As I continue to research for my book, I have happened on some sources that discuss the Renaissance diet in England, and am intrigued at the differences and the similarities to our modern diet. For all the advances of science, it seems interesting to me that we have in some ways returned to what would have been considered the royal diet – meals rich with meat, bread, and alcohol. After all, concerning food, are we not all kings in comparison to the average working man of the middle ages or Renaissance?
English Diet in Renaissance
In England, a royal would wake up in the morning and take ale, beer and wine with some bread, and perhaps cheese with pottage of mutton or beef. Breakfast for most, including well-to-do or otherwise, was small, just enough to break the fast of sleep and get the day going. The next meal, supper, would be taken from ten to one, where a variety of food would be eaten. This was often the biggest meal of the day, and would subsist of a variety of meats, both domesticated and game, breads, and cheese. It seems that the poorer one was, the more likely to find things like turnips, cabbage, and eggs.*
As you might guess, scurvy and diet based problems were rampant in England during this time. Bread, cheese, and meat, the staples of the time, each have inflammatory properties, which most likely resulted in arthritis, heart disease, tooth disease and the like.
Salads, interestingly, were just coming into fashion in the late sixteenth century.
I found it interesting that they followed a logical flow in their eating – to eat small in the morning, and then the largest meal at noontime, with the final meal, dinner, being small compared to the primary meal of the day. This seems natural to me, since it gives the body the ability to fully digest the food available to it before sleep.
I believe that we, as Americans, eat far too much meat and bread in general. And in this way, we’re much like Renaissance royalty. If one had the means, one ate meat. This harkens to the China Study’s disease of affluence. The more wealth a people possess, the more likely they are to overindulge in rich foods, which leads to diseases of excess, like diabetes.
Men of Letters
What about the learned men of this period? Were they lining up for mutton and beef? Sure, many of them, with notable exceptions. Interestingly, Da Vinci (Italian) was rumored to be a lacto-ovo-vegetarian – eating eggs and cheese, but avoiding meat. Cool. Michelangelo, who was perhaps autistic, ate bread and drank wine exclusively for periods of time. Not a great diet, but hey, it’s a personal choice.
Anyway, interesting to note that abstaining from meat has appeared in history, often supported by some pretty important people, and that the Renaissance was not exempt from quacks, or voices of reason. The human condition continues!
Next, I’ll be doing some research on Italy during the Renaissance. Did the Italians take a different view of diet than the English during this period?
Thanks for reading.
*This comes from Emerson’s Everyday Life in Renaissance England.