From Turnips to Turkey

The Development of Medieval Cuisine into Renaissance Cuisine

by Dame Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina of Robakovna


There are many common misconceptions about Medieval and Renaissance food: meat served at feasts was rotten and spices had to be used liberally to make the food palatable; no one ever ate vegetables, nobles ate super spicy dishes while peasants ate only bones; all food was weird.

These “old saws” have been discounted in numerous academic papers and food history publications, as well discussed at length on SCA food lists.

The one misconception I rarely see discussed? Medieval and Renaissance food are interchangeable, that European cuisine was the same throughout our entire period of study.

No, the two cuisines weren’t so different that selecting dishes for a feast from, say, the Viandier of Taillevant and La Varenne’s French Cook or Two Fifteenth Cookery Books and A New Booke of Cookerie won’t lead to a discordant, wildly mixed bag of a meal…

…but there were some subtle but significant changes in culinary/medical thought and other factors that led from the growth of the Middle Age’s predominant sweet/sour flavor to the salty-sour notes of the Renaissance. Of course, the influx of new ingredients from the New World and elsewhere had a dramatic impact on the taste of European food.

Let’s look specifically at English cuisine, to keep this overview brief!

Comparing Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks

By most accounts, the Middle Ages encompassed the time period between the end of Classical Antiquity (circa 450) and the beginning of the Renaissance (circa 1450 to 1700).

A review of the cookbooks Ancient Cookery (circa 1285) and Forme of Cury (14th Century) reveals recipes seasoned nigh universally with saffron, cinnamon, and ginger, tempered with vinegar or verjuice, and served with sugar strewn on top[1]. This combination of flavors appears equally in the recipes for roasted meats as it does for the soups and stews (pottages) and the fruit-filled pies and fritters. Dishes are thickened with bread crumbs, and almond milk is a common substitute for dairy products (due to Lenten restrictions). Dried fruits (prunes, currants, raisins, figs) appear in as many meat dishes as they do in dessert-like ones.

Now, look at Thomas Dawson’s 1597 cookbook, The Good Huswifes Jewell. We still see many of the same types of dishes and the same ingredients, but there are changes: orange and lemon juice appear more often than verjuice or vinegar. Butter appears more often than almond milk or almond butter. Dishes are garnished with barberries and other fruit rather than the previously ubiquitous sprinkle of sugar. Subtle, but the slow transition is beginning.

Looking at the Tudor-period recipe books of Robert May or Elinor Fettiplace, there are now significant changes: no generously spiced meat stews, no sweet-sour sauces. Ginger, cinnamon, and saffron still appear, but are used singly or in sparing combinations rather than in complex, heady mixtures of numerous spices. Egg yolks thicken soups and other dishes, rather than bread crumbs.[2] In short, it’s slowly transforming into modern cuisine!

Influences on Medieval Cuisine

Humoral Theory

The single biggest factor affecting food of the Middle Ages was the Humoral or Galenic theory, a physiological doctrine based on the works of Galen of Pergamum, a 2nd Century Greek physician. Simply put, the theory posited that four fluids (humors) comprise all lifeforms (including humans, animals, and plants): bile, blood, choler, and phlegm. These fluids in term corresponded to four elements: heat, moisture, cold, dryness. All lifeforms are dominated by one or a combination of two of these humors (phlegm is cold and moist, and fish is considered to be a cold and moist creature), and one must always seek to balance the humors for perfect health.[3]

Unlike today, medieval physicians did not prescribe a near-universal fiber-rich, low-fat, low-salt, or low-carbohydrate diet to attain optimum health. Rather, it was thought proper diet depended solely upon a person’s predominant humor(s) and the need to bring them into balance. For example, hot, dry dishes (seasoned with lots of garlic) would be considered very healthy for a person with a phlegmatic personality, but could be deathly dangerous for a choleric. Therefore, one diner would get a heady warm cameline sauce on his roast to “correct” his health problems, while another would get a thin cool parsley dip for his.[4]

The Humoral theory further influenced which foods were eaten and how they were eaten; for example, people believed raw fruit caused diarrhea and fevers, so fruit was always baked or roasted in dishes.[5]

The Seasons

Hand in hand with the Humoral theory was the belief that food eaten out of season was unhealthy.

