This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Few of us in the 21st century would dream of embarking upon our days on an empty stomach, but in historical terms, breakfast is hardly noticeable. Whole books have been written about feasts and banquets, dinners and suppers. Even teatime has its place on the shelves of our social history. But breakfast? Cornflakes, muesli, bacon and eggs, continental or full English – they are almost all ignored. And they are all features of the modern breakfast, which is far more often studied than breakfasts before 1600.
The reason is not hard to find. Feasts and banquets have their ritual, their theatre and their sources. We can read about the tens of thousands of animals killed for a two-day visit by Queen Elizabeth because accounts had to be compiled to manage the provision of so much meat. Likewise in the medieval royal household, the feasts were occasionally described by chroniclers who witnessed the king eating in the company of his courtiers.
We know about seating plans, table arrangements, etiquette and procedure at many formal meals. Cookery books survive to reveal the kind of dishes that were informally served, and poems and stories attest to what poorer folk ate for supper and dinner.
Breakfasts, by comparison, do not have their literature. Chroniclers did not observe monarchs eating breakfast. The first meal of the day is thus one of those features of life that has slipped through the historian’s net.
What historians have known for a long time is that in the late medieval period many people did not eat breakfast. Evidence for this lies in such sources as the household ordinances of the nobility and gentry, which regularly specify who was allowed to eat breakfast and who was not. In 1412–13 only half a dozen of the 20 or so people in the household of Dame Alice de Bryenne were permitted to eat breakfast.
Sixty years later, in the household of Cicely, Duchess of York, the privilege of attending breakfast was extended only “to head officers when they be present, to the ladies and gentlewomen, to the dean and to the chapel, to the almoner and to the gentlemen ushers, to the cofferer, to the clerk of the kitchen and the marshal”. In the ‘Black Book’ of Edward IV, careful attention was paid to the ranks that were allowed to eat breakfast.
A two-meal day
Clearly, breakfast was a privilege in the 15th century. One comes across a few other references to it being eaten in different contexts – travellers ate breakfast, for instance – but, on the whole, the lack of evidence for breakfasting in the late Middle Ages (by comparison with plentiful references to dining, supping and feasting) leave us with the distinct impression that most people went without. Rather than a three-meal-per-day routine, medieval people had a two-meal one. The main meal, dinner, was held at about 10.30 or 11 in the morning, and supper about five hours later.
This is all well and good until you ask the question, why did things change? And when exactly did the change take place? Suddenly, looking at a few documents and making a few sweeping generalisations doesn’t seem quite adequate.
The ‘when’ is the easiest bit of the question to answer. As we’ve already seen, household servants were regularly denied breakfasts in the 15th century. Yet schoolboys a hundred years later could expect it. In Claudius Hollyband’s book The French Schoolmaster (1573), a maidservant says to a schoolboy: “Ho, Frances, rise and get you to school; you shall be beaten, for it is past seven. Make yourself ready quickly, say your prayers, then you shall have your breakfast.”
If schoolboy breakfasts were the norm in 1573 then it is reasonable to assume that many other unimportant people were eating them too. Several early 16th-century sources back this up. Thomas More wrote in 1528 “men should go to Mass as well after supper as before breakfast”, and Thomas Elyot recommended eating breakfast four hours before dinner in his popular work The Castell of Health (1539). Lest it be thought that these references only apply to a minority of literate gentlemen, Andrew Boorde in his Dietary of Health (1542) stated that “a labourer may eat three times a day [ie including breakfast] but that two meals are adequate for a rest man”.
To go further than this, we need to examine what breakfast meant in the earlier centuries. In so doing it is necessary to steer ourselves away from just considering noble households. What was the ordinary person doing at breakfast time in the Middle Ages?
It’s also important to bear in mind that medieval people might not have thought of breakfast in the same way that we do. If some people could have breakfast and some couldn’t, the status implicit in eating early in the morning may well have meant that breakfasts had ceremonial significance at points in the past.
A survey of the contemporary sources available reveals that before 1500 non-ceremonial breakfasts were routinely taken by several sections of society. First, breakfast was seen as medicinal: people might be prescribed “a breakfast of…” as a means to sustain them in illness or old age. In 1305, Edward I (then aged 65), employed a cook just to prepare breakfasts.
