Medieval(ish) matters #14: What did an aristocratic household eat in the Middle Ages? And who was Eleanor de Montfort?
HistoryExtra content director Dr David Musgrove talks to Professor Louise Wilkinson about the dining habits of Eleanor de Montfort and her household in 1265, a key year in English medieval history
A lot of herring, more than the odd glass of wine, and not many vegetables – that’s basically the diet of Eleanor de Montfort in 1265. Professor Louise Wilkinson of the University of Lincoln has recently translated and edited The Household Roll of Eleanor de Montfort for this year (for the Pipe Roll Society).
This document, which is basically a great roll of parchment on which was recorded the day-to-day expenses of the household, is rich in detail about the daily menu on offer for Eleanor and the people around her, and I interviewed Professor Wilkinson about this for the HistoryExtra podcast.
Listen to the full interview with Professor Louise Wilkinson on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
First things first, who was Eleanor de Montfort?
“She is one of the most important women in 13th-century England. She was a major political player. She was the youngest daughter of King John by his wife, Isabella of Angoulême. And she was also the sister of one of King Henry III, who reigned over England between 1216 and 1272,” explains Professor Wilkinson.
“Beyond that, she was also married to a tremendously important individual, her second husband, Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester. Simon is a very interesting figure in his own right because he led what's widely considered to be England's first revolution against the crown in 1258. He was also involved with his wife in helping to start a major civil war in England against Henry III. So Eleanor was really at the heart of a tremendously turbulent political period.”
War and (not many) peas
Her household roll is a fantastically informative source, not only for context to the political events of the year it covers (1265 was a tumultuous year, pivotal in the civil war, and notable for the escape from Montfortian captivity of Lord Edward – Henry III’s son – and the future King Edward I, as well as the battle of Evesham, where Simon de Montfort was killed) but also for an insight into the workings of one of the great households at the time.
Each entry in the household roll begins with the quantity of grain used for making the bread that particular day. Then it records the amount of wine and/or ale consumed by Eleanor, her visitors and her household. It has the kitchen accounts, stating the amount spent on items such as fish, meat, eggs, dairy produce and vegetables. It also records the household’s movements around the country in 1265, from Wallingford Castle to Odiham Castle, then to Portchester, and finally to Dover Castle.
Because expenditure is documented with scrupulous detail, we can see very clearly what was consumed: “We learn that bread was one of the great staples of Eleanor’s diet, as it was in other great households in this period, and different grades of bread were probably served to different tiers of people within the household. So Eleanor would have eaten particularly fine white bread, presumably, and then those lower down would have had much more dubious breads to consume.”
Bad news for vegetarians
In Eleanor’s household, there was a considerable amount of meat and fish on the menu, as Professor Wilkinson explains:
“Some of the things that were served up don't look altogether different from what we eat today. So, for example, Eleanor eats lots of mutton and pork and chicken, and some beef. She also eats a phenomenal amount of fish because fish was served usually on Fridays and Saturdays in the household, and usually as well on many Wednesdays. You weren't meant to eat meat on those days in the Christian calendar. During Lent, when you weren't meant to eat meat at all, vast quantities of herrings were eaten. So can you imagine a household consuming between 400 and 1700 herrings a day between late February and early April?”
I’ve blogged about the fishy medieval diet previously, but here’s a sample entry from the Household Roll, for 10 March 1065, to prove the herring point:
On Tuesday following [10 March], for the countess and the above-mentioned; grain, one quarter, 6 bushels, from the stock of the castle. Wine, 3 sesters, one gallon. Ale, for 55 gallons, 2s. 31⁄2d. Kitchen. Herrings, 500, from the stock. Fish, purchased at Newbury, 13s. 4d. Marshalsea. Hay for 34 horses. Oats, 2 quarters, one bushel, from the stock.
It wasn’t just herring however: “All sorts of fish were consumed on feast days when they had to observe this abstinence from meat. And so you get references to bass, bream, cod, ling, conger eels, hake, mackerel, mullet, salmon. Pike was served up on special occasions. It was incredibly expensive. Pike was almost the medieval equivalent of having venison in the fish world,” explains Professor Wilkinson.
So pescatarians were well catered for, but there was much less interest in vegetables.