…Stars, and the position of the moon, required consideration. As a general rule things were best killed or gathered with the wane of the moon, but things on the increase, with the increase of the moon. This is not superstition, as animals kept awake by bright moonlight usually wake up and feed extra, so are likely to weigh heavier than those killed after dark nights, and roots are most full of substance just before they burst into growth in spring.[6]

Arabic Foods

The third major impact on Medieval cuisine was the recipes and ingredients brought back to Europe from the East. The Crusaders introduced Europeans to highly prized and expensive spices, foremost of which was SUGAR.[7] Remember all those sweet/sour medieval meat stews, flavored with dried fruits (currants, raisins, figs, dates, prunes) or very expensive citrus (lemons, Seville oranges) in Forme of Cury? Those dishes, often with almost identical names, first appeared in A Baghdad Cookery Book, dated 1226.

Spices were used to create the pungent/sweet palate found in most cooking. Originally Arabian, these flavors were brought to Europe by returning Crusaders in the 13th Century. English cuisine combined the flavors of imported spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cloves with herbs and acidic binders or liaisons like verjuice or vinegar. ...Luxuries like sugar first appeared in Western cookery as medicines, and sugar was valued for its supposed health benefits into the 18th Century.[8]

As universal as Galen’s theory was held in the Middle Ages, the Middle Eastern foods and dishes – as well as the texts of the Arab and Jewish physicians Avicenna, Rhazes, and Maimonides – had a subtle but thoroughly pervasive impact on the food of Europe.[9]

Influences on Renaissance Cuisine

Greco-Roman Works

The rebirth or resurrection of ancient writings – thanks to the printing press, the lowered cost and exclusiveness of books, and the growing interest in education[10] – were the core of the Renaissance. Not surprisingly, the growing desire to consider rational thought rather than pure faith influenced not only literature and philosophy, but dietary and medical theories as well.[11] Initially, the dishes of 16th Century England didn’t seem all that different from those of the Middle Ages: fish, roasts, boiled meats, stews. The difference? Individual seasonings, rather than melanges of multiple, melded ones.[12] Simple flavors, rather than rich, complex ones. Lavish dishes were n[1]ow criticized![13]

…The Renaissance transformed courtly cookery, as it transformed other arts. In the kitchen, reversion to ancient texts and Greco-Roman sources of inspiration demanded the abjuration of Arab influence. When Renaissance cooks tried to revive habits of antiquity they discarded the old palette of the culinary artist, with its gold hues, fragrant odors, and sweet savors. The result… was a shock which has reverberated through Western food ever since. It used to be generally assumed among food historians that a new “salt-acid” repertoire of flavors, derived from Ancient Rome, came to dominate Western cookery. ..Most of the new recipes of the Renaissance were not particularly salty, though they certainly represented a revulsion against the cloying sweetness of the Middle Ages.[14]

Thus, the sweet, spicy cuisine that characterized medieval European food was slowly replaced by one of salty and acidic flavors.[15] In addition, more and more Renaissance texts recommended eating vegetables and fruit, including turnips, parsnips, carrots, onions, leeks, garlic, and radishes.[16] The suspicion of raw vegetables and fruit lessened enough that by the late 1600s, at least one cookbook focused exclusively on salads! (Acetaria, a discourse of Sallets)

Age of Exploration

As explorers set out from Europe, such long-term voyages required special food preparations:

The discovery of the New World set new problems in the kitchen. The mediaeval cook had been ahead of the scientists in providing preserved food for winter use (killing the cattle in autumn and lack of winter provender had far-reaching effects in the arts of drying and salting and smoking). Now cooks were called upon to invent closer packs, and provide for longer voyages, and a perfect wave of preservation recipes – for pickling, potting, and spicing – washed over the cookery of the 16th Century.

