Here's a taste of life in those medieval dining halls

Europe's largest medieval convention arrived at Leeds University this week to reveal some surprising facts about how our ancestors lived. Education Reporter Ian Rosser reports.

FANCY tucking into roast chicken with strawberry sauce and pomegranate seeds? Or what about leeks in almonds and spiced ginger bread?

No, these two adventurous dishes are not on the menu at a fancy Leeds restaurant. Rather, they were the dishes lords and ladies would have been tucking into more than 500 years ago.

The culinary habit of late 15th century England is one of hundreds of topics on the timetable at Europe's biggest medieval convention at Leeds University this week.

The International Medieval Congress (IMC), founded in 1994, provides the platform for intellectual debate in the field of medieval studies.

Hosted by the university's Institute for Medieval Studies, the IMC attracts about 1,400 medievalists from around 40 countries. It is the largest annual academic conference in the UK based on the numbers of papers delivered, and the largest annual conference in the humanities in Europe.

And one of the hottest topics at this year's four-day event was – what early westerners have in their larder? Apart from the oatmeal bread and boiled beef, there was a surprisingly rich and varied list of ingredients which included valuable spices such as caraway, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, garlic and pepper.


"Wealthy noblemen in late 15th century England would serve spicy food to guests to demonstrate their social standing," said Caroline Yeldham an historian who has specialised in Medieval and Tudor cookery for 14 years.

"Spices and other commonly used ingredients such as sugar, honey, almonds, dates, figs and raisins which came from foreign lands, and were therefore extremely expensive, were added to everything from pork pies to fruit compote."

Caroline and Mark Dawson, head chef at Weetwood Hall in Leeds, cooked up their own version of medieval food for visiting scholars, historians and museum professionals attending the Congress

Their choices consisted of dishes derived from Forme of Cury, the first English Medieval cookery book, attributed to the chefs of the court of Richard II.

Guests helped themselves from platters of food which included the aforementioned roast chicken with strawberry sauce and pomegranate seeds, and the leeks in almonds and spiced ginger bread, alongside a mutton with onion salsa.

But there were also reminders that not all medieval folk ate like lords. For mere commoners, dinner was more likely to have consisted of wholemeal bread, boiled beef or mutton, bean, pea or oatmeal potage with vegetables, and mustard as a flavouring.

Caroline has been sharing her knowledge of medieval food with IMC delegates since 2001. This year, in between attending presentations of papers covering all manner of subjects from reluctant virgins to female undertakers, from courtly knights to grumpy old men, from popes to prisoners of war, dinner guests have once again been converted to Caroline's cause.

"There's always an element of surprise to how tasty the dishes are," she said.

While the modern British palate is accustomed to exotic combinations of foods from afar the Victorian and Edwardian editors of the first reprints of medieval cookery books were less enthusiastic.


"The word 'disgusting' is often mentioned in the accompanying notes," laughed Caroline.

"It's a lovely cuisine, with wonderful recipes giving a wide variety of subtle flavours, using an enormous variety of ingredients. They were much more active than modern people, and the food is very healthy, dominated by what is in season.

"Although meat was very important, it has a surprising emphasis on fish, fresh fruit and vegetables. Gardeners also grew a wide variety of fresh herbs ."

Torture in prison? Think again ... more like free beer in your cell

THINK of a medieval prison and you might imagine malnourished inmates locked away in darkness by sadistic guards.

In reality, prisoners were more likely to be given beer by the mayor than be banged away in solitary confinement.

Contrary to popular belief, the medieval legal system was in many respects more enlightened than today's version, according to University of Cambridge historian Helen Mary Carrel.

"The common view of the medieval justice system as cruel and based around torture and execution is often unfair and inaccurate," said Mrs Carrel, research assistant at Clare College, speaking at the IMC.

"In fact, medieval townspeople saw it as their Christian duty to show mercy to offenders who were sent to prison. Prisoners were obliged to pay fees to their gaolers for their upkeep, so they depended upon being given alms by the devout as a means of obtaining food, drink and other necessities.

"Consequently, prisons were much more public than nowadays – passers-by could often see prisoners through the bars and gave them charity in this way – even the mayor and other local politicians considered it good PR to publicly bring food and ale to prisoners.

"Solitary confinement was usually as a sanction only to be used against the very worst offenders because it removed the possibility of receiving alms from the charitable.

"In some prisons, especially in London, Nottingham and Colchester, prisoners were allowed out to beg. And in several towns, prisoners were even allowed to keep working from the gaol, provided they gave the gaoler a fixed cut of their takings."

Attitudes towards public punishments such as the stocks or pillory is another aspect of the period we think of as barbaric, but according to Mrs Carrel, for the medieval population it was often regarded as a way of ensuring that prisoners were treated as humanely as possible, as well as being preferable to long periods spent in prison.


Medieval offences included drunkenness, gossiping, scolding, eavesdropping, theft, forgery, impersonation, adultery, illicit gaming, idleness and false begging. In addition, insulting or injuring the mayor or other senior town officials could also lead to a short spell behind bars.

"This was more of a cooling-off period for the parties concerned, without seriously damaging their health or financial prospects.

"It was, basically, the medieval equivalent of being sent to your room," said Mrs Carrel.

However, if the insult originated from another town politician, it warranted an added act of atonement on top of a few days in prison. Offenders often had to perform a highly ritualised apology in front of the rest of the members of local government, usually on their knees, weeping and begging the mayor's forgiveness – and submitting to any sanctions ordered.

"I think there'd be some strong public support for the re-introduction of that particular punishment!" said Mrs Carrel.

Illuminating glimpse into history... coming on the net!

A RARE history of the world written in medieval times will soon be available to view on the internet.

Beautifully illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages – including a rare 'history roll' outlining the history of the world from a medieval perspective – will be available to view online later this year, following the completion of an ambitious digitisation programme by Leeds University Library.

The progress of the digitisation project and examples of the captured images will be discussed at the IMC this week.

The university's Brotherton Library holds around 50 bound volumes – or codices – from the period 1200 to 1500, many with intricate illuminated miniatures, initials and decorative borders.

"Cataloguing the manuscripts is a detailed, specialist process," said special collections deputy head Dr Oliver Pickering, "and digitisation was a natural next step, which will enable the fragile manuscripts to be seen by a far wider range of people. The images have been taken at a high resolution, which will allow people close-up views of the often amazingly detailed artwork."

The spectacular history roll, a huge 17.5m document made up of 39 large parchment sheets detailing the history of the world from creation through to the 1460s, has been digitised in full. It is one of only six known examples held in UK libraries.

"The genre appears to have been popular in 15th century France," said Dr Pickering. "Such manuscripts were made from sheets of animal skin pasted together into a continuous roll and were prestigious items purchased by the wealthy.

"We're fortunate to own this splendid example, which features parallel streams of history, covering biblical, classical and Western European events, with pictures in the form of painted roundels and lengthy 'genealogical' trees linking together lines of kings, popes and other rulers."

The Library's special collections also hold 15 striking 'books of hours' – simplified versions of service books for lay people.

"These were also a 15th century phenomenon," said Dr Pickering.

"It became quite the thing to own a book of hours to demonstrate you were both devout and wealthy."

The books are often profusely illustrated, and begin with lists of feast days with particularly important days usually marked in red – the very first 'red letter days'.

The bulk of the manuscripts derive from Lord Brotherton's own library and from Ripon Cathedral library, which are held at the Brotherton for safe-keeping.

The 700 images will be made available through the university library's new digital repository, which will also host other digitised collections from the library's rich holdings.

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