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Fresh Meat & Fish, Page Two

The availability and use of fresh meat, poultry and fish in the Middle Ages


Meat in Towns and Cities

In towns and small cities, many families had enough land to support a little livestock -- usually a pig or some chickens, and sometimes a cow. The more crowded the city was, however, the less land there was for even the most modest forms of agriculture, and the more foodstuffs had to be imported. Fresh fish would be readily available in coastal regions and in towns by rivers and streams, but inland towns could not always enjoy fresh seafood and might have to settle for preserved fish.

City dwellers usually purchased their meat from a butcher, often from a stall in a marketplace but sometimes in a well-established shop. If a housewife bought a rabbit or duck to roast or use in a stew, it was for that mid-day dinner or that evening's meal; if a cook procured beef or mutton for his cookshop or street vending business, his product wouldn't be expected to keep for more than a day. Butchers were wise to offer the freshest meats possible for the simple reason that they'd go out of business if they didn't. Vendors of pre-cooked "fast food," which a large portion of city dwellers would frequent due to their lack of private kitchens, were also wise to use fresh meat, because if any of their customers got sick it wouldn't take long for word to spread.

This is not to say there weren't cases of shady butchers attempting to pass off older meat as fresh or underhanded vendors selling reheated pasties with older meat. Both occupations developed a reputation for dishonesty that has characterized modern views of medieval life for centuries. However, the worst problems were in crowded cities such as London and Paris, where crooks could more easily avoid detection or apprehension, and where corruption among city officials (not inherent, but more common than in smaller towns) made their escapes easier.

In most medieval towns and cities, the selling of bad food was neither common nor acceptable. Butchers who sold (or tried to sell) old meat would face severe penalties, including fines and time in the pillory, if their deception was discovered. A fairly substantial number of laws were enacted concerning guidelines for proper management of meat, and in at least one case the butchers themselves drew up regulations of their own.

Available Meat, Fish and Poultry

Though pork and beef, chicken and goose, and cod and herring were among the most common and abundant types of meat, fowl and fish eaten in the Middle Ages, they were only a fraction of what was available. To find out the variety of meats medieval cooks had in their kitchens, visit these resources:

Sources and Suggested Reading

Food in Medieval Times
by Melitta Weiss Adamson

Food and Eating in Medieval Europe
edited by Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal

Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition
edited by by C.M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron

Food in History
by Reay Tannahill

Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays
by Melitta Weiss Adamson

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