…The melted butter we pour over potted meat tops is the last faint reminder of the thick, airtight suet seal put over the potted meat for sailors. The clotted cream of Devon, preserved with sugar, was the prototype of our sweetened condensed milk. The folk around Plymouth and the West Ports baked the cream and bottled it to send it to sea. Honey, salt, juniper, pine tar.. were used on the hams and bacon that was smoke-fried for the tropic seas.[17]

New World Foods

Of course, the result of the exploration trips was many new and exotic foods: tomatoes and turkey from Mexico, kidney beans and chili peppers from Peru, maize and potatoes from the Andes.[18] Tea, coffee, limes, bananas, sweet oranges, asparagus, artichokes, eggplants, sassafras, sarsaparilla – not all were welcomed immediately, but dietaries encouraged the eating of more vegetables. However, these new foods didn’t fit neatly into Galen’s doctrines, and instigated the slow decline of the Humoral theory.[19] This “worldliness” reflected in many new recipes (A Persian Dish, something in the Portuguese style, etc.)

The biggest “new” food? Sugar, again! With faster, larger supplies of sugar coming from Morocco, Italy, and the West Indies, sugar could now be used in abundance, rather than as a sprinkled seasoning.[20] In Plat, Dawson, and Murrell, we see whole chapters (and sometimes, even whole books) on jellies, preserves, syrups, and “banquetting stuffe” of sugarplate and almondpaste that could not have been affordable in prior centuries.[21]


Albala, Ken, Eating Right in the Renaissance, University of California Press, 2002.

Ancient Cookery, from a manuscript in the Library of the Royal Society, circa 1285, reprinted in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, compiled and published privately by Duke Cariadoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena, 4th Edition, 1987.

Black, Maggie, Medieval Britain, Brears, Peter, et. al., (editors), A Taste of History: 10,000 Years of Food in Britain, English Heritage, 1993.

Brears, Peter, Tudor Britain, Brears, Peter, et. al., (editors), A Taste of History: 10,000 Years of Food in Britain, English Heritage, 1993.

Caton, Mary Ann, editor, Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare’s England, The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1999.

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Clarendon Press, 1996.

Dawson, Thomas, The Good Huswifes Jewell, 1596, reprinted Falconwood Press, 1988.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe, Near A Thousand Tables: A History of Food, The Free Press, 2002.

Hartley, Dorothy, Food in England, Little, Brown and Company, London, 1996.

Henisch, Bridget Ann, Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Hieatt, Constance, Medieval Britain, in Adamson, Melitta Weiss, Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe: A Book of Essays; Routledge, 2002.

Hieatt, Constance B. and Butler, Sharon (editors), Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (including the Forme of Cury) {Manner of Cookery}, 1390?, The Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1985.

Scully, Terence, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, 1995.

Sim, Alison, The Tudor Housewife, Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Spencer, Colin, British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, Grub Street, 2003.

Spurling, Hilary, Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, The Salamander Press, 1986.

Sonnenfeld, Albert (editor), Food: A Culinary History, Penguin Books, 1999.

Wilson, C. Anne, Food and Drink in Britain From the Stone Age to the 19th Century, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991.


Cooks Collegium, Barony Marche of the Debatable Lands, November 13, 2004

©2004 Chris Adler-France

Katja at Thescorre dot org



[1] Adamson, pg. 22

[2] Spencer, pg. 124.

[3] Albala, pg. 4.

[4] Albala, pg. 6.

[5] Black, pg. 106.

[6] Hartley, pg. 234.

[7] Black, pg. 107.

[8] Caton, pg. 10.

[9] Albala, pg. 7

[10] Sim, pg. xxxvi.

[11]Renaissance physicians spoke of clear and rational thought, avoiding putrefaction and fevers, and maintaining a balance of humors. The scientific framework differs, as do the ultimate goals. In the Renaissance, a particular food may have been condemned because of association with the lower classes, because of a foreign or exotic origin, or merely because an ancient authority denounced it. These shifting dietary criteria reflect the social, national, intellectual, even aesthetic concerns of these authors as clearly as would any artwork or poem.” Albala, pg. 27.

[12] Fettiplace, pg. 41.

[13] Albala, pg. 27.

[14] Fernandez-Armesto, pg. 122.

[15] Caton, pg. 10.

[16] Brears, pg. 140

[17] Hartley, pg. 312.

[18] Brears, pg. 143.

[19] Albala, pg. 31.

[20]The English made greater use of sugar… with dish after dish including sugar, honey, dried fruits…” Hieatt,  pg. 37.

[21] Brears, pg. 143.