“Messen it forth”: Our medieval course’s multi-course feast
When I planned a medieval feast for my Middle English literature course I was faintly worried that no one would cook anything and it would be a disaster.
So I told my students that I would bring some bread, and if no one else brought anything we could sup on bread and water and call it a medieval fast day.
Thankfully, students participated enthusiastically, and their reflections on the process were fun, creative, and thought-provoking.
Some who heard about it online kindly expressed interest in the activity (including responses to this tweet!).
So I decided to do a post highlighting some of the inspiring work that my students created.
Table of Contents
þis little table [he]re sewyng wole teche a man with oute taryyng; to fynde what meete þ[at] hym lust for to haue:
This little table visible here is designed to teach a person, without tarrying, how to find whatever food that he desires to have:
Fenkel in Soppes / Fennel in Soup
Appulmoy / Apple Sauce
Sebastian the Cat Making Appulmoy
Rysshews of Fruyt / Fruit Rissoles
Makke / Bean Jelly
Perrey of Pesoun / Puree of Peas
Frenche / French-style Food
Frytour of Erbes / Fritter of Herbs
Charlet / Meat with Milk
Fygey / Fig Pudding
Funges / Mushrooms
Salat / Salad
The course, “Highlights of Medieval English Literature” is aimed in part at enriching students’ knowledge of medieval literature by grounding it within some of its manifold material, social, cultural and political contexts–and their present-day legacies.
To achieve this aim and to broaden students’ knowledge of the history of the English language, students practice reading and translating texts written in diverse dialects of Middle English.
The goal of this particular activity was twofold: to enrich students’ understanding of medieval English culture (and its present-day relevance) and to strengthen their abilities in Middle English translation (in a rather practical context, since a single mistake can lead to a major ‘cooking fail’!).
“Ingredients” and Preparation
There are numerous recipes surviving in Middle English, ranging from the pragmatic to the fantastical (not unlike these amazing but unfortunately imaginary recipes for cooked unicorn created by the British Library on April Fool’s Day). I selected recipes for this activity by looking for ones with ingredients that were
- largely affordable for student budgets
- portable and safe at room temperature
- non-poisonous, wholly legal, and readily available
The first two criteria, which were rather pragmatic, meant that most of the recipes I chose are based on vegetables, grains, fruit, and pulses. The third criteria meant that I rejected several recipes, including those requiring “porpays” (porpoise) meat, “herouns” and “blode of gurnardes” (blood of the gurnard fish).
I selected recipes from the Forme of Cury (c. 1390s) which, according to its preface, “was compiled of the chef Maister Cokes of kyng Richard the Secunde kyng of Englond” (fol. 1r). The excerpts below are from Samuel Pegge’s edition; while it has the disadvantage of being rather antiquated, it has the advantage over more modern editions of being out of copyright.
I began the activity with a lecture about food and social class in medieval England, exploring such topics as its role in the Peasants’ Uprising, and the ways in which it is represented in literary works.
I created recipe sets of equal length, each including 3-4 recipes. The class (of about 85 students) was divided into small groups and each received its own recipe set. Once the set was translated, the group could select any recipe from their particular set to prepare for the class.
Activities that require non-traditional materials like this one can be difficult for students who are coping with financial or other challenges, so whenever I plan an activity like this I give students the possibility of choosing a more traditional assignment structure instead.
In this particular case, all groups opted for the cooking assignment (which made for surprisingly plentiful feasting).
I told my groups that, with their permission, I would share a couple of their contributions in an online post. The contributions ended up being so fun, imaginative, and inspiring that I couldn’t pick only a few, so I decided to include something from each one here.
All photos, explanations, and quality content below are of course produced by the students themselves; I have edited the material in places for length.
Images, art, writing and other content are all shared with permission.
Dr. Krista A. Murchison
Assistant Professor of Medieval English Literature
When that April with his sweet sunshine (as there was not a drop of rain this Easter weekend), continues the dryness of March to the roots, and bathed every Dutch person in sunlight as we collectively swamped terraces and afterwards barbecued in our gardens, then folk (students of English at Leiden University in particular) long to do their Philology 4 homework. . . .
