When the Black Plague struck Europe in the 14th century, people didn't have much time to worry about their diets. Still, doctors warned that the most popular food and drinks in medieval England, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, could make people sick. Deemed healthy were items like meats, vinegar, and cooked fruit. For roughly three centuries afterward, millions of Europeans succumbed to sickness. The effects of the Black Plague influenced medieval food culture and directly shaped the way we live now.
Life during the epidemic was bleak - people who woke up healthy could be gone by nightfall - so it's not surprising that wine and beer were incredibly popular during this time. Doctors declared that some foods spread illness while others promoted health, but their advice didn't always line up with what was readily available. Peasants, for example, might have eaten three pounds of grain each day because it was their cheapest option. Surprising medieval food facts - like the popularity of almond milk, soured milk, and peacocks - change the way we understand the era.
Europeans believed vinegar was a panacea to prevent symptoms of the plague. Doctors used it as a medicine or potion, and it was often recommended as an additive to other foods or drink. Vinegar was used in a wide variety of foods; when cooking watery vegetables, fruits, soups, and dairy, the addition of substantial amounts of spice and vinegar was recommended. People also believed adding vinegar into water and wine would provide medicinal benefits. Lastly, to eliminate the bad "humors" that supposedly caused the illness, doctors recommended a syrup made from honey and vinegar.
Medieval doctors also believed a vital part of promoting good health involved purifying the air. Within a tractate written by a 14th-century physician, John of Burgundy, it is evident that vinegar served as a general disinfectant, as well as a medicine. Along with juniper branches and other deodorizers, vinegar cleared the air of harmful miasmas. Quite often, people were encouraged to wash their hands and faces in vinegar and rose water. The smell of the ether was thought to clean the air.
Most medieval peasants owned a cow, sheep, or goat and would often milk their livestock to produce dairy products, but medieval Europeans generally didn't drink fresh milk. It would often spoil too quickly; the milk that didn't turn was reserved for sick people. Instead, peasants often drank soured milk or buttermilk and whey mixed with water.
Among the wealthy, there was a different substitute for fresh milk: almond milk. A German cookbook, Das Buch von Guter Speise, was published during the midst of the Great Plague, and nearly one in four recipes used almond milk. One method called for cooked chicken, rice, sugar, and almond milk. A dessert recipe called for strawberries, wine, and almond milk.
Almond milk was also used to treat the sick, as doctors believed it was easier to digest than whole almonds and could provide essential nutrients for the ill. Almonds, however, were expensive, so the nuts were reserved for only the wealthiest individuals. The nut had heavy associations with Greek and Arabic cooking, and though it was prevalent in Northern European recipes, it was not accessible to the majority of the population.
During plague periods, eating fresh fruits was highly discouraged because the food was thought to carry disease. This association was such a prevalent belief that during a period in 1569, English authorities forbid the sale of fresh fruit.
It, however, does not mean medieval Europeans did not eat fruit. The most popular fruits were pears, apples, plums, damsons, cherries, and strawberries, and they were often used in pies, preserved with sugar, or dried for later consumption.
Meat was commonly eaten throughout medieval Europe, and though different meats were served, their abundance and variety were determined by socioeconomic status. Due to how cheap and accessible the animals were, beef and mutton tended to be the most common meats. Many peasants owned cows and sheep, so when the animals were unable to produce milk or had reached a certain age, they were slain for sustenance.
The aristocracy had much more varied menus, however. Peacocks, seals, and porpoises were served at banquets along with boar and other wild game.