spice-use-art - 12/20/04
"The Question of Heavy Spice Use and Rotten Food" by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan’s Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
The Question of Heavy Spice Use and Rotten Food!
No they did not eat Rotten Meat/Food!
By Da`ved Man of Letters
Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.
Spices being used to make spoiled meat edible or for use in
preserving food is one of the most popular myths associated with
the Middle or Dark Ages. Spices were imported from Southeast
Asia and were among the most precious substances known in the
Middle Ages. They were the prerogative of the upper classes,
with some being worth more then their weight in gold. To limit
their function to food preservation and explain their use solely
in those terms would be like calling champagne a good thirst
quencher (Schiv. 6).
The few surviving recipe manuscripts (that list amounts)
list excessive (at least to the modern mind) amounts of spices.
This would add credence to the myth, except when you take into
account the quality of the spice used. The differnce in power
and freshness of the spice they received and what we use today is
tremendous. Their spices traveled on camel back through all
kinds of weather, wraped in leather or other animal hides, then
had a sea voyage in leaky ships. We must not forget all the
middle men along its journey. It is well documented that many a
merchant was killed in nasty ways for the crime of adulterating
There were suitable native herbs which could have been used
by the poor to make spoiled meat palatable. This type of
explanation runs into a problem also as the diet of the poor
(serfs, and peasants, beggars etc..) very rarely included meat.
When it did it was probably poached (illegally hunted) and was
either eaten quickly (Hares, small birds, stolen geese, etc...),
smoked, salted, turned into jerky (Venison) or traded with other
villagers. Fresh Meat for the local Lord could be had at any
time by hunting or fresh slaughter. Most local Lords would hold
annual feasts for all under their control, at which large
quantities of meat was served, to all assembled. These were
often held after Lent ended, the traditional Religious period of
meat abstention. The purpose of the feasts was to inspire
loyalty, respect and awe in the Lords subjects, peers and
enemies. A Nobles power was measured by the extravagance of
these feasts. They flaunted the Illusion of enormous wealth ,
which could easily be transferred into power. Those under noble
status (serfs, peasants etc...) took these banquets as a show of
goodness, spirituality and charity. The amount of effect upon
the local populace was in direct relation to the tax rate imposed
on the area by said Lord.
There is a large amount of archaeological evidence that meat
was left to 'age,'as is still done today. The 'ageing' process
is literally rotting, in the sense that a mold does grow upon the
meats outer skin. This process must take place in 1-3 degrees
Centigrade and takes from ten days to three weeks. This is done,
because lactic acid accumulates and provides the medium for
natural enzymes to change proteins into amino acids. This
increases the tenderness and improves the flavor of all meats.
There are many references to this process taking place, to the
disfavor of some. One German traveller wrote of the French and
how: "...They in Paris, do age their meat far too long..." This
process is only done on beef however, which was rare on the bill
of fare for all but the very wealthy, as you would not eat your
The variety of plants used as food was limited in the early
Medieval period. The major plants were beans, dried stems,
chaff, root vegetables (turnip, onion, leek, radishes, period
carrots, and thin parsnips) barley and potherbs like cabbage,
spinach, and root vegetable tops, especially in north and west
Europe. Some areas had wheat and oats but the total production
was low until changes and new inventions in agriculture in the
high Middle Ages. Heavy fall butchering and preserving was a
direct result of a chronic scarcity of winter fodder (before
1500) in most of Europe. Most of the wheat went to bread, and
the other grains went to beer production, a basic necessity of
Food quality became important as early as the tenth century,
when by law, oxen had to be slaughtered in the presence of least
two witnesses. Butchering usually began around the feast of St.
Michealmas (Nov. 11). Some people located in rural areas may
have butchered their own meat but most would have hired a
professional butcher to kill, joint and salt the meat. "It would
have made sense to pay a skilled butcher; contaminated or damaged
meat will deteriorate quickly." (Fenton, 129-30) The rich also
made salting a class distinction in that "only the poor ate
unsalted pork." This and the speed with which pork turns had
direct influence in creating the tradition of abstaining from
eating pork in the summer months.