– Group 7
Meals, Mete and Medieval England
In medieval England, recipes generally functioned as reference guides
Recipes from medieval England tend to lack precise measurements. Their approach suggests that they generally functioned as reference guides–they did not usually teach people how to make dishes. People using these recipes were expected to already know most of the methods of preparation.
According to Magdalena Bator and Marta Sylwanowicz, this helps to explain why the most frequently made dishes were never written down; the recipes that made it into medieval cookbooks were the ones concerning processes or ingredients that were not in everyday use (Bator 23). However, they also note that some recipes were written down by the cook himself in order to either boast, or to educate a noble household (Bator 23-24).
By Linda de Zeeuw, Marius de Ridder, Rik Oldenziel, Rosalie Slijk, Wouter Kennis
Recipes and aristocratic fantasy
Ruth Caroll offers another explanation for the vagueness of medieval English recipes. According to Caroll, the lack of precision in these can be explained by the fact that medieval cookbooks were not necessarily instructional. She introduces a more “extreme view,” suggesting that these cookbooks were more like propaganda than modern day cookbooks. She states that “just as glossy twentieth-century cookbooks may represent ‘the fantasy of female achievement’ so fourteenth-century cookbooks, full of spicery and saffron, may represent a fantasy of lordly wealth” (58). Caroll’s view here is also supported by the fact that most of the recipes use saffron, which was the most expensive spice in medieval times (Adamson 15).
By Lotte Wesselius, Frank Visser, Martijn van Bommel
Saffron and medieval international exchange
The frequency with which saffron is found in these recipes is notable, since unlike most of the herbs mentioned in these recipes, saffron is not native to Europe. Saffron grows in countries in Asia and in the medieval period was found in countries like Spain. Catalonia imported a great deal of products to West-European countries once the Strait of Gibraltar became an important trade route. Catalan commerce then became highly successful and one of the products that was imported to England was saffron (Ferrer 44-45).
By Kevin Jacobs, Shannon van Geresteijn, Ties Elkerbout, Emma Kops, Fieke van Houdt
Today, saffron is often considered exceptionally pricey. After having conducted research on saffron in medieval England, it became clear to us that saffron’s contemporary reputation as an exclusive spice was also prevalent in medieval times. Volker Schier describes it as “an object of conspicuous consumption reserved for the wealthy” (57). In fact, according to Schier, saffron was also thought to have medical properties: it was used as a “tonic, mood elevator, antidepressant, and hallucinogenic drug” (57). This means that saffron was not solely used to enhance the taste and colour of recipes, but it also served a medical purpose.
By Margo, Vita, Lisanne, Serena and Ellemijn
Fasting days were frequent in medieval England
On these fasting days, people were supposed to follow strict rules for what they could and could not eat, although the exact restrictions varied between time periods, social groups, and areas. Many monastic orders, for example, held themselves to stricter standards than other groups, both by fasting more often and by following stricter regulations when they did fast. The Carthusians, for example, fasted on water, bread, and salt for three days of the week (Bynum 31-47). Even common people, however, were expected to fast on many days of the year.
The most common restriction during fasting periods was to meat consumption. This restriction meant that fish was one of the most significant components in the food of the faithful on fasting days, with meat, lard, and other animal products rigorously reserved for the ‘fat’ days by the Church. This is substantiated, in an Italian context, by De magnalibus urbis Mediolani (“On the Marvels of Milan”), written in 1288 by Bonvesin da la Riva. This Italian monk documents, among other noteworthy statistical facts of the city, the diet of Milan. Strikingly, his record of herbs, pulses, fruits, and vegetables is six times larger than his inventories of the meat and fish that were consumed at the time (Dickie 39-40). This imbalance is suggestive of the importance and frequency of fasting days, on which people would not have been allowed to eat meat. With so many days on which fasting was required, there would have been a significant demand for meals that adhered to the Church’s fasting restrictions.
By Lotte Inkenhaag, Maya Katerberg, Kars Ligtenberg, and Sanne te Riele
Food, then, can provide fascinating insight into social, religious, and international culture of medieval England. The recipes below can hopefully serve as not only a nutritional, but also an educational, feast.
“I think I just got an entire peppercorn in that bite?”
