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Vegetables in the Middle Ages

Vegetables: A Biography, by Evelyne Bloch-Dano, offers the stories of eleven different vegetables – artichokes, beans, chard, cabbage, cardoons, carrots, chili peppers, Jerusalem artichokes, peas, pumpkins, and tomatoes – offering tidbits from science and agriculture to history, culture, and, of course, cooking. Here are a few excerpts from the book that detail their history during the Middle Ages:

Carrot farming in the Tacuinum sanitatis
Carrot farming in the Tacuinum sanitatis

Carrots

The carrot, like other roots, was a vegetable of the poor until the Renaissance. ‘To live on carrots’ meant to live poorly. meagrely; and ‘to shit carrots’, according to the Furetiere dictionary (1690), meant to be constipated.

Peas

In the Middle Ages, peas were a basic food, along with grains and beans. They were often dried, which allowed them to be preserved and to serve as a precious resource during times of famine. They were used in soups or, better yet, mashed with bacon.

Cauliflower

Cauliflower made its entry into Western Europe at the end of the fifteenth century, under the name Syrian cabbage or Cypriot cabbage. Under Henry IV, however, it kept its Italian name cauli-fiori, similar to the the English ‘cauliflower’.

Brussel Sprouts

Originally from Italy but cultivated in Belgium in the thirteenth century, they were grown in the dried marshland of the commune of Saint-Gilles, following the construction of the second ramparts of Brussels.

Rutabagas

Here it’s worth mentioning the rutabaga, which saw the light of day in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages by means of crossing a cabbage with a turnip. Its name comes from the Swedish rotabaggar.

Parsnips

Mentioned by Pliny the Elder, Columella, and Theodorus of Tarsus, planted in medieval gardens (Le Mesnagier de Paris grants it an important place in the chapter on cultivation), parsnips were widespread until sixteenth century.

Squashes

Known since antiquity, they are mentioned by Pliny, Columelle, and other favourite authors or food lovers. Apicius offers as many as thirteen recipes for Curcurbitacae, most often boiled, then fried, recooked into a sauce, and reduced into a puree. The skins of these squashes harden when drying out. Once emptied, they have multiple uses as receptacles, utensils, masks, birdcages, musical instruments, or even lifesavers for children in ancient Rome.

Photo by Colleen Galvin / Flickr
Photo by Colleen Galvin / Flickr

Cardoons and Artichokes

It was the cardoon the first traveled from Andalusia to Sicily (1300). The artichoke, which was rarer and more delicate, made its entrance into Italy a century later.

Tomatoes

The conquistadors certainly brought the tomato back to Spain, but not instructions on how to prepare it, and for decades it was regarded with caution. From Spain it traveled to Naples, still under the Spanish crown, then up through Italy to Provence, the itinerary followed by the artichoke, as we have seen. But the tomato traveled slowly and was still not universally appreciated. For decades it was grown only as a curiosity.

Cabbages

A substantial peasant food in the Middle Ages, became the emblem of a popular, inelegant food that smelled bad and had uncomfortable side effects….It was easy both to grow and to store. It grew in vegetable gardens, which weren’t taxed. In Normandy, cabbage cultivation on rented farms was regulated by tradition.

Local custom in the region of Avranches, for example, as late as 1930 specified that one-quarter of a garden must be reserved for common cabbage, one-quarter for hearty cabbage, one-quarter for peas, and one-quarter for various other vegetables; so half of the garden was devoted to cabbages.

vegetables a biographyEvelyne Bloch-Dano adds that:

Medieval taste is characterized by a passion for color (green, yellow, red, and blue) and for spices, added “in great abundance” to all sorts of preparations. The common belief that spices served to hid the rotten smell of meat had been debunked by historians, since meat in the Middle Ages was eaten fresh and was first blanched. Reading the recipes, we notice above all that spices were added to all dishes: pies, soup, and meats. They were believed to have therapeutic virtues; the medicinal dimension of food was at the forefront in the Middle Ages. All the same, the wide latitude left to the cook and the clarity in the instructions show that the addition of spices was above all a matter of taste. Spices also belonged to the realm of the imagination: they perfumed the Garden of Eden; they spoke of distant lands, of oriental landscapes that inspired dreams – such as the seed of paradise, which came from West Africa – and made those who traded in them quite wealthy, giving birth to powerful economic networks. Indeed, the exchange value of spices is the source of the French expression payer en espèces – literally “to pay in spices” or “in kind” but now meaning “to pay in cash.”

Vegetables: A Biography was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2012. The original French version, La Fabulwaw histoire de legumes, was published in 2008. For more information, please visit the University of Chicago Press website or buy from Amazon.com.

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