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spice-use-art - 12/20/04


"The Question of Heavy Spice Use and Rotten Food" by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.


NOTE: See also the files: spices-msg, herbs-msg, herbs-cooking-msg, food-storage-msg, stockfish-msg, meat-smoked-msg.





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                              Thank you,

                                   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.


                         Works Cited


   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

   1317; 1930.


   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; [1549] 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.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org