-Dr. Murchison, on fenkel in soppes
“Oh yeah, probably. It’s basically Russian roulette, but with pepper.”
Fenkel in Soppes
Fennel in Soup
“It didn’t look like the tastiest recipe out there, but to our surprise it actually didn’t taste the way it looked (which was a good thing).”
Take blades of fenkel. shrede hem not to smale. do hem to seeþ in water and oile and oynouns mynced þerwith. do þerto safroun and salt and powdour douce, serue it forth. take brede y tosted and lay the sewe onoward.
Take fennel blades. Shred them not too finely, set them to boil in water, and with oil and minced onions. Add saffron and salt and powder douce. Serve it forth: take toasted bread and lay the sauce on top.
After gathering the ingredients needed for the dish, we started kneading the dough for the bread – we decided to make out own bread, to make the food more authentic. Lotje kneaded the dough until it formed a cohesive whole. The dough was left to rise for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, Corine set out all the ingredients for the dish. These ingredients, then, were captured in a picture, as was the rest of the process.
We then strayed from the recipe, and fried the onions in butter and olive oil, instead of boiling them in water. We thought the onions would fit better with the sweetness of the poudre douce if we caramelised them.
We cut the fennel, made the poudre douce, and mixed them together. Adding some water, we left the fennel and sweet spices to simmer on a low heat for thirty minutes.
We added the caramelised onions to the fennel stew, and left this to simmer for another hour. After adding the onions to the fennel stew, we kneaded the bread into the desired shape, and left it to rise a second time for an hour and a half.
We let the fennel stew reduce until it formed a thick jus.
After the bread had risen, we scored it with a knife, and let it bake in the oven for twenty-five minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. After we took the bread out of the oven, all the components of the dish were ready. All that was left to do was cut the bread and serve it with the stew.
Prepared by: Corine Booij, Feline van Dijl, Lotje van Norren & Toby Westerweel
“Although our three recipes carry ingredients which may be considered quite ordinary to any regular household, they also all include saffron. This leads us to believe that they could be used for more festive occasions and produced for a wealthier audience. Rare spices like saffron were expensive and thus were reserved for the higher classes of society, who used them frequently despite their rarity and costliness (Jenkins, 47).”
– Group 1 (Chiara Ravinetto, Dionne Remmelzwaal, Mees Drijgers, Daniëlle Wix)
Take Apples and seeþ hem in water, drawe hem thurgh a straynour. take almaunde mylke & hony and flour of Rys, safroun and powdour fort and salt. and seeþ it stondyng.
Take apples and boil them in water; draw them through a strainer; take almond milk and honey and rice flour, saffron and powder fort and salt, and boil it thick.
Today we made apple sauce with a little twist: using a medieval recipe. This recipe stated only the ingredients, without the specific amounts, so those had to be improvised. We started by cutting the apples (1,5 kg) into small pieces, washing them, and transferring the cleaned apple pieces into a large soup pan to boil them as the recipe stated.
While the apples were boiling, we made the ‘strong powder’ mentioned in the recipe using one teaspoon of ground ginger, one teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and two teaspoons of black pepper.
When the water started to change colour we drained away the water and put the apples back into the pan. The medieval recipe did not specify what amount of almond milk should be added, so we put 100 ml almond milk in with the apples. This was followed with one tablespoon of rice flour, two tablespoons of vegan honey, and the saffron in the recipe was replaced with some more cinnamon and mixed it through.
We then put the fire on high until the mixture started to boil, and when it did we let the apples sit for 15 minutes on low fire until the mixture started to combine. After taking the pan off the fire and letting it sit for about ten minutes to cool down, we used a blender to make it smooth.
Conclusion: the medieval recipe works, is easy to make, and is absolutely delicious!
Prepared by: Ilse van Oosten, Esseline van der Does de Willebois, Jurre Adelmund, Berend Spaans
Prepared by: Erica Bravo Mendes, Nicky Moor, and Iris Vaneman
Rysshews of Fruyt
Rissoles of Fruit
” Once we got the hang of the process, we made them quite quickly and the rissoles had a nice bronzed crispy layer on the outside. In the end, it reminded us of the Dutch New Year’s ‘oliebollen’ and it came out edible. Delicious! (hopefully).”
