CHEZ JIM BOOKS
FEASTING WITH THE FRANKS
The First French Medieval Food
"Early monks in Gaul, constrained to the barley bread and greens of Eastern rules, complained that it was 'inhuman' to make 'us, men of Gaul' live like angels. In enumerating the qualities of the meals of Theodoric the Goth, Sidonius Apollinaris notes 'Gallic abundance' (abundantiam Gallicanam). Whether the Franks adopted this love of indulgence or simply introduced their own, they maintained Gaul's gourmet reputation. The writer of St. Odo's life describes his abstemious ways as 'against the Frankish nature' (contra naturam Francorom). In the ninth century, when Guy de Spoleto was being considered for the throne, the Bishop of Metz prepared him 'a great deal of food following Frankish custom'. When Guy demurred and said he would be satisfied with far less, the bishop decided one with such simple tastes was unworthy to lead the Franks. Paul the Deacon describes how Franks in Italy were tricked when the enemy appeared to have abandoned tents filled with various treats and a great deal of wine: 'they straightway became merry and eagerly took possession of everything and prepared a very bountiful supper. And while they reposed, weighed down with the various dishes and with much wine and sleep, Grimuald rushed upon them after midnight and overthrew them...' Clearly, the French love of la bonne chère has a long history, preceding the existence of France itself."
And just what did these early gourmets eat?
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Table of Contents
One of the more surprising aspects of early medieval Gaul is a faint Egyptian influence, most obvious in the use of papyrus (an import) to keep public records. Another was the presence of camels (not distinguished here from dromedaries). By the seventh century camels were still familiar in Gaul (though not necessarily, as Dierkens points out, common). Gregory describes Gundovald's "camels laden with a considerable weight of gold and silver"; the Chronicle of Fredegar shows Brunhilda being ridden around "seated on a camel" after her capture; St. Ouen (Dado)'s seventh century life of St. Eligius refers to a camel carrying baggage. All these references are very matter-of-fact and do not treat camels as at all exotic.
Did the Franks eat them?
Certainly, some Gallo-Romans did. Camel remains from the fifth century found near both Marseilles and Tours bore signs of butchery. While no direct record exists of their being eaten under the Franks, it is hard to imagine that if, say, a camel broke a leg, the owner or at least the driver would have discarded a ready source of meat. It seems likely then that camel meat was still eaten on occasion, especially in the same Gallo-Roman areas where it had been formerly. However, the animal's presence faded as Roman influence fell away.
The food of the poor
The meals of the poorest groups have always been under-recorded. Still fitful records survive of what paupers, the sick and some laborers ate.
One comes from a formula which is found, with slight variations, in different collections. With this document, a donor donated their property (probably to the Church) while they were still alive, but in return for basic subsistence. In this case, the donor - "looking to his old age and the want that usually follows it" - expected bread, beer, legumes and milk, as well as meat on feast days. The milk was more likely to have been for cheese and butter than to be drunk directly. The legumes were probably the standard ones (broad beans and field peas). No doubt many too had kitchen gardens and could grow some minimal greens for both food and flavoring. These modest rations would have allowed for a regular meal of beans or peas and sometimes cheese with bread, washed down with beer. Any supplementary greens (beyond herbs used for flavor) were probably boiled, since there is no provision for either oil or animal fat (though butter might have served a similar purpose). As monotonous as such fare may seem to us today, the assurance of having it regularly, especially in old age, was probably no small thing in this period. Certainly, this shows that, if meat was welcome on feast days, daily portions of bread, beer and legumes, probably with some cheese or butter, were considered reasonable and sufficient fare for the least well-off...
Peacock presents a special case, since the bird is so emblematic (rightly or wrongly) of late medieval elite food. Did it have a similar role in earlier times?
In Rome, Varro credits Hortensius for having first served it at a great banquet, after which it commanded a high price. Horace mocked people for preferring the bird to hen for its high price and fine plumage which had nothing to do with its taste. It retained its luxurious reputation going into the Middle Ages. The eighth century Jonas of Orleans cites the fifth century St. Prosper as saying there was no great credit in abstaining from quadrupeds if you ate pheasant or peacock instead. Yet from the start, opinions of the actual meat were unfavorable. Galen said peacock flesh was hard, fibrous and difficult to digest. In the seventh century, Eugene III of Toledo wrote:
The peacock's wings are brilliant with light;
This hard meat was said to keep particularly well; no less a figure than St. Augustine actually tested some and reported that it kept for as long as a year.
Beyond texts, peacock remains have been found, with marks of butchering, at an elite site from the period. It seems clear then that it retained its elite status well beyond the Roman era and probably until it reappeared in written records at the end of the Middle Ages.
[Leeks]The leek held a particular place in Germanic culture. In the Icelandic Edda, often cited as a source on the wider Germanic culture, one sees the leek as a symbol of growth ("Green was the ground with growing leeks"), protection against poison ("Cast a leek in the cup/For so I know thou shalt never see/Thy mead with evil mixed") and a symbol of a gift of land ("The king himself from battle press came/To give the prince a leek full proud"). In his study of Germanic culture, Gummere cites references to the leek across Anglo-Saxon and Danish culture, but claims the Germans got it from Gaul. In his recipe for a stew, Anthimus says to add leek to it as well a choice of pennyroyal, celery or fennel. (In a later section on greens he suggests adding celery, cilantro, dill or leeks to stews. Ruas says that seeds of dill, celery, fennel, mustard and coriander were often ground, emphasizing their use as seasonings. ) In John Cassian's fourth to fifth century Institutiones, he counts leaves of leek cut monthly among the highest pleasures for the monks (along with herbs, fried salted goods, olives and salted small fish). In 843, monks at Reichenau were given a dish called warmosium. While this was not described, it required "enough leeks" and four cows, and was given as a lighter food for those with stomach problems, and so was probably made with leeks and milk or cream.
Adalhard's 822 statutes for Corbie show the kitchen garden growing leeks, porricini (probably young leeks or shoots), garlic, shallots and onions. While the monks had access to other foods (mainly through rents), this suggests they ate these regularly, very likely in stew (pulmentum). This suggests a change in attitudes since the late Empire, when Apollinaris complained about a barbarian's smelling of onions and garlic. Yet in his tenth century biography of Odo of Cluny, John of Salerno tells of being disgusted by the smell of a poor man's "garlic, onion and leeks" on a trip to Italy. So that prejudice (still found in later centuries) had not completely disappeared.
Updated July, 2022