Second, we find certain classes of monks eating breakfast. Old and sick monks fall into the category above, of course; but in addition young monks were permitted a light breakfast. At Peterborough it was argued that if the young monks did not have a breakfast, they ate so much at dinner they fell asleep in the afternoons.
The lady pays
Monastic breakfasts are understandable in the context of young men having to get up in the early hours to sing Mass. The early start also explains why travellers setting out often consumed a breakfast before spending a long day in the saddle. And manorial tenants were sometimes entitled to breakfast at harvest time. This is only recorded, of course, when the duty for providing the breakfast fell on the lord of the manor, such as at Bicester in 1325, when a customary (written selection of customs) declared the harvest workers should be provided with a breakfast at the expense of the lady of the manor.
Some manorial customaries go so far as to state when the lord was not responsible for paying for a breakfast. On the manor of Chinnor in 1279, for example, all the tenants had to scythe the lord’s fields and cart hay: when carting hay they were provided with a breakfast, but when scything they had to provide their own. Labourers working on York Minster in 1352 were permitted to eat their breakfast in part of the building – again no doubt due to the long hours they were working.
What emerges from a study of a wide range of sources is that breakfast was often provided for labourers as well as the gentry in the late 13th and early 14th centuries – but that labourers and men and women of modest means tended to eat breakfast only if they were rising very early, working very long hours, or they were old or sick.
Breakfast was rooted in necessity, not a demonstration of status. No doubt it extended beyond the limits outlined above – for it is important to remember that the sources used are nearly all for the formal allowance of breakfast by a third party. If a town worker got up early to work and was hungry, and there was some bread remaining from the previous day, he would naturally eat it – but there would be no record of his doing so.
Alongside practical breakfasts were a number of ceremonial ones. When Joan de Valence was travelling in 1297, she hosted a jantaculum (breakfast) attended by several noblemen and women and 20 paupers. In 1415 Henry V invited a large number of noblemen to discuss the forthcoming Agincourt campaign with him in a great jantaculum at Westminster.
Ceremonial breakfasts were held by a number of guilds and corporations on the admittance of a new member. For example, in 14th-century Reading, new burgesses entering the Guild had to pay 3s 4d for a ceremonial breakfast on top of their entry fee. A similar corporate jantaculum was held at Norwich before the start of the annual procession of St George in the 15th century.
Practical breakfasts were naturally more varied than ceremonial ones, many of them being private. However, most were fairly basic. There are very few references to anything being cooked for breakfast, and none to the provision of sauces. Choristers at St Paul’s in the 12th century received bread and ale.
Similarly, 12th and 13th-century manorial breakfasts at harvest time were often stated to be of bread, cheese and ale. In 1402, Westminster monks having their blood let were provided with breakfasts of bread and ale; and the Norwich jantaculum was traditionally of wine, bread and cheese.
The most significant difference was the traveller’s breakfast. Often we find this consisted of nothing but ale or wine. In 1274, for example, a flask of wine costing 4d was “bought for the jantaculum of the lord Geoffrey and W de Hexton going towards Windsor to prepare against the coming of the queen”, and in the 1390s, when the future Henry IV was on his travels, he sometimes had only a liquid breakfast. Henry was not a creature of routine, however; sometimes in France he paid for chickens to be bought and cooked for his breakfast, in addition to bread, wine and beer.
The noblemen’s breakfasts of the 16th century were more elaborate. In 1501, the Duke of Buckingham built himself a breakfast room in his house at Queenhithe. There he ate in the company of about 30 important guests and members of his household. On fish days (Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays), when eating meat was forbidden, his breakfast consisted of pike, plaice, roach, butter and eggs.
Ten years later the 5th Earl of Northumberland and his countess sat down each fish-day morning to the following repast: two manchets (high-quality white loaves), two pints of beer, three pints of wine, two pieces of salt fish, six smoked herrings, four white herring or a dish of sprats. On meat days they replaced the fish with a neck of mutton or boiled beef.
The servants in the earl’s household were also given breakfast. What they each received depended on their status: the countess’s lady companions were given a loaf of household bread, beer and boiled mutton or beef. The men in the stables just received a small amount of household bread and beer.