– Tahani Lalmahomed, Krista Grundeken, and Doreth Groot Wesseldijk
Take Fyges and raisouns. pyke hem and waisshe hem in Wyne. grynde hem wiþ apples and peeres. ypared and ypiked clene. do þerto gode powdours. and hole spices. make bailes þerof. fryen in oile and serue hem forth.
Take figs and raisins. Pick them clean and wash them in wine. Grind them with apples and pears, pared and picked clean. Add good powders and whole spices. Make balls of it. Fry in oil and serve them forth.
“The steps were easy enough: I washed the raisins and figs in wine, as the recipe called for, cut an apple and a half up into small pieces, as well as a pear and a half, and then basically mixed those four ingredients together. I added some cinnamon, decided to quarter the figs rather than leave them whole.”
“The recipe that we have chosen to make, the Rissoles of Fruit, is predominantly focused on fruit, with some spices to add to the flavour. Scully (1995) explains that fruits and vegetables were not reserved for the rich alone.”
Prepared by: Lisanne Koster, Michael Le, Sylvia Meijer, Janessa Vleghert
Take drawen benes and seeþ hem wel. take hem up of the water and cast hem in a morter grynde hem al to doust til þei be white as eny mylk, chawf a litell rede wyne, cast þeramong in þe gryndyng, do þerto salt, leshe it in disshes. þanne take Oynouns and mynce hem smale and seeþ hem in oile til þey be al broun . and florissh the disshes therwith. and serue it forth.
Take drawn beans and boil them well. Take them out of the water and cast them in a mortar. Grind them all to dust until they are as white as any milk; heat a little red wine, cast (it) there among the grindings; add salt to it; serve it in dishes. Then take onions and mince them finely and boil them in oil until they are all brown. And garnish the dishes with them and serve it forth.
Prepared by: Roos-Anne Albers, Karianne Kersten, Jonatan Korvemaker, Nienke van der Wal and Malika Mahamdi
Perrey of Pesoun
Puree of Peas
“The taste of the dish was surprisingly good, even though it did not look very attractive.”
Take pesoun and seeþ hem fast and covere hem til þei berst. þenne take up hem and cole hem thurgh a cloth. take oynouns and mynce hem and seeþ hem in the same sewe and oile þerwith, cast þerto sugur, salt and safroun, and seeþ hem wel þeratt þerafter and serue hem forth.
Take peas and boil them strong and cover them til they burst. Then take them up and strain them through a cloth. Take onions and mince them, and boil them in the same liquid and with oil; cast sugar, salt and saffron there, and after that, boil them well there, and serve them forth.
“To get an idea of what medieval cookery really is like, we tried following a Middle English recipe. We decided to make “Perrey of Pesoun”, a dish that consists of peas and onions. Fresh peas were very hard to find, so we had to use frozen peas (fig.1).
First, we boiled the peas in water. Once the peas had simmered for five minutes, we added some finely chopped onions. Because the recipe did not contain any measurements, we had to guess what would be the right ratio of pea to onion. In the end we decided to add roughly the same quantity of both ingredients (fig.2)
Once the peas and onions had boiled for around ten minutes, we added the remaining ingredients: oil, sugar, salt and saffron (fig. 3).
There were no measurements given for the spices either, so we made sure to taste along the way, adding some more where needed. The recipe did not clarify how long the peas and onions had to boil. We decided to boil them until most of the water had evaporated. This resulted in a creamy, almost slimy texture (fig. 4).
The taste of the dish was surprisingly good, even though it did not look very attractive. The sweetness of the sugar made the dish taste different from vegetable dishes we know nowadays. It was very quick and easy to make; the whole process took around twenty minutes.”
Prepared by: T.A.M. van Beek, Maaike Otto, Renée Wink, Helèn Parel
“The combination of peas and onions with the sweet powder tasted very unusual.”
Take and seeþ white peson and take oute þe perrey & parboile erbis & hewe hem grete & cast hem in a pot with the perrey pulle oynouns & seeþ hem hole wel in water & do hem to þe perrey with oile & salt, colour it with safroun & messe it and cast þeron powdour douce.
