By Rebecca Camisa
Many historians have wondered how people ate in the Middle Ages. The prevailing belief is that people ate a lot of bread and vegetables, but that meat was a rarity. A closer examination, however, offers a lot of evidence that medieval Europeans were dining on beef, pork and mutton.
One of the best places to look for meat consumption in the fifteenth century was Barcelona, then home to about 25,000 inhabitants, making it the most densely populated city in Catalonia. Tax records from Barcelona in the year 1462 reveal much meat consumption in that city. In Barcelona, each animal was taxed, and almost 70% of all the meat animals were sheep (representing over 40,000 animals), while cattle were just over 10% (representing almost 5,800 animals), and the remaining 11,600 animals were pigs. Altogether, there were roughly 57,400 animals in total who are brought into the city to be eaten.
How much meat would these animals have provided? The average sheep gives 50 lbs of meat, a bull cow gives around 500 lbs and each pig could give you 180 lbs of pork. By adding up the number of animals in Barcelona, we can learn how much meat that represented:
40,000 sheep at 50 lbs each = 2,000,000 lbs
5,800 bulls at 500 lbs each = 2,900,000 lbs
11,600 pigs at 180 lbs each = 2,088,800 lbs
This brings a total of 57,400 animals providing 6,988,000 lbs of meat per year for a city with 25,000 inhabitants. At almost 280 pounds of meat per person per year (including children and infants), the average daily consumption was 12 ounces per capita. By comparison, it has been estimated that in 2018 Spaniards were eating on average 4.5 ounces of meat per day (it should also be noted that nutrition guidelines suggest that adults should eat no more than four ounces daily).
These statistics reveal that in late medieval Barcelona, people were eating large amounts of meat on average. However, such heavy meat consumption was not restricted to this city
In one early-15th-century English aristocratic household for which detailed records are available (that of the Earl of Warwick), members of the household received a staggering 3.8 pounds (1.7 kg) of assorted meats in a typical meat meal in the autumn and 2.4 pounds (1.1 kg) in the winter, in addition to 0.9 pounds (0.41 kg) of bread and 1⁄4 imperial gallon (1.1 L; 0.30 US gal) of beer or possibly wine (and there would have been two meat meals per day, five days a week, except during Lent). In the household of Henry Stafford in 1469, members received 2.1 pounds (0.95 kg) of meat per meal, and all others received 1.04 pounds (0.47 kg), and everyone was given 0.4 pounds (0.18 kg) of bread and 1⁄4 imperial gallon (1.1 L; 0.30 US gal) of alcohol.
Men in monasteries ate a lot of meat too. Records from Westminster Abbey in the late 15th century show that monks were allowed 2.25 pounds (1.02 kg) of bread per day; 5 eggs per day, except on Fridays and in Lent; 2 pounds (0.91 kg) of meat per day, 4 days/week (excluding Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday), except in Advent and Lent; and 2 pounds (0.91 kg) of fish per day, 3 days per week and every day during Advent and Lent.
Many might assume that this huge meat consumption was limited to the affluent, but a simple analysis disproves that notion: If 10% of the people in a place like Barcelona each ate 3 lbs of meat per day, every day, that would add up to 2,737,500 lbs per year, leaving a remainder of 4,250,500 lbs, which is 188.91 lbs per person per year for the other 22,500 people. This equates to 0.52 lbs (or over 8 ounces) per person per day (again, including infants, who obviously don’t eat meat) and does not include consumption of poultry, such as chicken, ducks, geese, etc. The only way that the math could support the average person having very little meat would be if the affluent were eating more than 7 pounds of meat, per person, daily, and that is not realistic.
Accordingly, the amount of meat consumption in Barcelona in 1462 is substantially more than present-day consumption, and is clearly the opposite of a “nearly vegetarian diet for the common person.”
While this evidence is limited to the Late Middle Ages, there are some signs that even in earlier periods meat-eating was very common. For example, archaeologists working in York in England were able to recover a desiccated human dung specimen, dating back to the 9th century when the site was the Viking settlement of Jórvík. Analysis of the stool has indicated that its producer subsisted largely on meat and bread. It’s not likely that a random turd found in situ was from a noble, since most people, and therefore most turds, weren’t noble, but it’s impossible to know. It was interesting evidence – one could say food for thought – though.
Rebecca Camisa lives in Florida, and is a self-professed ‘lifelong history nerd’. You can find her on Facebook.
See also: How much meat did medieval people eat?
Top Image: A 14th century butcher’s shop, from Tacuino Sanitatis.