How Did the Black Death Affect What People Ate in the Middle Ages?
While the Black Death is not the deadliest disease in human history, it’s certainly one of the most impactful. The pestilence slammed into Europe in 1346, wiping out as much as 50% of the population in some parts. For many in the Middle Ages, it must have felt as if the end times were here and Hell had come to them.
When the dust settled in 1353, the survivors found themselves in a very different world to the one they had begun the pandemic in. The old laws of the land were beginning to break down and for peasants and lords alike, it was a tumultuous time. Nowhere is this more prevalent than medieval England.
Eroding the hierarchy
The Black Death was at its most potent in Europe from 1346–1353, it would not be the only outbreak of the disease, with many more following in later centuries, it is the one that had the greatest impact on society. The Black Death arrived in England via the port of Bristol in June, 1348. It quickly devasted the country, killing at least 1/3 of the population.
Entire villages were depopulated and abandoned, fields became overgrown and animals were left untended while bodies piled up in the streets; too numerous for the cemeteries and mass graves to handle. When it was over though, the peasants of England found themselves, for perhaps the first time in history, in a position of power.
At this time, peasants were essentially serfs, bound to the land of their lord. He paid them a wage and sometimes provided them with food too (though this was rare), then they would purchase their food. Wages were low, the land was concentrated in the hands of the aristocracy and few made any real attempt to challenge this order. Lords were lords, peasants were peasants and threat were just the way of it. But the Black Death changed all that.
Rich, poor, saint, sinner, lord, king or peasant, the Black Death was indiscriminate and as it reaped the souls of England, the countries agricultural society ground to a halt. Before the Black Death, an intensive arable agriculture farming model had been followed. Essentially, this means small pieces of land were laboured over intensively to produce crops.
This required a large labour force, however, and after the Black Death, such a large labour force no longer existed. Peasants realised that their labour was now worth more since there were fewer of them, but no less land to work. The basic example of supply and demand would have huge ramifications for medieval English society.
Peasants demanded higher wages, while at the same time the power of landlords diminished. With so much of their land under-utilised, many sold off portions of it to anyone who’d buy it, or they simply re-purposed it. It’s at this time that extensive farming practices were employed, where a large tract of land is farmed with far less labour. This produces slightly fewer yields (and profits) for the landowner while being far easier on those working the land. Not only did landowners have to pay peasants more, but they also earned less from their land.
As a result of all this, much of the unused land was turned into pastures for cows and sheep. By the end of the 14th century, there 60% more sheep in England than there had been at the start of the century, while grain harvests only just recovered their pre-Black Death levels at the end of the century.
Effects on the medieval diet
In the realms of medieval food, the Black Death can be seen as something of an equalizer. Many in the aristocracy and nobility endured want and hunger for the first times in their lives, while peasants had access to foods that previously would have been reserved almost exclusively for the upper classes. This is not to say that everybody suddenly ate the same, far from it, but the Black Death does mark a seismic shift in the eating habits of England.
Broadly speaking, the diet of the average peasant in the 14th century was healthier than ours today. They ate many grains, mainly in the form of wholemeal and rye bread, as well as pottage, which is similar to modern-day porridge, though it often had a vegetable and meat component. They ate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, all of them seasonal, though they would sometimes be preserved.
A great deal of the meat they ate was also preserved by pickling, drying, smoking or salting and fresh meat was only available in the winter months after the animal was slaughtered. Pigs were generally eaten for their meat, while cows were kept for their milk, which was often preserved as either butter or cheese. Sheep were often kept for wool, though both they and cows were also eaten, as were fish and the occasional game like hedgehogs, rabbits and a variety of birds.
The two main areas we see a shift in the eating habits of the time are in the consumption of grains and fresh meat. Since there were far more sheep and cows than there had been before and the wages of peasants were higher, more fresh meat was consumed far more regularly, something which would’ve been unheard a century before the Black Death. A consistent supply of fresh meat was a pleasure for the elites, while the peasants made do with what they’d preserved.
As a result of the increased meat consumption, grain consumption went down and better grains started to be chosen. White bread had once been enjoyed entirely by the uppercases, but as grain became cheaper, white bread started to creep into peasants’ diets too. Ironically, they abandoned the far healthier rye and barely breads in favour of the far less nutritious white bread. Barley was instead diverted to making more ale, better quality ale. Peasants were eating more meat, drinking better ales and enjoying foods that had once been reserved for elites.
Revolutions in society
This was all very problematic for medieval society. The clergy and nobility fought vehemently to keep the peasants in their place, but after the Black Death, it was too late. The best example of this tension boiling over was the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. While the revolt was ultimately triggered by a confrontation between the peasants and poll tax collectors, the societal and economic upheaval of the Black Death and the subsequent sense of individualism and social mobility it fostered fundamentally changed the makeup of society, not just across England, but across all of Europe.
Historians still debate to what degree the Black Death influenced these changes. Some argue that the changes were already happening and that the disease had a minimal effect, while others argue the Black Death was a catalyst for these sudden changes, or in the very least, that it greatly accelerated them.
While there is discussion still to be had surrounding its effect on society, the Black Death’s impact on the eating habits of both peasants and lords cannot be overstated. And in an era when what one ate was a direct result of one’s station, such a drastic change is nothing short of revolutionary.
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