Take and boil white peas and take out the puree and parboil herbs and cut them in large pieces and cast them in a pot with the puree.
Peel onions and boil them whole thoroughly in water and add them to the puree with oil and salt; tint it with saffron and serve it out, and cast on it powdour douce (a mix of sweet spices):
Prepared by: Ellen Kemper, Chelsea Janssen, Boukje van der Vos, and Charlotte van Driel
Frytour of Erbes
Fritter of Herbs
Take gode erbys. grynde hem and medle hem with flour and water & a lytel zest and salt, and frye hem in oyle. and ete hem with clere hony.
Take good herbs. Grind them and mix them with flour and water and a little zest and salt, and fry them in oil, and eat them with clear honey.
Prepared by: Lucas Gahrmann, Bob van der Horst, Angelique Karels, Fleur Treurniet, Mirjam Vos
Meat with Milk
Take Pork and seeþ it wel. hewe it smale. cast it in a panne. breke ayrenn and do þerto and swyng it wel togyder. do þerto Cowe mylke and Safroun and boile it togyder. salt it & messe it forth.
Take pork and boil it well. Chop it finely. Cast it in a pan. Break eggs and add them to it and stir it together well. Add cow’s milk and saffron and boil it together. Salt it and serve it forth.
Step 1: Cut the pork.
Then cook it well in a pan.
Step 2: Crack the eggs and stir them before adding it into the pan.
Add milk immediately after adding the stirred eggs.
Then stir well until everything is cooked thoroughly.
Step 3: Add saffron and salt. Stir well.
Prepared by: Denise Hu, Sten Renssen, and J.E.S. Verhoog
“Ever thought, I want to make something delicious and I want to have an experience of the past?”
Take Almaundes blanched, grynde hem and drawe hem up with water and wyne: quarter fygus hole raisouns. cast þerto powdour gyngur and hony clarified. seeþ it wel & salt it, and serue forth.
Take blanched almonds, grind them and draw them up with water and wine, quartered figs, whole raisins. Cast onto it powder of ginger and clarified honey. Boil it well, and salt it, and serve it.
For this recipe I used the following ingredients:
- 200g ground almonds
- 250ml Red wine
- 250 ml water250g dried figs
- 200g raisins
- 40g honey
- 5g of salt
- 5g dried and ground ginger
Step 1: Mix the ground almonds with a little of the water or wine to make a paste.
Step 2: Add the rest of the liquid and put on medium heat to simmer.
Step 3: Cut the figs into quarters
Step 4: After you have cut all your figs add the rest of the ingredients and boil for 5 minutes until a thick and smooth mixture forms.
Step 5: Once your fig pudding has thickened leave it to cool a little bit and serve it while still warm and enjoy!
Prepared by: Kevin Jacobs, Shannon van Geresteijn, Ties Elkerbout, Emma Kops, Fieke van Houdt
Take Funges and pare hem clere and dyce hem. take leke and shred hym small and do hym to seeþ in gode broth. colour it with safron and do þer inne powdour fort.
Take mushrooms and pare them thoroughly and dice them. Take leek and shred it finely and set it to boil in good broth. Tint it with saffron and add to it powdour fort (a mix of strong spices).
“In Medieval Times, Melitta Weiss Adamson states that there were several types of fungi used in cooking and that the dish was popular with medieval cooks (11). The use of mushrooms does not seem to have been restricted to any particular social class, although certain types of fungi may have been more in favor with the upper classes, because they were harder to come by and therefore more expensive. For example, truffles are described by Adamson as having been “exclusive foodstuff” in medieval times (11). Mushrooms were clearly not as glamorous as truffles; as Adamson explains: “the German nun Hildegard of Bingen called mushrooms the foam and sweat of the earth” (11). ”
Prepared by: Antoinetta Karapasias, Nikki van den Bosch, and Djayla van der Meer
Take persel, sawge, garlec, chibolles, oynouns, leek, borage, myntes, porrectes, fenel and ton tressis, rew, rosemarye, purslarye, laue and waische hem clene, pike hem, pluk hem small wiþ þyn honde and myng hem wel with rawe oile. lay on vynegur and salt, and serue it forth.
