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Beef and Pork in the Middle Ages

The books – Beef: A Global History, by Lorna Piatti-Farnell, and Pork: A Global History, by Katharine Rogers – examine how these two meats became popular foods and how they are served throughout the world. Both authors even note how they were thought of during the Middle Ages. Here are some medieval morsels of information you can learn about beef and pork from these two books:

Beef in ancient times

The Romans rarely ate beef, but it was reserved for special occasions such as religious ceremonies, with cows being used for ritual sacrifices to the gods. Moreover, Romans would have found it logistically difficult to make use of cows for their meat, since these animals require a lot of pasture to feed off of, and when killed, the beef needs to be preserved in cold conditions.

Pork in ancient times

Ancient Romans and Greeks found pork to be among their most favourite foods. The Greek physician Galen claimed it was “the most nutritious of all foods”, while Pliny the Elder praised pork, writing that offered “almost fifty flavours, whereas all other meats have one each.”

Beef in the early Middle Ages

By the early Middle Ages, cows and beef found increasing popularity, Lorna Piatta-Farnell notes that in Anglo-Saxon England, beef was often an ingredient in medical recipes. “The imagistic connection between cows and strength clearly made an impression on the way in which Anglo-Saxons perceived beef, building a belief that meat deriving from cattle would bestow health upon those who ate it.”

From Bald’s Leechbook (10th century): “Against hiccupy stomachs or swelling take horned cattle flesh cooked in vinegar and with oil thickened with salt and dill and leek, partake of that for a seven night, henceforth relieven thence the afflicted stomach.”

Pork in the early Middle Ages

The popularity of pigs continued into the Middle Ages. Katherine Rogers explains, “in early medieval England, the idea of roaming, foraging pigs was so familiar that some woods were measured in the Domesday Book by the number of swine they could support…Pigs did not require pastures like cattle or sheep, but could forage on their own, in the woods, by the roadside and even in city streets.”

Pork in Medieval China

In ancient and medieval China, pork was considered to be the main type of meat. Rogers notes that “the Chinese character for home is made by putting the character for roof over the character for pig, suggesting that historically a typical family would have a pig that would live around or even in its house.” While in Europe pigs often were allowed to forage, in China they would be typically kept in pens, which made them smaller and fatter than their Western counterparts.

One popular dish is named for Su Dongpo, an eleventh-century poet, who was said to have invented the dish for labourers that were building a dam – Dongpo pork “consists of pork belly, complete with skin and lots of fat, cooked long and slowly until the skin and fat become jellylike and the meat is meltingly tender.”

Beef in Medieval Korea

While beef continued to gain popularity in medieval Europe, it was still seen as a food for the lower classes. Meanwhile, in medieval Korea, dishes that made use of grilled beef, such as Bulgogi, were enjoyed by the aristocracy. Today, one can ask for 120 different cuts of beef in the East Asian nation.

No eating of pigs among Jews and Muslims

Jews and Muslims find pigs to be taboo, believing the animal to be unclean. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote that if Jews ate pork, their “streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be see at present in the country of the Franks.”

Beef in stews

Stewing has long been used as a method to prepare meats, especially beef. The word stew comes from the Old English word stewen, which means ‘to bathe in a steam bath.’

There are several recipes for beef stews from medieval and early modern times, such a this one from the mid-16th century:

Take halfe a handful of rosemary and as much of tyme and bynder it on a bundell with threde after it is washen and put it in a pot after that the pot is clene skyned and lette it boile a while then cur soppes of white bread and put them in a great charger and put on the same skaldynge broth and whan it is soken ynough strayne it through a strainer with a quantitie of wyne or good Ale so that it be not to tarte and when it is strainer poure it in pot and than put in your raysons and prunes and so let them boyle tyl the meate is inough. If the broathe to be sweete putin the more wyne orels a lytell vinegar.

Cooking pork in 14th century Paris

Le Menagier de Paris, a 14th century guide by a Parisian to his young wife, “gives recipes for spit-roasted pork, served with spring onions (scallions) and verjuice (the sour juice of unripe grapes or other fruit); an elaborately stuffed roast piglet; boiled salt ham; and fresh ham cooked in saffroned stock and grain verjuice, with ginger and bread, served with mashed grape sauce.” The guide also mentions pork being used in side dishes, including sausages and roasted boar’s tail. The writer even gave his wife directions on how to make pig taste more like wild boar.

A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, by Pieter Aertsen

Beef in Renaissance art

In Renaissance art, “scenes depicting slaughtered cows were common, especially when the subject of the painting had a biblical connection. The parable of the prodigal son often received particular attention in this sense, with the carcass of beef – a symbol of celebration and wealth – functioning as a representation of the father’s happiness upon his son’s return home.

Both books – Beef: A Global History and Pork: A Global History – are part of the Edible series for Reaktion Books. You can also buy them through Amazon.com:

See also:

How much meat did medieval people eat?

Dietary Laws in Medieval Christian-Jewish Polemics: A Survey

The Middle Ages on the block: animals, Guilds and meat in the medieval period

Vegetables in the Middle Ages

Bread in the Middle Ages

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