When we think of the medieval diet, we often think of dull boring meals revolving around plain bread and perhaps some meat roasted over a fire. The reality was very different. If you had the resources the food markets of 14th century Dublin were arrayed with mouth-watering delights. In the surviving records from the Priory of the Holy Trinity in Dublin (Christchurch) we catch a glimpse of what one wealthy Dubliner, the prior, ate and in most cases it is pleasantly surprising.
(The following foods are listed in accounts surviving from the period 1337 -1346).
Most of the prior’s meals revolved around meat but he had a wide variety. He frequently ate roast chicken, lamb, beef, pigeon and gosling, while roast capon was a favourite. A capon is a castrated rooster, a mutilation which produces particularly succulent meat. He also feasted on pies and salmon pasties on occasion.
During lent (the forty days prior to the Easter Sunday), a period when the eating of meat was forbidden, the prior was treated to an array of sea food and fish which included salted eels, herrings, baked salmon, oysters, plaice and gurnard.
These meals were by no means bland. Among the various flavourings available on the Dublin market in the mid 14th century were salt, pepper, mustard seeds, ginger, olive oil along with easily sourced vegetables such as onions. Garlic is not mentioned and wasn’t popular, while potatoes were still unknown in Europe. These meals were washed down with wine and ale . They were accompanied by bread and on some occasions in the priors case, pandemaine, which is a particularly expensive bread baked from sifted flour.
Perhaps it is the desert that will surprise people most. The prior was frequently treated to almonds and rice. In medieval Europe rice was served in a pudding made from almond milk. Interestingly figs and walnuts were also available in 14th century Dublin.
Finally its important to note most of these foods were far beyond the purchasing power of the poor. In 1344, a ploughman earned about five shillings a year which was equivalent of sixty pence. From the prices below you can see he could not have afforded most items. Two pounds of figs cost four pence, two cooked pies cost three pence, a salmon cost eighteen pence, almonds and rice cost four pence while a capon two pence.
If you enjoy medieval Irish History you will love an upcoming tour I am organising into the heart of the Wicklow Mountains. On Saturday, May 18th we will come face to face with what survives from what was a medieval frontier where the Normans and Gaelic battled for control in a life and death struggle in this mesmerising landscape. For more information continue reading here
All prices and foods are taken from Mills, J. (1996) The Account Roll of the Priory of the Holy Trinity Dublin Four courts press Dublin.