Take parsley, sage, garlic, scallions, onions, leek, borage (a flowering plant), mint, porrets, fennel, garden cress, rue, rosemary, purslane, wash in water and scrub them thoroughly. Pick them clean, and break them into small pieces by hand, and mix them well with raw oil. Lay on the vinegar and salt, and serve it forth.
Editor’s note: I think rue is toxic so please don’t eat it.
Now for this dish it is important to basically stuff as many vegetables as someone in the Middle English period could find into a single dish. Along these lines, and following an original recipe, I went with the following ingredients:
- Parsley – a couple of handfuls
- Garlic – about 4 to 5 cloves (I didn’t really keep count, so you shouldn’t either)
- Spring Onion – I cut up and added about two whole spring onions
- Onion – add about 2 to 3 full onions
- Leek – One full leek (though not all of it was used)
- Mint – quite a bit of mint leaves
- Shallots – as they’re just smaller onions, add about 4, just to give them an edge over their bigger cousins
- Fennel – One full fennel
- Garden Cress- As it is quite tiny, add quite a bit
- Rosemary – Smells absolutely amazing, so add enough to make the room smell good
- Olive oil – The best kind of dressing
- Apple cider vinegar – I chose apple cider vinegar as it seems authentic, and the slight sweetness it holds should work to counteract the very herb-focused flavours of the dish just a bit. However, any vinegar should do the trick just fine.
- Fennel seeds – When you think you won’t be able to find the actual fennel, and then discover that the seeds taste pretty good
- The original recipe also asks for borage, commonly known as starflower. However, since I could not manage to find any, I went with another variety of edible flowers, of which I forget the name, but they’re yellow.
If all instructions were followed, your kitchen should look somewhat like this:
Step 1 (the most important step): We start out by thoroughly rinsing the ingredients, following the original recipe, to get rid of any excess dirt (or perhaps some of those pesky chemicals).
Step 2 (itsy-bitsy pieces): After rinsing the variety of herbs and vegetables, we start out by cutting up the onions. Personally, I decided to quarter them, after removing the outer layers of skin, and to remove the inner stem. Onions here includes their smaller cousins, so do not forget to do the same to the shallots.
For the leeks, I removed the upper, greener, parts, as well as the root (which we toss). The white part of the stem we cut into tiny pieces, as that is just the easiest way of preparing them. For the greener bits, I decided to follow the original recipe more closely. Rip the leaves apart into smaller, more edible, pieces. They should curl up naturally, which just makes it look nice and proper.
For the fennel I decided to cut off the top bits, as they’re tough and hard to bite through. The body of the plant I plucked into tiny pieces with my hands. Make sure to make the pieces small enough, or they might be hard to eat.
At this point your kitchen should look a bit like this:
Step 3 (this is where the fun starts): Add everything to a bowl but the olive oil, vinegar and the herbal flower (as this will just look best on top). Mix and toss, before heading to step four.
Step 4 (finishing touches/ how to make it look better on your Instagram account): At this point, the time has arrived to add an generous amount of olive oil and vinegar to the dish.
Finish it off by adding the chosen herbal flower on top, at which point the salad should look somewhat like the following image:
Prepared by: Kevin Jacobs, Shannon van Geresteijn, Ties Elkerbout, Emma Kops, Fieke van Houdt
Adamson, Melitta Weiss. Food in Medieval Times. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
Bator, Magdalena and Marta Sylwanowicz. Measures in Medieval English Recipes – Culinary Vs. Medical.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: International Review of English Studies 52.1 (2017): 21-52.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Carroll, Ruth. “Vague language in the medieval recipes of the Forme of Cury.” Instructional writing in English: Studies in honour of Risto Hiltunen (2009): 55-82.
Dickie, John. Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007.
Ferrer, M. Teresa. “Catalan Commerce in the Late Middle Ages.” Catalan Historical Review (2012): 29-65. Web.
Jenkins, Marjorie. “Medicines and Spices, with Special Reference to Medieval Monastic Accounts.” Garden History, vol. 4, no. 3, 1976, pp. 47–49. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1586523.
Schier, Volker. “Probing the Mystery of the Use of Saffron in Medieval Nunneries.” The Senses and Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 2010. pp. 57-72.