Food in Twelfth Century Scotland

 Old variety apples, Priowood Garden, Melrose, Scotland

apples are found in the Priorwood Garden in Melrose, Scotland, just beside Melrose Abbey. In the Middle Ages, most apples  were not sweet enough to eat. They were grown to be made into cider.

    For most ordinary people in 12th century Scotland, food varied very little from day to day.  Fresh meat was a luxury, and cereal grains, mainly oats, barley and rye, made up most of the diet. These are grains that grow well in cooler weather. The climate in the 12th century was warmer than it would be in coming centuries, so it’s likely that some wheat could be grown in Teviotdale, but if the weather was colder or damper than usual, the crop might be lost. The Normans, coming from warmer climates, preferred wheat, and bread made from wheat would be eaten only by people with rank or wealth.

    So, what would you eat if you were an ordinary person living in 12th century Teviotdale? Mostly porridge, bread and ale. Every fiefdom had its own mill, belonging to the lord, but run by a miller. Here, the ripe, dried grain would be ground into flour. If the mill stones were made of soft stone, the flour might include fragments of stone. Bread was not like the bread we eat now. It was flat and more like pita bread, made into small, round, flat loaves. A single loaf could be eaten at a meal. People who had no bread ovens probably made bannock, a type of bread that can be cooked on an open fire. Bannock is still made today. Porridge was made from oats or barley.

    Most cooking was done on fires in open hearths. In larger households, the kitchen was always located in a shed away from other buildings to prevent a fire from spreading if the kitchen burnt down.  In 12th century Scotland, cooking was done in pottery crocks, not  iron pots. This must have worked something like a slow-cooker would work today, but pottery will break if exposed to high temperatures. The cooks must have been very skilled to get good results from this method.

    People drank ale and wine which would have been safer than water because the fermentation process would kill any germs in the water. It’s important to remember, though, that the alcohol content was much weaker than it is in comparable drinks today. Ale was made from barley. As much as a third of the barley crop went to ale in Scotland. Each fiefdom would have an ale house where ale was brewed. Women also brewed ale in their kitchens in the same way they made bread and other foods. Where there was a specialized ale house, the brewer might also be a woman. Brewing was so much a part of the woman’s ordinary work that the term “alewife” survives in the English language. 

    Wine was not made in Britain and had to be imported from places such as the south of France, but there was no way of preserving it and it did not keep. An Anglo-Norman nobleman Peter de Blois had this to say about the wine served in the court of Henry II, who was the king of England at the time:

          “The wine is turned sour or moldy–thick, greasy, stale, flat and smacking of pitch. I
     sometimes have seen even great lords served with wine so muddy that a man must needs
     close his eyes and clench his teeth, wry-mouthed and shuddering, and filtering the stuff
     rather than drinking.” 

    Peas and beans could be dried for winter use, but most vegetables were only eaten when in season. In Scotland, the main vegetable was kale, a cabbage-like vegetable that could survive the average winter in milder areas. It was chopped and stewed. Wild fruits were gathered, including cherries, apples, blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, rowan berries and hazelnuts.

    By looking at the bones left in refuse heaps, archaeologists have discovered that beef was the most commonly eaten meat in Scotland during the Middle Ages. Sheep were grown almost everywhere for wool, and they were the second most popular source of meat. The other meats people ate, in descending order were pig, goat, horse and deer. Fresh meat could be salted (cured with dry salt), picked (cured with salt in water, called “brine”) or smoked to preserve. Chickens and geese were kept for food, and people who lived near rivers or the sea ate fish and other seafood.

To Find Out More     

To try some recipes from the Middle Ages and find out more about the food, visit  A Boke of Gode Cookery ,
a frequently up dated web site full of information.

Information on this page came from the following sources:

Life in a Medieval Castle, by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper & Row, 1974.

Medieval Scotland: An Archaeological Perspective, by Peter Yeoman, B.T. Batsford Ltd/Historic
Scotland, 1995.

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