Cattle were the most expensive animals to keep through the
winter but were rarely slaughtered. (Gies;3, 149) The poor often
formed partnerships to buy a draught animal in the spring and
sell them to speculators after the season ended. These business
men would feed them through the winter and resell the beasts for
a profit the following spring. The poor usually kept pigs being
easier to care for as they could protect themselves from
predators. They could also be left to forage in the woods in
spring and summer, (on acorns, beechmast, crab apples, hazelnuts
and leaves) and in winter would be fed whey, stored acorns and
even beer. The medieval breed of pig was slow to fatten, but the
sow farrowed twice a year and according to record produces about
seven piglets per litter. The hen of the period was not the
prolific egg factory as in modern times, and was breed as a meat
source rather than for the eggs. Meat of any kind was not worth
preserving unless it was in prime condition, as salting added 40
per cent to the cost of the meat. At late thirteenth-century
prices it took 2d worth of salt (2 pounds) to cure 5d worth of
meat (20 pounds) (Burnett, 30/Bridbury, 29). The Size of animals
through the Late Renaissance were smaller than most modern
breeds. This was actually an advantage for the simple
preservation methods used through out Europe.
Pepper, Ginger, Cinnamon were to the Medieval mind pieces of
paradise. Spices as a link to paradise, and the vision of
paradise as a real place somewhere in the East fascinated the
medieval imagination. Pepper cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Cloves were
status symbols for the ruling class, emblems of power which were
displayed and then consumed. The moderation or excess with which
they were served attested to the host's social rank. People of
the Middle Ages recognized the beneficial medicinal properties of
spices and herbs.
A recipe for keeping mutton over the winter from Le
Me'nagier de Paris specifies the need for salt only. Salt,
vinegar, drying, and storing in fat were the main means of
keeping food for long periods of time (Scappi, 6v). Apuleius
wrote recipes for preserving fruit, meat , and what to do with
food in danger of going bad. This text was written in the fourth
or fifth century showing early reference to safe food practices.
This text separates preservation methods by the season that they
work best in. Apuleius's work was plagiarized by an unknown
author and used in Apicius's work De re coquinaria. Giambattista
della Porta wrote in his Natural Magick that salt is the
universal preservative and offered the suggestion that honey may
be used if one is seeking an alternative; spices are not
mentioned in connection with preservation of food (Porta, 323).
Similarly, spices were not added to cover the bad taste of
rotting food. If the food was tainted, one threw it away, this
is why they went to various lengths to prevent decay. Platina,
for example, advised that a knife be plunged into a ham. Cooking
and preparation might proceed only if the smell were good; if the
smell proved bad, the meat was to be discarded (De honesta
Voluptate, bk 6). This ties in the Medieval belief that bad
smells caused disease, thus increasing the need for pomanders and
strewing herbs to keep any bad smells away. The knowledge of
herbs was extensive, and several strewing herbs are still used as
bug repellents, and antiseptics.
In France the authorities took a close interest in the
condition of all pork offered for sale; there were even
langueyeurs (tongue inspectors)... In Venice all fish had to be
taken to 'the tall pole' in the markets at San Marco and Rialto
... and were inspected daily for stale fish, which the law
required to be taken away and destroyed. In Champagne, (France)
there was reported that the tavern inspector was very through.
He tasted the wine, offered it to others, and asked local
frequenters of the establishment the price charged for various
beverages. The penalties varied with the crime; from drinking
your own brew, to public hanging for adulterating Saffron. The
Medieval man took his food very seriously.
Given the availability of alternatives such as salt, honey,
and lard for preserving meat (along with smoking and drying), and
acknowledging that spices were difficult and expensive to obtain,
we can only conclude that the belief that rotten food was
purposely eaten is a misconception. The facts of available
documentation show that the quality of food preservation was
extremely high. It further shows that all the peoples from Noble
to serf were concerned with the quality of food, bought sold and
eaten. It is often mentioned that unscrupulous food merchants
were often caught selling bad products. But this was unknown to
the customer as a period joke will contest: A man asked the
sausage butcher for a discount because he had been a faithful
customer for seven years. "Seven Years!" exclaimed the butcher.
"And you're still alive?".(Gies;2, 49) Finally People of the
Middle Ages often resorted to Cannibalism before eating rotten
food. This however is meat for another article.
Ashtor, Eliyahu; "An Essay on the Diet of the Various
Classes in the Medieval Levant."; In Biology of Man in
History, Ed Robert Forster, Trans. Elborg Forster and
Patricia M. Ranum. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
Bennett, H.S.; Life on the English Manor, A Study of Peasant
Conditions, 1150-1400; Cambridge. 1960. (first Pub. 1937.)
Brereton, Georgine E. and Janet M. Ferrier; Le Me'nagier de
Paris; Oxford; Clarendon, 1981. Translated also as The
Goodman of Paris; London; Routledge, 1928.
Bridbury, A. R.; England and the Salt Trade in the Later
Middle Ages, 1955.
