Food in Twelfth Century Scotland
These apples are found in the Priorwood Garden in Melrose,
Scotland, just beside Melrose Abbey. In the Middle Ages, most apples were
not sweet enough to eat. They were grown to be made into cider.
For most ordinary people in 12th century Scotland,
food varied very little from day to day. Fresh meat was a luxury,
and cereal grains, mainly oats, barley and rye, made up most of the diet.
These are grains that grow well in cooler weather. The climate in the 12th
century was warmer than it would be in coming centuries, so it’s likely that
some wheat could be grown in Teviotdale, but if the weather was colder or
damper than usual, the crop might be lost. The Normans, coming from warmer
climates, preferred wheat, and bread made from wheat would be eaten only
by people with rank or wealth.
So, what would you eat if you were an ordinary person
living in 12th century Teviotdale? Mostly porridge, bread and ale. Every
fiefdom had its own mill, belonging to the lord, but run by a miller. Here,
the ripe, dried grain would be ground into flour. If the mill stones were
made of soft stone, the flour might include fragments of stone. Bread was
not like the bread we eat now. It was flat and more like pita bread, made
into small, round, flat loaves. A single loaf could be eaten at a meal. People
who had no bread ovens probably made bannock, a type of bread that can be
cooked on an open fire. Bannock is still made today. Porridge was made from
oats or barley.
Most cooking was done on fires in open hearths. In larger households,
the kitchen was always located in a shed away from other buildings to prevent
a fire from spreading if the kitchen burnt down. In 12th century Scotland,
cooking was done in pottery crocks, not iron pots. This must have
worked something like a slow-cooker would work today, but pottery will break
if exposed to high temperatures. The cooks must have been very skilled to
get good results from this method.
People drank ale and wine which would have been safer
than water because the fermentation process would kill any germs in the
water. It’s important to remember, though, that the alcohol content was much
weaker than it is in comparable drinks today. Ale was made from barley. As
much as a third of the barley crop went to ale in Scotland. Each fiefdom would
have an ale house where ale was brewed. Women also brewed ale in their kitchens
in the same way they made bread and other foods. Where there was a specialized
ale house, the brewer might also be a woman. Brewing was so much a part
of the woman’s ordinary work that the term “alewife” survives in the English
Wine was not made in Britain and had to be imported
from places such as the south of France, but there was no way of preserving
it and it did not keep. An Anglo-Norman nobleman Peter de Blois had this
to say about the wine served in the court of Henry II, who was the king of
England at the time:
“The wine is
turned sour or moldy–thick, greasy, stale, flat and smacking of pitch.
sometimes have seen even great lords served
with wine so muddy that a man must needs
close his eyes and clench his teeth, wry-mouthed
and shuddering, and filtering the stuff
rather than drinking.”
Peas and beans could be dried for winter use,
but most vegetables were only eaten when in season. In Scotland, the main
vegetable was kale, a cabbage-like vegetable that could survive the average
winter in milder areas. It was chopped and stewed. Wild fruits were gathered,
including cherries, apples, blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, rowan
berries and hazelnuts.
By looking at the bones left in refuse heaps, archaeologists
have discovered that beef was the most commonly eaten meat in Scotland during
the Middle Ages. Sheep were grown almost everywhere for wool, and they
were the second most popular source of meat. The other meats people ate,
in descending order were pig, goat, horse and deer. Fresh meat could be
salted (cured with dry salt), picked (cured with salt in water, called “brine”)
or smoked to preserve. Chickens and geese were kept for food, and people
who lived near rivers or the sea ate fish and other seafood.
To Find Out More
To try some recipes from the Middle Ages and find out more about
the food, visit
A Boke of Gode Cookery
a frequently up dated web site full of information.
Information on this page came from the following sources:
Life in a Medieval Castle, by Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper
& Row, 1974.
Medieval Scotland: An Archaeological Perspective, by Peter Yeoman,
B.T. Batsford Ltd/Historic