What did people eat in the medieval period?

How can archaeology help us find out about food in Norfolk in the medieval period?

Archaeologists have recovered the remains of medieval feasts and kitchen middens or rubbish heaps have been investigated. One good example is the commandry or preceptory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (a military monastic order similar to the Knights Templar). It was established in Carbrooke in 1193 and was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1540 (NHER 8814). Excavations on the site in 1998 revealed a fishpond that was filled in with kitchen rubbish (including swan, heron, songbirds and lobster) in the 15th century. The diet of the monks was wide-ranging and diverse.  

Aerial photograph of excavations of the commandry at Carbrooke.

Aerial photograph of excavations of the commandry at Carbrooke. (© NCC)

What did people eat in the medieval period?

In the medieval period the upper classes ate the most exotic food they could afford. Meals were served in several courses of up to 20 dishes. Spices were used to colour and flavour food which was often heavily salted to preserve it. Dried fruits were added and sugar was sprinkled on sweet and savoury dishes. Exotic birds like peacocks, herons and swan often formed the centrepiece of a meal. Fish was only served on fast days and in religious houses. Poor people made do with what they could grow or hunt. 

Try these medieval recipes:

“Fenkel in soppes” or braised fennel with ginger

11/2 lb trimmed fresh fennel root cut into matchsticks

8oz onions

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon powdered saffron

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 fl oz dry white wine

5 fl oz water

6 slices of wholemeal bread (optional)

Put the fennel in a wide lidded pan with the onions. Sprinkle over the spices and salt, then the oil and finally pour over the liquids. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes or till the fennel is cooked without being mushy. Stir once or twice during cooking to make sure the spices get well distributed. Serve with roast meat or fish or pour over bread.

Crispels (honey basted pastries)

Pastry dough

Olive oil


Roll out the pastry as thin as possible; cut into circles. Fry the pastry in a little olive oil until lightly brown & crisp. Drain well. Place the honey in a saucepan and slowly bring to a boil, skimming off any scum that rises. Brush the pastries with the hot honey and serve forth!

Tarte de Bry (Cheese tart)

One nine-inch pie shell

Raw egg yolks


Ginger (powder)




Combine the final 6 ingredients - the mixture needs to essentially be grated cheese held together with the egg yolk; the final consistency should be slightly runny. Place this filling in a pie shell and bake until the pastry is golden brown and the filling has set.

M. Dennis (NLA), 14 May 2007.


Further Reading

Berriedale-Johnson, M., 1987. The British Museum Cookbook (London, British Museum Press).

Matterer, J.L., 1997-2007. Gode Cookery. Available:


Accessed 13 May 2007.

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