Dining at King’s College in the 15th century

Dining at King’s College in the 15th century

By François Soyer

Published Online by King’s College Cambridge (2006)

Introduction: This aim of this article is to examine the diet of the fellows and scholars of King’s College Cambridge during the fifteenth century. A considerable amount of light has already been shed on the functioning of King’s College during the medieval period by the tremendous archival research of John Saltmarsh, research that bore its fruit in a number of fascinating articles he published in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Notwithstanding this, the documents that form the basis of this work have not been edited and – so far as I know – were not examined by John Saltmarsh. These documents are the fifteenth century “Commons Books” of King’s College, ledgers of the amounts that were spent every week to feed the fellows and scholars of the College. Every week the Steward of the Hall – a College officer chosen from among the fellows and changing every week – entered into these ledgers the monetary value of the food that had been consumed by the fellows and scholars, including both what had to be bought in the market and what was taken from the college stores.

The ledgers list various types of meat, fish, condiments and drink but they do not include vegetables and fruit. Also entered in the ledgers are the amounts spent on candle wax – of course candles were the principal source of light at night – and on the charcoal used to heat the ovens in the kitchens and to warm the great hall during the cold season. These documents are primarily in Latin but English terms do find their way into the records, usually when the stewards did not know the Latin names of certain types of fish. I have been transcribing entries made in the Commons’ Books for two different academic years that are separated by twenty years. The first of these years, 1447-8, was situated during the reign of the College’s founder Henry VI and six years after the foundation of the College. The second year, 1466-7, is situated six years after the deposition of Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses in the reign of his successor and usurper Edward IV.

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