By Vickie L. Ziegler
Published Online (2008)
Introduction: While we generally think of fast food as a uniquely American invention of the late twentieth century, it has in fact been around since Roman times in urban settings in which there were a great many poor and /or single adults living in small rooms. These people had no money or space to lay in stores of food; they could afford neither cooking utensils nor fuel to prepare food. Already in the late 12th century, there was a “fast food” area on the Thames in London, a medieval version of a “drive-in”, where hungry travelers could fill up; these shops provided a range of pricing and foods and were open around the clock.
By the high and late Middle Ages, there were many urban centers in Britain and continental Europe where such conditions, as in ancient Rome, were also present. 13th-century Köln and Venice had around 50,000 inhabitants, while London was nearing the 25,000 mark in its smaller confines. However, studies of the city of Colchester, England, in the early 14th century show that only 3% of households that paid taxes [11 out of 389] had a kitchen. Many artisans, other workers, and classes of the urban poor, such as impoverished widows, lived in single rooms, where there were no cooking facilities, not even a hearth. From wills that inventoried possessions, it is possible to gain a glimpse of the difficult circumstances in which they lived. The bequests of the poor women included only clothing and bedding, which means that they must have lived in inexpensive lodgings with neither furnishings nor cooking equipment. Langland’s Piers Plowman notes that impecunious widows had to spend the little money they earned spinning on their rent, milk, and oatmeal. Coroners’ rolls for convicted criminals reveal a similar picture. In 14th-century London, murderers and other perpetrators of violent crime were listed as having no possessions; in the rolls that still exist, only seven criminals had kitchen utensils.