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What Was Medieval Junk Food Like?

Updated May 26, 2021 29.3k views13 items

What was medieval junk food like? If you're picturing knights eating Big Macs and Twinkies, you're not far off from the truth. Just substitute a meat pie for the Big Mac and a funnel cake for the Twinkies, and you'll have a good idea of what medieval people bought on the street. But knights didn't ride their horses to medieval drive-throughs. Instead, medieval junk food usually catered to the poorest people and travelers.

The average diet in the Middle Ages included a lot of bread, vegetables, and meat. And the fast food version of the medieval food list incorporated many basic ingredients adapted for take-out. People brought their own meat to bakers, who wrapped it in dough and baked it. They ate gingerbread and waffles when they had a craving for sweet foods. Pretzels were a popular street food option, and they were also seen as a good luck charm.

But medieval junk food wasn't always delicious. Spoiled food and rotting meat pies were common gross medieval foods sold on the street. 

  • Photo: Bayeux Tapestry / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Poor Londoners Bought Take-Out Because They Didn't Have Hearths

    Across Europe, the poor were the most likely to visit cookshops, the medieval equivalent of a fast food drive-through. 

    In London, people visited cookshops close to the Thames, which catered to travelers and merchants, and in poor neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, people packed into tenement housing that often lacked a hearth, meaning they couldn't cook at home. Instead, people went to cookshops and bought take-out.

    Cookshops weren't just a European phenomenon. In 12th-century Jerusalem, residents named one area "the Street of Evil Cooking" because of all the cookshops. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During Lent, Many Europeans Turned To Alcohol As The Ultimate Convenience Food

    Medieval Europeans liked to drink. And Lent didn't change that. 

    During Lent and many other fasting days, Europeans were supposed to abstain from meat. In its place, many ate fish, since medieval Europeans believed fish reproduced asexually and thus didn't count as meat. Others turned to alcohol. 

    Around 1400, a Benedictine monk named Robert Ripon complained about all the men who drowned their sorrows during Lent: 

    In this time of Lent, when by the law and custom of the Church men fast, very few people abstain from excessive drinking: On the contrary, they go to the taverns and some imbibe and get drunk more than they do out of Lent, thinking and saying: "Fishes must swim."

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Funnel Cake Made Its First Appearance As A Junk Food Par Excellence

    When it came to sweets, medieval Europeans loved custards, cakes, and fritters. In fact, funnel cakes made their first appearance in the medieval era. 

    According to a medieval cookbook, the English loved fritters of all kinds. Some recipes called for figs, apples, and almonds as fritter ingredients. The first funnel cakes were called cryspes, or fried cakes topped with sugar. 

    Because medieval ingredients were more limited than today, Europeans got creative with their fritters, even frying up sweetened cottage cheese and calling it fritter of milk. 

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pretzels Became A Tasty Symbol Of Good Luck

    Soft pretzels were a popular treat in medieval Europe. They also carried the seal of approval from the Catholic Church, since the medieval pretzel recipe called for just three simple ingredients: water, flour, and salt. During fasting periods, when the church banned animal products, pretzels offered a flavorful alternative.

    Monks sometimes handed out pretzels to children who recited their prayers. As pretzels grew in popularity, they became a symbol of good luck and prosperity. Thanks to their link with the church, pretzels also became a sign of spiritual health. In some areas, people distributed pretzels to the poor.