History and Women

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Medieval People and Meat

There is speculation that during medieval times, people indulged in rotten meat.  Why?  Well, first, there was no way to keep food cold and many believe that preservation methods were too primitive or many ways did not exist.  It has been said that the cooks of that era used spices to disguise the taste of meat that was well on its way to rotting.

Well, this likely isn't true.  Medieval people hunted for their meat.  They usually cooked and ate it within days.  So in reality, they ate their meat in a much fresher state that we do today.

Medieval people had several ways of preserving meat which included drying, smoking, soaking in brine, and packing it in barrels of salt. 

Spices were hard to come by and when they were, they cost a lot.  So they would never waste it to disguise spoling meat.  Besides, bad food makes people violently ill.


MaggiRos said...

Thank you!!! This is a persistent myth that never seems to die, no matter how one tries to explain. Giving this sensible explanation broader circulation can only help.

EA said...

The part about brining meat is true; at least to my knowledge. I would imagine that some people did indeed eat rotten meat.

Anne Gilbert said...

There are so many myths about medieval people floating around, that I'm not surprised this one persists. The biggest one I've come across so far is, "medieval people never washed". Well, they did. Even the meanest peasants tried to keep clean when they could. They just didn't have things like hot and cold running water, so they probably didn't rise to "modern" standards of cleanliness. But neither did more modern people, until more modern times, when technical improvements made more frequent washing and bathing easier.

I would (slightly) correct your piece on "rotten meat" though. People of all classes ate meat, and they didn't always hunt for it. Sheep or pigs were often slaughtered after the harvest season, if there were too many to feed, and they were indeed preserved in some of the ways you suggest. Medieval nobles tended to hunt, in part because many of them moved about a lot, and they had to have ready sources of food. Deer and boars were reasonably abundant, and they provided good meals, which generally were eaten soon after they were carved up(or they were preserved as you suggest). If they had ways of preserving food, why on earth would they eat rotten meat, unless they were near starving and there was nothing else available? People nowadays just don't think these things through.
Anne G

Frances Hunter said...

This is interesting. I remember reading about the great extermination of the passenger pigeon and how many were shipped back to the East for food. The implication of what I read was that people were willing to eat meat that was more "rotten" than what we would accept today. Reading your blog, I suspect they were pickled in brine. Still not something most folks would eat today, but a far cry from "rotten."

Anne Gilbert said...


Well, food fashions and tastes do change. Things pickled in brine don't normally attract people today(other than dill pickles), for various reasons. But it does have the effect of preserving food.

Muse in the Fog said...

How interesting! Thanks for posting this :)

BradHArt said...

@Anne, much more than pickles are brined today. Most hams, all corned beef, and wet packed sausages such as hot dogs all contain some level of brine. Despite the fact they are cooked you could still classify most canned vegetables as being brined if the liquid contains enough salt.

The biggest reason this myth refuses to die is they teach it in public schools. Like most given history lessons this is one to make white western European Christians seem better than they were and often more puritanical the way Americans want their children to see their ancestors. If you say they used copius amounts of spices to cover up the bad meat they were forced to endure you can justify wars both economic and territorial, slavery, and a host of other injustices like the subjugation of native peoples. The fact is those who could afford spices could afford fresh meat, but no one wants to have their ancestors portrayed as decadent people who enriched their lives at the expense of others, nor do they want them portrayed as money grubbing merchants, or kings whose only thought was extend their empire in the name of personal glory.

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