Love of butter
More dairy products appeared in the 16th century. In 1558 the executors of Henry Willoughby’s estate were given a breakfast of bread, ale and a sweet dish made of eggs, butter, sugar and currants. Thomas Cogan remarked in The Haven of Health (1584) that “bread and butter” was a countryman’s breakfast. Butter became exceedingly popular. Various herbs were added to butter to impart their properties to the breakfaster: sage was thought to sharpen the wits, so this was a popular additive.
The idea that breakfast could do you good was no longer considered to apply solely to the sick and old. Indeed, in some quarters, people began to think that the old did not need breakfast at all. In 1602 the physician William Vaughan advised: “Eat three meals a day until you come to the age of 40 years.”
Eating breakfast was not quite ubiquitous by 1600. At Grimsthorpe Castle, two meals per day was still the rule in 1561, with only a few exceptions. Similarly, the household ordinances of Francis Willoughby (died 1596), the builder of Wollaton Hall, do not consistently mention breakfasts. Sir John Harington (died 1612) advised his readers to “feed only twice a day when you are at a man’s age” although he went on to say that the choleric should eat breakfast. Despite these late 16th‑century exceptions, the majority of the middling sort and many yeomen and labourers were regularly eating breakfast by 1600.
So, why the change? As the above has shown, the shift to eating breakfast was not quite as sudden as previously thought. Prior to 1500 several sorts of common people did eat a breakfast of sorts. However, there clearly was a degree of change in the 16th century: it became the norm, not the exception.
Some writers have attributed this to the Reformation. Some to the greater availability of food. Proponents of both explanations have not explained how either event affected society’s dining habits as a whole. Something more profound was happening.
The answer is probably to be found in changing patterns of employment. In the earlier Middle Ages, the majority of people organised their own time. They were not ‘employed’ as such.
A manorial tenant had work to do on his lord’s land, but he did not have to get up at the crack of dawn to do it. Only in summer, with haymaking and hay-carting responsibilities to fulfil, did the breakfast become a necessity, because of the long hours in the fields. It was the same for travellers setting off on long journeys: the early start made breakfast a necessity. It was such a long time until dinner at 11am that they needed the sustenance to keep them going. Young monks clearly ate breakfast for the same reason.
What happened in the 16th century was that men increasingly started working for other people, employed for a prescribed set of hours each day. The long hours that employees could be expected to work can be seen in a statute of 1515 which declared that, between mid-March and mid-September, the working day of craftsmen and labourers should begin at 5am and continue to 7 or 8pm with only an hour and a half for dinner.
The consequences are obvious: if a labourer cannot have his supper until 7 or 8pm, he is going to get hungry if he has his dinner at the traditional medieval time of 10.30 or 11am: a nine-hour gap. As mentioned above, Thomas Elyot recommended that dinner and supper be no more than six hours apart. Thomas Cogan echoed this in his 1584 treatise. Thus the old medieval dinner time was pushed back to the later time of luncheon.
Delaying lunch had a knock-on effect on the start of the day. As the time of dinner was pushed back to luncheon, at 12 or 1pm, people needed a solid breakfast to keep them going. As for the gap between breakfast and dinner, Elyot, Cogan and Vaughan all agreed that this should be no more than four hours. Such a shift, based around employment, was thus primarily an urban phenomenon, or one of workers in towns, and areas providing the towns.
We can see the transition in progress in the pages of William Harrison’s Description of England (1577). In that work he states that “the nobility, gentry, and students [all of them old-fashioned institutions] do ordinarily go to dinner at 11 before noon, and to supper at five, or between five and six at afternoon. The merchants dine and sup seldom before 12 at noon, and six at night, especially in London. The husbandmen dine also at high noon as they call it, and sup at seven or eight…”
The history of breakfasting is thus much more nuanced than the old conclusion that, in the Middle Ages, ‘only the rich ate breakfasts’. It is bound up with, and indicative of, our emergence as a people who worked for a living rather than lived off the land.
Dr Ian Mortimer is the author of 10 books and many articles on English history, and writes fiction under the name James Forrester.