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Food and Cooking in Medieval St Albans

Pottage and Porpoises: Food and Cooking in Medieval St Albans

  St Albans Abbey is a familiar landmark today, whichever way you enter the city. A thousand years ago it already dominated the hilltop, a place of pilgrimage and a royal conference centre - Magna Carta was drafted here. Outside the abbey walls, the townspeople had their share in national events, such as the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 when the abbey was attacked, and the Wars of the Roses, when the two armies of York and Lancaster met in St Peters Street.

Against the backdrop of these important events, monks, merchants and mercenaries all had to eat. Excavations over the years in the town centre have revealed amazing evidence of the food and cooking methods of our medieval ancestors.

Medieval greyware cooking pot/jar. Medieval greyware cooking pot/jar.

Everybody cooked over an open fire. These cheap unglazed grey pottery cooking pots were used everywhere in the town, and are often found with sooting marks around the lower half, and limescale inside. We never find pottery lids, but wooden lids are mentioned in medieval documents.

You also needed a straw “doughnut” to rest the pot on when you took it off the fire, or it would crack when it touched the cold ground. A 14 th century household manual tells us that it was very important to stir your soup well to the bottom of the pot, and never let the burning logs touch it, or the soup would stick.

Monasteries, like castles, had tall stone-built kitchens, usually separate from the other buildings. Most of the town buildings were timber-framed. Some may have had detached kitchens in their gardens, or people may have cooked over the central fire which heated the main room of the house, with the smoke escaping through the roof. The fire risk was considerable, and the curfew bell from the Clock Tower sounded each night to warn householders to cover their fire for the night with a metal or pottery cover.

Medieval Stone Mortar Medieval Stone Mortar

Rubbish pits in the town often contain butchered animal bones. We know that the townspeople were eating beef, pork and mutton, and occasionally more exotic fare.

A rubbish pit excavated on the corner of College Street in 1982 included a single porpoise bone. The traditional accompaniment to porpoise was “frumenty”, wheat cracked in a stone mortar such as this one, and then boiled with almond milk and saffron.

The magpies excavated on the Maltings excavation may have been eaten, since there are medieval recipes for cooking them.

Poor people could not have afforded almonds or saffron. They would have eaten less meat and more bread, cheese and “pottage” – a thick soup of grains and vegetables.

14th/15th century glazed pottery jug 14th/15th century glazed pottery jug

This green-glazed jug may have held ale, which was drunk by everyone. We do not often find wooden objects, although they were probably commoner than pottery, as they only survive in wet ground, but the remains of this barrel were discovered during the excavations at the Maltings. Barrels were used for everything from ale to salt fish, which was a staple food.

There were many fast days, on which no meat could be eaten, and the abbey reserved the right to all fish from its fishponds, local rivers and millponds. Most fish bones found in the medieval town are from sea fish such as cod, and they probably arrived here salted in barrels.

Salting was the main method for preserving food. Cooking times are rarely given in medieval recipes – of course there were no clocks in kitchens - but careful instructions are given on exactly how many days to soak salt fish or meat, and how many changes of water to use.

People must often have had to eat slightly spoiled food, disguised with herbs and spices, or go hungry, and soil samples from cesspits show that many people had worms. However, the townspeople probably ate quite well. They would have eaten more fruit and vegetables and less meat than the very rich, and were less at the mercy of a bad harvest than poor farmers.

This article originally appeared in Hertfordshire Life Magazine