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To eat medieval meat, or not to eat medieval meat….

It is said that eating cheese last thing at night is very bad indeed for the digestion, and will result in alternate sleeplessness or bad dreams. Well, so I have been told. I ate cheese last thing last night and slept like a log, but I woke up this morning with the odd thought about the existence of vegetarianism in English history, specifically the medieval period.

The above illustrations show what I think to be the two extremes. The knight using his knife to hack himself a goodly portion of something spit-roasted, and the elderly man being spoon fed by a woman. His wife, or nurse, perhaps?

Hermits and such persons ate no meat for ascetic reasons, and as many of them lived to a ripe old age, it clearly did them no more harm then than it does now. But did the rejection of meat spread into the population at large? I do not mean not being able to afford meat, but the decision of those who could afford it, not to eat it.

The Vegetarian Society offers a history, but it seems to leap from the likes of Pythagoras and St David, to the Renaissance. Wikipedia also has an interesting entry for the subject, and performs the same leap. So, apart from religious individuals and sects, what do we know about medieval vegetarians?

I’m in the dark here, literally, because I have never heard of any prominent medieval figure who rejected meat. I cannot imagine the likes of Henry “Hotspur” Percy choosing a plate of cabbage over the large haunch of beef that sizzled as it turned upon a spit. Or William Marshal’s nose wrinkling at the thought of a nourishing mutton stew after a hard ride through a winter storm. “Nay, sir, bring me yon dish of nuts!”

Please do not think I am mocking vegetarians, because that is not so, I am merely trying to place them in the context of the rather brutal medieval world. Even if someone like Edward IV had a hankering to decline all meat, would he have dared to do so? I am quite certain that all the knights and lords around him would have seen this as a sign of weakness. A true warrior needed red meat! The last thing a king needed was to gain a reputation for “softness”. Would the treacherous Stanleys have backed Henry Tudor if they learned he felt sick at the thought of eating anything that in life had possessed four legs? I think the outcome of Bosworth would have been very different. And where would a vegetarian have been in an aristocratic society that was obsessed with hunting? The whole scenario is surely impossible to picture.

If you go to, you’ll find an interesting article on the food of our medieval forebears, including monstrous feasts held over three days in September 1465 by held at Cawood Castle by Archbishop George Neville. 2500 people to be fed over three days! And so many living creatures slaughtered for the purpose that even I, a carnivore, feel ill at the thought. I know, I know…double standards. I plead guilty. These days menus include vegetarian options, but imagine having one’s stomach turned by the thought of the slaughter, and then having to sit at the board and smile as you chewed endlessly on one small morsel of beef, trying to make it last. Or would you sneak away to the kitchen in the hope of finding something more palatable to your conscience? I imagine cheese would be acceptable…unless there were vegans back then too. That is a further consideration, of course.

So, what happened? Unless someone can tell me the facts, I must conclude that the rejection of meat was a big no-no for our forebears, unless they were sick or very old. Most lists of famous vegetarians leap from Pythagoras and a few saints to Leonardo da Vinci. What about the generations in between? Does anyone have the answer?



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4 thoughts on “To eat medieval meat, or not to eat medieval meat….

  1. Jane McNally on said:

    I think the diet varied across Europe with the climate. Coastal and loughshore areas would have had fish and eels unavailable to upland people. The vegetarian Cathars lived in the south of France where the weather is warmer and the growing season longer. It would have been easier to grow sufficient fruit, vegetables and grain to last until the next harvest if it was all stored properly. Further north the growing season was shorter so less fruit and vegetables would have been produced. The shortfall in fruit, vegetables and grain for bread would have led to a bigger demand for meat. Medieval Ireland was noted for a diet based on cattle produce with some oatmeal used for oatcakes.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. halfwit36 on said:

    Someone told me that Elizabeth of York was a vegetarian. I forget whether the original quote was ‘ate no meat’ or ‘ate no flesh.’ Since ‘meat’ in Medieval English often meant ‘food’ generally, I doubt that, but it’s possible that she abstained from red meat and ate a lot of fish. Anyway, this would bear some looking into.
    Of course, Elizabeth wasn’t a soldier. Poor nourishment, however, might have something to do with her obstetric history and early death.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. hoodedman1 on said:

    There is certainly some evidence in the archaeological record that women, even highborn women, did sometimes eat a diet with less protein than the men. Enough, in some cases, to probably be to their detriment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. sylvia cheney on said:

    I have always understood that pottage, the mainstay food of the middle ages, was basically made of vegetables and grains, with the odd bit of bacon or other meat. Feats were not everyday occurances,so far as is known,and where kept for religious festivals or other special accaisions – probably quite a few people even of higher ranks, wre mainlt vegetarian.And everyone was expected to fast twice a week, and if not totallt fasting, taking only fish.

    Liked by 1 person

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