What Was the Average Diet in Medieval Times?

What Was the Average Diet in Medieval Times?

As we navigate the fascinating historical labyrinth of the middle ages, an essential aspect of daily life that often captures our curiosity is the diet of the people who lived during this time. In the medieval era, the food and drink consumed significantly differed from our modern diet due to several factors, including technological limitations, societal structure, and availability of resources. To understand typical middle-aged food, it is crucial to consider the societal status of the individuals, as what they consumed often reflected their social standing. Here’s an in-depth look at the medieval diet.

The Role of Agriculture in Medieval Diets

Agriculture was the primary source of food in medieval times. Grains such as wheat, barley, oats, and rye were grown in significant quantities, with bread serving as the staple food for most people. These grains were also used to produce beer and ale, which were safer to drink than water due to the lack of water purification methods.

Vegetables such as cabbages, onions, peas, and beans were a common part of the medieval diet. Still, they were often looked upon with suspicion as they were considered less nutritious than other food types. Fruits were consumed when in season and included apples, pears, and berries.

Animal farming, especially cattle, pigs, and poultry, also contributed to the medieval diet. Eggs and dairy products like cheese, butter, and milk were common, but consumption varied based on the wealth and social status of the individuals. The division of food among social classes brings us to our next section: What did medieval people eat?

Medieval Food Facts You Didn’t Know Before

The Middle Ages, a period that stretched from the 5th to the 15th century, is often associated with images of knights, castles, and feudal society. Yet, the food of this era is a topic that often eludes the common historical discourse. Here are some intriguing medieval food facts you might not have known.

  1. Potatoes Weren’t on the Menu: It’s hard to imagine a diet without potatoes today, but they weren’t introduced to Europe until after the Middle Ages. They were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the late 16th century.
  2. Spices Were a Status Symbol: In medieval times, spices like pepper, cinnamon, and cloves were costly and were often used to demonstrate wealth. The nobility used spices liberally in their food for flavor and to show off their affluence.
  3. Swans and Peacocks were Delicacies: Today, swans and peacocks are admired for their beauty, but in medieval times, they were considered a delicacy and were often served at banquets of the nobility.
  4. Honey Was the Primary Sweetener: Before the widespread availability of sugar, honey was the primary sweetener in the Middle Ages. Sugar, when available, was expensive and considered a luxury item.
  5. Ale Was Commonplace: With the lack of clean drinking water, ale was a common beverage as fermentation killed off harmful bacteria, making it safer to drink. Even children were known to consume it.
  6. Fish Was a Lenten Staple: During the 40 days of Lent, meat was forbidden for religious reasons. During this time, fish, particularly herring and cod, became essential to the diet.
  7. Feasts Were a Feast for the Eyes Too: At the tables of the wealthy, meals were often about more than just eating. Cooks were known to create elaborate presentations with their dishes, such as shaping meat into mythical creatures or dyeing foods with bright colors.

While the medieval diet might seem foreign to us today, it’s fascinating to learn about the culinary traditions of our ancestors, giving us a delicious insight into the past.

Social Status and Food Consumption

Medieval time foods were often starkly different based on whether they were consumed by the rich or the poor. The societal structure had a significant influence on the food distribution and, thus, the diet of individuals.

What Did Medieval Kings Eat?

The diet of medieval kings and the royal court was a reflection of their wealth and power, characterized by an abundance of foods that were considered luxuries at the time.

A king’s table would often be laden with a variety of meats and delicious mushrooms. This included venison, beef, pork, poultry, and game birds such as pheasants and partridges. During Lent and other fasting periods, fish such as pike, carp, and salmon were served. The consumption of meat in large quantities was a symbol of wealth and power, as the meat was expensive and not readily available to the lower classes.

The royal diet also included a wide range of fruits and vegetables, more so than the average peasant would consume. Imported delicacies, such as oranges and pomegranates, would be included in royal feasts.

The bread was a staple, just like in all medieval diets, but the bread at a king’s table would be of the finest quality, often white bread made from pure wheat flour. Wine, imported from vineyards across Europe, was the common drink for royalty.

Spices, such as pepper, cinnamon, and ginger, were imported from the East and used extensively to flavor the royal meals. They were a significant symbol of wealth and status, as they were costly and not easily accessible. Thus, the diet of medieval kings was an exhibition of their status, an eclectic blend of local and exotic foods prepared with elaborate culinary techniques.

Medieval Foods for the Rich

The rich and noble in medieval society enjoyed a variety of foods that were considered luxury items. Meats such as beef, pork, and various game were a significant part of the diet of the rich. Fish, particularly during the Christian season of Lent, was another food item often consumed by the wealthy.

Fruits and vegetables, though available to all, were usually consumed in more significant amounts by the wealthy as they could afford a more diverse and balanced diet. The rich could also afford imported foods, like spices from the East, used to enhance the flavor of their meals.

What Did the Middle Class Eat in the Middle Ages?

In the Middle Ages, the middle class, comprising merchants, traders, and artisans, generally enjoyed a diet that was a blend between the lavishness of the nobility and the simplicity of the peasantry.

While the middle class didn’t feast on grand platters of meats and imported luxuries like the nobility, their diet was more varied and abundant than the peasants. They had access to a wider range of foods, including modest amounts of meat, usually of better quality than the peasants could afford. This might include poultry, pork, and occasionally beef or mutton.

Cereals, particularly in the form of bread, remained a staple of the middle-class diet. However, their bread was typical of a finer quality, often made from wheat, compared to the peasants’ coarser rye or barley loaves.

Fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and eggs were also regularly consumed. Fish, especially herring and cod, was a significant part of their diet, particularly during religious fasting. The middle class also had access to spices, albeit less extensively than the nobility, and would use these to enhance the flavor of their meals. In essence, the middle-class diet was a balance between the extremes, embodying the diversity of medieval cuisine.

What Did Medieval Peasants Eat?

Contrarily, the peasant class comprised most of the population and had a more limited diet. They relied heavily on cereals and bread for sustenance. Potatoes, a staple in many modern diets, had not been introduced to Europe until after the Middle Ages, so they weren’t a part of the medieval diet.

Peasants consumed moderate dairy products, and eggs and vegetables were a significant part of their diet. The peasantry also had access to meat in lesser quantities than the rich, and usually only on special occasions. They often consumed cheaper cuts or preserved meats like bacon or sausages.

The Middle Age Menu: Food Preparation and Preservation

Without refrigeration or modern preservation methods, food storage and preparation were challenging. Salt was used to preserve meats, and fruits were often kept as jams. Drying and pickling were also common preservation techniques. The bread was baked at home or in communal ovens, and other foods were boiled, roasted, or cooked in stews.

Was the Medieval Diet Healthy?

When evaluating the healthiness of the medieval diet, it is crucial to consider the variation in food consumption among different social classes, as well as the seasonal availability of certain foods.

The peasantry’s diet consisted largely of cereals, legumes, and vegetables, along with modest amounts of dairy and occasional meat. This diet provided a sufficient amount of carbohydrates for energy, fiber for digestion, and protein for body repair. Still, their diet could sometimes lack certain vitamins and minerals, leading to deficiencies. Moreover, the lower class could suffer from periods of famine, severely impacting their health.

The middle class and nobility had access to a more balanced and diverse diet. They consumed larger quantities of meat and dairy, which provided them with more protein, vitamins, and minerals. The nobility also had access to imported fruits and spices, contributing to their diet’s variety and nutritional content. However, high consumption of red meat, wine, and rich sauces could lead to health problems such as heart disease and gout.

While we might view the medieval diet as relatively healthy due to the limited presence of processed foods and sugars, it’s important to note that their life expectancy was much lower than ours today, mainly due to disease, poor hygiene, and inadequate healthcare.

Therefore, although the medieval diet had its advantages in terms of the focus on natural, unprocessed foods, the overall healthiness of the diet varied greatly based on social status, geographical location, and availability of certain foods. Nevertheless, elements of the medieval diet, such as the emphasis on whole grains, fresh produce, and moderate meat consumption, can still be integrated into our modern diet for a balanced and healthy lifestyle. 

How Many Calories in a Medieval Diet?

Quantifying the exact caloric intake of the medieval diet can be challenging due to the considerable variation in food consumption across different social classes and seasons. Yet, historians and dietitians have made some educated guesses based on the available information.

On average, it’s estimated that a medieval peasant adult could consume between 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day, depending largely on their level of physical activity. This calorie count was primarily from grains, like bread and porridge, complemented by legumes, vegetables, and small amounts of dairy and meat.

For the wealthier classes, including the nobility, the caloric intake would likely have been higher due to the larger amounts of meat and fats in their diet and the inclusion of more refined grains. It’s plausible that their daily caloric intake could have ranged anywhere from 3,500 to 4,500 calories or more, especially during feast times.

However, these estimates can fluctuate widely based on numerous factors, including the individual’s age, sex, physical activity level, and the specific time and location in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, periods of scarcity or famine would have significantly impacted caloric intake, potentially dropping below nutritional needs for sustained periods.

Easy Medieval Food Recipes

Here are a couple of simple medieval recipes that you can try at home:

Barley Bread


  • 3 cups barley flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast


  1. Mix the honey with warm water and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let it sit for about 10 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. In a sizable bowl, blend together the barley flour, wheat flour, and salt. 
  3. Introduce the yeast mixture into the bowl and stir together until it coalesces into a dough.
  4. Subsequently, work the dough on a surface dusted with flour until it transitions into a smooth and springy texture. 
  5. Put the dough into a bowl that has been greased, then cover it with a cloth and allow it to rise for approximately one hour or until it has doubled in size.
  6. Shape the dough into a loaf and place it on a baking tray. Let it rest for another 30 minutes.
  7. Preheat your oven to 200°C (approximately 400°F). Bake the bread for about 40-50 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
  8. Let the bread cool before slicing.


Pottage is a thick stew-like dish that was a staple in the medieval diet. It can be made with a variety of ingredients, but here is a simple version.


  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 parsnips, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup dried peas
  • 1 cup of barley
  • 6 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Rinse the peas and barley under cold water.
  2. In a large pot, sauté the onions, carrots, parsnips, and garlic until the onions are translucent.
  3. Add the peas, barley, vegetable broth, and thyme to the pot.
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and let it simmer for about an hour or until the peas and barley are cooked through.
  5. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Conclusion: A Look Back at the Medieval Diet

The medieval diet, often portrayed as simple and monotonous, was, in fact, diverse and evolved based on societal structures, religious customs, and seasonal availability of resources. While the rich enjoyed an extensive array of middle-aged food, the ordinary peasants had a more limited but nutritionally adequate diet.

It’s fascinating to look back at the evolution of our diets and see how far we have come from the foods and practices of the middle ages. The differences in medieval time foods shed light not only on the historical aspects of the medieval era but also on the socio-economic factors that shaped society. Although our diet today is far more varied and nutrient-dense, understanding the medieval diet offers an exciting perspective on our historical roots.