Burnett, J.; A History of the Cost of Living. 1968.
Camporesi, Piero; The Incorruptible Flesh; Bodily Mutation
and Mortification in Religion and Folklore; Trans Tania
Crofts Murray. Latin text trans. Helen Elsom. Cambridge
Univ. press. 1988. First published as La carne impassible.
Milan; Saggiatire, 1983.
Coulton, G.G. Trans; Life in the Middle Ages Vols. I-IV;
Cambridge Univ. Press. NY. 1967.
Coulton, G.G. trans.; Medieval Village, Manor, and
Monastery; Cambridge Univ. Press. NY. First in 1925, Harper
and Row. NY. 1960.
Davis Ph D., William Stearns; Life on a Mediaeval Barony: A
Picture of a Typical Feudal Community in the Thirteenth
Century; Harper & Brothers Pub. NY. 1923.
D'Haucourt, Genevieve; Trans by Veronica Hull and
Christopher Fernau; Life in the Middle Ages; Walker and Co.
Duby, George; Ed.;A History of Private Life II, Revelations
of the Medieval World; The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ.
Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1988.
Fenton, A. and Kisban; Food in Change: Eating Habits from
the Middle Ages to the Present Day; John Donald with the
National Museums of Scotland. 1986.
Flower, Barbara and Elisabeth Rosembaum; The Roman
Cookery Book, a critical translation of The Art of Cooking
by Apicius for use in the study and the kitchen; George G.
Harrap & Co. Ltd. London. 1958.
Giacosa, Ilaria Gozzini;Trans, by Anna Herklotz; A Taste of
Ancient Rome; The Univ. of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL. 1992.
Gies, Frances and Joseph;1 Life in a Medieval Castle; Thomas
Y. Crowell Co, NY. 1974.
Gies, Frances and Joseph;2 Life in a Medieval City; Harper
and Row, NY. 1969.
Gies, Frances and Joseph;3 Life in a Medieval Village;
Harper and Row, NY. 1990.
Hale, William Harlan; The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated
History of Eating and Drinking through the Ages; American
Heritage Pub. Co.Inc.; Doubleday and Co. Inc. NY. 1968.
Hagen, Ann; A Handbook of ANGLO-SAXON FOOD Processing and
Consumption; Anglo-Saxon Books, Pinner, Middlesex, England.
Herter, George Leonard and Berthe E.; Bull Cook and
Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices in 2 Vol.;
Herters Inc., Waseca, Mi. 1972.
Holmes, George Ed.; The Oxford Illustrated History of
Medieval Europe; Oxford Univ. Press, NY. 1988.
Holmes, Urban Tigner; Daily living in the Twelfth Century;
Univ. of Wisconsin Press. Madison, Wi. 1952.
Laduric, E.LeRoy; Times of Feast, Times of Famine; 1971.
Lucas, H.S.; The Great European Famines of 1315, 1316 and
McGee, Harold; On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of
the Kitchen; Charles Scribner's Sons. NY. 1984.
Messisbugo, Cristoforo di; Banchetti: Composizioni di
vivande e apparecchio generale;  Ed. F. Bandini.
Venice: Pozza, 1960.
Miller, James Innes; The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire, 29
B.C. to A. D. 641. Oxford; Clarendon, 1969.
Mintz, Sidney W.; Sweetness and Power: the place of sugar in
modern history; Viking. NY. 1985.
Peterson, T. Sarah; Acquired Taste; The French Origins of
Modern Cooking; Cornell Univ. Press. Ithaca. 1994.
Platina, Bartolomeo; De honesta voluptate; [Venice,1475] St.
Louis; Mallinkrodt, 1967. Published in French as De
l;honneste vloupte'; Paris; Sergent, 1539.
Power, Eileen; trans. Goodman of Paris; London. 1928.
Renfrow, Cindy; Take a Thousand Eggs or More: A Collection
of 15th Century Recipes 2 Vol.; Cindy Renfrow. USA. 1990.
Sass, Lorna J.; To The King's Taste: Richard II's book of
feasts and recipes adapted for modern cooking: The
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1975.
Scappi, Barolomeo; Opera; Venice : Tramezzino, 1570; Vecchi,
Schivelbusch, Wolfgang; Tastes of Paradise, a social
history of spices stimulants, and Intoxicants; Tran. David
Jacobson; Pantheon Books. NY. 1992.
Tannahill, Reay; Food in History; Crown Pub. Co. NY. 1988.
Copyright 1997 by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric, <medieval_man_inc at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and is notified by email.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.