Monday, June 11, 2012

How to Write a Medieval Novel: Eat Like a King

One of the tricks of convincing fiction of any period is to get all the little details right.  Top of the most neglected things in writing is things like toilets, food, and personal hygiene. 
While it’s probably hard to bring across medieval smells, and as many of these smells would seem ‘normal’ do you want to be drawing attention to them all the time?  Probably not, but one thing that’s good and fairly easy to get in is food and the delights of the table.  

Stews and kebabs are a simple, and timeless way of cooking meat.  Here a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

Our modern dinner table with metal knives, forks spoons and china plates are a surprisingly modern invention, but what would a medieval table look like?  This of course depends on when exactly you’re setting your story, and there are some important moments to think of.  Most people ate with a spoon, knife and fingers.  Forks didn’t come into fashion until Richard II, who was also supposed to have brought in the handkerchief, and who also inspired the first English cookbook: Curye onInglysch, which covers dishes like Malaches, Raphioles, Crustardes of flessh. 

Want to try these meals?  Well, there are a number of places where you can pick up medieval recipes for all kinds of dishes: from the royal to the everyday.  While there are a number of places that allow you to dress up and feast in right royal medieval style, it’s takes a little more work to eat like a peasant.  

Peasant food is of course a tad more timeless.  But it’s not hard to make rye bread, sour dour bread, flat breads.  Or even sample curds and whey, and many other staples that we no longer eat.   

Until about 150 years ago, most people in England used wooden bowls and plates for eating.  Wood turning was one of the ubiquitous industries you would find throughout Europe – and, like parish and shire boundaries - these wood turning workshops have changed little in the last 1000 years.  The last wood turner, George Lailey, died within living memory, in 1958.

A simple peasant meal: circa 2012
I’ve blogged about this before, but its worth repeating a little here: of how Lailey’s hut was almost exactly like Anglo Saxon grubenhaus.  As Morton said,

'[he] turns bowls exactly as they did in the days of Alfred the Great... to say that eight hundred years seemed to have stopped at the door conveys nothing. The room was an Anglo-Saxon workshop! The floor was deep in soft elm shavings, and across the hut was bent a young alder sapling connected to a primitive lathe by a leather thong.'

While he was the turner, like many other arts, this one has been revived.
  I managed to get a bowl and a plate from RobinWood, 2009’s Artisan of the Year.  Add in a horn spoon, some pottage or curds, and you have a real life re-enactment.   

Mine’s about 5 years old.  It gets used every day for lunch, and while I bake my bread in an oven, not by the side of the fire, it’s fairly easy to replicate many ways of cooking.