By Annie Grant
Anthropozoologica, Special Issue (1988)
Introduction: Popular images of diet and eating in the Middle Ages present the rich eating of enormous quantities of food at sumptuous banquets while the poor are starved on a diet of bread, vegetables and scraps of bacon. There is documentary evidence to show that there were indeed differences in the diet of those at various social levels, particularly affecting the proportion of meat in the diet. And, the rich did have banquets, where they consumed not only large amounts of food, but a wide range of more exotic species. Large numbers of swans, peacocks, cranes, rabbits and kids were prepared for the coronation feast of Edward I in 1274 and the coronation feast of Henry VI in 1429 included beef, mutton, pork, venison, rabbits, chickens, partridge, peacock, cygnet, heron, quails, snipe, larks and curlew.
The nature of archaeological evidence is such that it can shed little light on the proportions of meat and vegetable consumed. Nor can deposits of bones resulting from a single feast be readily distinguished from the accumulation of bones from many more mundane meals. Archaeology, or more specifically, archaeozoology can however be extremely useful in demonstrating the general trends of food consumption. This brief paper attempts to show the broad differences in the animals chosen as food by those at higher and lower levels of society in England in the Middle Ages, and discusses these in relation to the rural economy and the attitudes and customs of the contemporary Church. For the purposes of this discussion, the term medieval is taken to mean the period from the Norman conquest to the end of the fifteenth century.