon and cloves and geese cooked in garlic. Spices and flavourings available (to those who could afford them) included ginger, saffron and olive oil. If meat wasn’t your thing a wide variety of fresh fish such as salmon, plaice and trout were available. For sweeter dishes, rice cooked in almond milk or figs provided a succulent if expensive alternative.

Pottage, cheap pies and lethal pasties

Delightful as this food sounds, the vast majority in the medieval world could not afford such treats. Mass produced foods had yet to arrive on the stage of history so most people’s diets varied little throughout the year. The standard dish of later medieval Europe was pottage, a sort of vegetable stew which if banal was relatively healthy. Made from peas, beans, onions leeks and kale it was augmented with meat on special occasions.

Bland as this may seem, pottage was by no means the worst. Some people were reduced to eating far less appetising meals. The very poor worried more about whether they ate, rather than what they ate. The urban poor in medieval society often relied on pre-cooked foods for sale in town markets and streets. Often lacking their own homes or the pots to cook in, they ran a gauntlet by eating the medieval equivalent of a takeaway.

Cheap pies, pasties and other precooked foods in the absence of food inspectors could be lethal. The famous Canterbury Tales, medieval stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer, mentioned fly infested pie shops where one could buy reheated soggy pies while another contemporary poet William Langland mentioned how the poor of London were poisoned with bad food.

The situation in Ireland was no different. In Kilkenny laws had to be enacted against cooks “who boil meat or fish in bread or water or in any other way not fit for human consumption”. So as you tuck into the Christmas dinner, spare a thought for your long dead relations who had nothing better than a bad takeaway if they were lucky on Christmas day!

Fin Dwyer is a historian and blogger at www.irishhistorypodcast.ie. He has recently published “Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome, Life in Medieval Ireland”. Its available in hardback in all good bookshops for 19.99 and online from www.newisland.ie

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Fin Dwyer

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