“We see purchases of peas and beans and onions, but not much else. So it must have been an incredibly meat- and fish-intensive diet. Eleanor did buy in spices in bulk, which her cook would have used to enliven dishes; cumin, saffron, those sorts of things. It would be nice to know exactly what dishes were served. We always get the ingredients listed in the accounts, but not the end product,” comments Professor Wilkinson.
Fruit seems to have been similarly low-profile in the kitchens:
“There were lots of pears purchased from Canterbury, which is still famous for its orchards today. And there's also reference to some cherries that were bought. But we don't see vast quantities of fruit, which is surprising because you would expect to see that in the summer months.”
This heavy focus on animal products might jar a little with modern health advice on the need for a varied diet. Today’s dentists might also baulk at their use of sugar, which we can see being purchased for the household. Plus they were eating gingerbread, and lots of dried fruit as well. As mentioned above, not everyone in the household was getting the same food and drink.
“It’s a little tricky to trace in the household roll but the ale was probably consumed more often by the lower tiers of the household. And we know that cider was given to the paupers whom Eleanor fed. We know that pottage, a sort of vegetable soup, was sometimes given to them. And they also had lots of herrings as well.
“Sometimes different rates of wine were dished out. There's a rather ominous reference to bastard wine, which is actually a very sweet wine. It seems to have been given to the lower tiers of the household rather than the fine wine. So we do get some sense of gradations of rank,” continues Professor Wilkinson.
Wine and ale
Speaking of alcohol, we can see that a lot of this was bought for the household:
“Ale was brewed and purchased in vast quantities. It was much safer, of course, to drink ale than water in the Middle Ages as the water was untreated. And vast quantities of wine were also purchased. Eleanor and the more elite members of her household seem to have drunk quite a lot of wine, both red and white. Interestingly, there are also some quite amusing references to the quality of the wine; on one occasion, the household is referred to drinking the good wine and some of the other.”
If you’re interested in a detailed look at medieval food and drink, we have a video lecture from Professor Chris Woolgar that you can watch here:
From this particular source, we have a very detailed picture of what was consumed by Eleanor and her household through the course of the year, but also we get a sense of how wider political events consumed the nation and impacted on her.
England's chief political hostess
“At the beginning of the 1265 roll, the Montfort family fortunes were rising tremendously high. They ruled England essentially in Henry III's name, Eleanor was the leading woman in the country. The queen was in exile in this period trying to raise mercenary troops. So it was Eleanor who was the chief political hostess in England.
“Then with the Lord Edward's escape from Montfortian custody at the end of May, you start to see their fortunes crumble, so you really get a sense from this roll - which you don't get necessarily in other sources - of the panic that Lord Edward's escape instilled in the Montfortians. You also see the growing threat that he posed to them as he gathered royalist forces, brought them to battle at Evesham and killed Earl Simon, Eleanor's husband, and their eldest son,” explains Professor Wilkinson.
“You see the impact of Evesham and all the atrocities there, because you see what happened to the family after Earl Simon's death. So in the roll, we see that Eleanor withdrew from eating in the Great Hall at Dover a week after Evesham when news reached her and the household went straight into mourning. And you get a growing sense of the pressure that they came under at Dover.
“You get expenditure being cut right back because it just wasn't available as it was needed to pay crossbowmen and so on. You also get a sense of the royalists recovering their fortunes in the southeast of England because it became no longer safe for Eleanor and her family to transport food in easily to Dover. And they had to go out and acquire food by booty, by plunder, from the neighbouring countryside. And so you get a sense of the build-up to the final great siege of Dover, which sadly isn't included in the roll because it cuts off just before that point”.
Now, to conclude, there’s one question that I didn’t ask Professor Wilkinson in the podcast, but which was posed by Dr Sophie Ambler on Twitter, who wondered how different our perceptions of medieval (noble)women would be if more of these household rolls survived.
This is an important point because, as Professor Wilkinson mentioned in the podcast, we only have a dozen or so other household accounts surviving in England before 1250. I’ll finish with Professor Wilkinson’s tweet in reply to the question:
“I think perceptions might be quite different, and highlight the central and usually routine role of elite ladies in managing great households, estates and familial interest in medieval society.”