What time of the day did medieval people eat?

In the Middle Ages, who you were and what you did for a living had great bearing on what you were allowed to eat – and when. Here, Professor Chris Woolgar explains medieval mealtimes…

Medieval banquet

What meals are eaten by whom and when? There were three principal meals eaten in the Middle Ages: breakfast, lunch and supper. Breakfast (jantaculum) was largely confined to the elite; to travellers and to some manual workers. In terms of timing, it was not to be eaten until the first mass of the day had been completed. It was also not eaten on Fridays.

Advertisement

Lunch (prandium) was the main meal of the day and was probably eaten at around 11am, but this varied across establishments, depending on the number of people there and the number of sittings required. The timing of lunch also depended on which day of the week it was: the meal was eaten later on Fridays, when in many establishments it may have been the only meal eaten that day, and there was a notion that it should not be eaten until after vespers (evening prayers). The evidence suggests, however, that vespers were said much earlier on Fridays – around the middle of the day – so people did not, in fact, have to wait until into the evening to eat lunch.

Supper (cena) was an evening meal, which was lighter than lunch. What time of day it was eaten depended on the time of year. In winter, it may have been eaten during daylight hours.


Watch Chris Woolgar’s lecture on food in the Middle Ages, recorded as part of our free virtual Medieval Life and Death History Festival:


Afternoon tea

There were two other occasions for drinking and food. There was mid-afternoon drinking, a bit like afternoon tea (although they didn’t actually have tea). The masons at York Minster, for example, in around 1350 in summer were to work until the first bell to vespers and then they might drink in their lodge until the third bell, after which they would return to work.

Then there was also something called ‘all night’. This was a livery of food and drink typically directed to a chamber so that the Lord and some others might have food and drink during the night. The buttery and pantry in great households were closed up overnight. In my talk, we will discuss the bars to these offices – that is, the barrier on which food and drink was dispensed. The bar was closed overnight.

(Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Advertisement

Did medieval people snack during the day? I’m sure they did. But it was considered part of the sin of gluttony to eat at inappropriate times. Indeed, one of the big worries of the great medieval household was keeping control of where food might be eaten. One of the reasons why people ate in the hall was that they concentrated their expenditure and their effort on consumption at a particular time and a particular place, where everybody could see it going on. You didn’t have people eating privately in their chambers because this would mean they could potentially eat anything there. Furthermore, the lord would lose one of the greatest benefits of providing food for his household – he wanted it to be consumed in public so that his largesse might be seen.

To watch Chris Woolgar’s talk on food in the Middle Ages, recorded as part of our free virtual Medieval Life and Death History Festival, click here. There you can also watch the other festival lectures – on medieval disease and medicine, religion, marriage and crime.