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In the Middle Ages, breakfasts were not the elaborate affairs of Victorian times nor even the necessary and important meal of today; breakfast was, in fact, practically nonexistent during the earlier medieval period, and quite sparse (by contemporary standards) in the latter years. To be able to have merely a "sop in wine" (bread or toast in wine) every day for one's morning repast was considered luxurious. Here is what Terence Scully, author of The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, and P. W. Hammond, author of Food & Feast in Medieval England, have to say about this subject:

"Most commonly only two meals were eaten in a day. Normally the first meal of the day was the major meal. This was dinner. It must originally have been prepared to fit into a late-morning pause after the initial activities of one's daily routine. Because this meal required so much preparation, particularly in affluent households, it could not usually be available much before noon, the sixth hour of the day. By that time half of the day's work - or play - could very well be done. To conclude one's active day a second meal was more easily prepared and served some six or eight hours later, at or just after dusk. Because the original basis for this meal was soup, or sops, it became known as supper. This meal too was subject to elaboration at the hands of professional cooks, but universally it remained a somewhat simpler meal than the midday dinner. According to Platina in the second half of the fifteenth century, at supper 'we must eat food which our stomach can digest easily; however, we must eat rather sparingly, and especially those of melancholy humour whose ills usually are increased by nighttime dampness and food weighing them down with discomfort.'

"Following the teachings of the Medical School of Salerno, John of Milan advised:

 'Rise at 5, dine at 9,
 sup at 5, retire at 9,
 for a long life.'

"Why were there normally just two meals rather than three or four? Or for that matter, rather than just one? The answer to any question is undoubtedly rooted largely in practical convenience, but for the Medieval physician the justification for mealtimes involved in part a perception that one felt healthier if one ate only when one became hungry. To eat, therefore, before a previous meal had made its way completely out of the stomach was declared to be a most dangerous practice. Given that the average 'modern' digestive system seems comfortably able to handle only two substantial meals in a day, and given that the professional cook was required to lay on nothing less than substantial meals, the two-meal pattern remained the norm for most of Medieval Europe.

"As cookery became complex and skilled an undertaking, dinner became increasingly more elaborate and its serving was pushed even past the middle of the day. Supper, in turn, could be delayed until 7 or 8 o'clock, when useful daylight was past, but it seems to always have remained a meal of clearly secondary importance, at which the assortment of dishes was both more limited and simpler. Toward the end of the period with which we are dealing, hunger became more unwilling to wait until noon or 1:00 pm to be satisfied. Perhaps the delicious odours that began wafting from the kitchen at the earliest light of dawn excited people's appetite beyond reasonable restraint. And so it became acceptable to break one's overnight fast with a small bite at some time before dinner.

"Breakfast, at first a concession, of an unseemly if not totally dissolute sort, became seen as less disgraceful to the extent that it was just an immaterial trifle. The license was justified - an excess, which strict Medieval morality might judge to be a variety of sin - by designing it on the one hand either to give the peasant and craftsman something to sustain their morning's labour, or, on the other, in the case of the aristocrat, merely to hold hunger awhile in abeyance until a meal that was really worthy of his or her status could be prepared. We find the morning collation justified in particular in the case of the aristocrat who was forced so often to be on the road visiting the various outlying parts of his estate, but who was unwilling to set out at daybreak on an empty stomach.

"The earliest breakfast was undoubtedly just a chunk of bread and a mug of watered wine. Then we have evidence of anchovies and fillets of other fish being consumed, these like the famous British breakfast of kippered herring being always in a preserved state ready for eating at any time. The fatter fish, such as herring (and its small relative, the anchovy), salmon and trout lent themselves to particularly well preservation by smoking, and came to be appreciated in certain circles as a tasty means to hold off hunger pangs. Besides, if nibbling a breakfast could be censured as contributing to the sin of gluttony, surely the fact that what was nibbled was fish could only help mitigate the sense of sin!"

Terence Scully, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, pp 119-120

"The very poor doubtless ate when they could, but the slightly better-off peasants seem generally to have eaten three times a day. These meals consisted of breakfast at a very early hour to allow for dinner at about 9:00 am, or not later than 10:00 am, and supper probably before it got dark, perhaps at 3:00 pm in the winter. Three meals a day were accepted as reasonable by most later sixteenth century writers, such as Andrew Borde, although he thought that this was only good for the labouring man; anyone else should be content with two. It has been suggested that breakfast was only eaten by children and workmen, but certainly by the fifteenth century it was quite commonly taken by everyone. Breakfast was regularly allowed for in the accounts of Dame Alice de Bryene at the beginning of the fifteenth century, although the 1478 household ordinance of Edward IV specifies that only residents down to the rank of squires should have breakfast, except by special order. Edward, Price of Wales, son of Edward IV, breakfasted after morning mass. The time was only specified as 'a convenyent hower', although to break one's fast after devotions was the generally recommended procedure. Earlier references to breakfast sometimes meant dinner, literally, in these cases, the first meal of the day."

P. W. Hammond, Food & Feast in Medieval England, p. 105

Household records of the time also punctuate the reality of a light breakfast and indicate what specific foods were served. In 1289, peasants working as carters on Ferring Manor in Sussex had a breakfast of rye bread with ale & cheese. In 1512, clerks and yeomen in the Northumberland Household received for breakfast on meat days a loaf of household bread, a bottle of beer and a piece of boiled beef. The porters and stable staff in the same household received a loaf of the same bread and a quart of beer. On fish days the clerks and yeomen received a piece of salt fish instead of the beef.

Breakfast Foods List

Anchovies - smoked or preserved
Bread - any variety
Herring - smoked or preserved
Salmon - smoked or preserved
Salt Fish - preserved pieces of filleted ling, hake, cod, or whiting
Sop in Wine - toast or bread in wine
Trout - smoked or preserved

Page last modified on April 30, 2006, at 06:06 PM