How much meat did medieval people eat?



 
 A recently published article has revealed some interesting new details about meat consumption in the Middle Ages, including how different regions in medieval Western Europe had their own preferences for these foods.

In the article, “Consumption of Meat in Western European Cities during the Late Middle Ages: A Contemporary Study,” Ramón Agustín Banegas López examines a wide range of evidence from England, France, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula to see what kinds of meat were eaten by its urban residents, including beef, mutton, pork and veal.

One of the key conclusions of this article is that cattle and sheep were the main sources of meat throughout Western Europe, and that consumption of pork went into general decline during the 14th and 15th centuries, which López attributes to changes in farming after the Black Death.

There were also a lot of regional variation – in northern France and England beef was the most popular type of meat. According to the late 14th-century book Mesnagier de Paris, in a typical week Parisian residents consumed over 95 000 kilograms of beef, more than twice the amount of any other type of meat. López also notes that medieval cookbooks, like the Viandier and the Forme of Curye, had beef in their recipes more often than other meats.

The situation in the Iberian Peninsula was different – the author makes use of a unique tax record from Barcelona which shows the meat consumption in that city during year of 1462. He finds that almost 70% of all the meat consumed was mutton (representing over 40000 animals), while beef consumption was just over 10%. Meanwhile, Catalan cookbooks dating back to the Middle Ages also show that when meat was used in recipes, it was usually mutton.




López notes that in Italy there was a lot of seasonal variation in meat consumption. In late 14th century Prato, for example, “mutton was the most popular meat from the end of spring through the beginning of winter, and pork rose in popularity in September and peaked in January. Veal was sold mainly during summer – especially in August and September.” The consumption of veal and beef from young cattle was higher in Italy than in other parts of Europe.

The author believes that the reasons behind the differences in meat consumptions between regions lies partly in the agricultural productivity of these areas, and partly in social preferences. López notes that the urban aristocracy in Italy preferred young animals, “which were finer meats than mutton and beef, as well as being more expensive and more prestigious.”

The article “Consumption of Meat in Western European Cities during the Late Middle Ages: A Contemporary Study,” appears in the journal Food and History, Vol.8 No.1 (2010).

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