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Messe it Forth
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Medieval feasts and dinners were remarkably similar to our own modern manner of eating; today's meals generally start out light, such as with a soup or salad, then move on to the heavier items of meats and vegetables, and end with something sweet - and the more formal or special the occasion, the more likely the dessert will be something extravagant or showy. Medieval meals, too, followed such a pattern, but the reasons for the foods that were eaten, how they were prepared, and when they were eaten followed a train of thought much different than ours of today.
In the Western world of the 21st c., the ideas of proper nutrition and the analyzing of food properties and qualities is a complex and efficient science that has changed the world in many positive ways. From ingredient lists on packages to the mass instruction of such concepts as the "food pyramid," modern society has a knowledge of food and its true nutritional value that far exceeds anything our medieval ancestors could have imagined. Still, medieval culture was well aware of the truth in the thought that we truly are what we eat, and had its own complex science that prescribed what should be eaten, and when. And the medieval version of the contemporary "food pyramid" was the Four Humour system.
In a nutshell, the Four Humour system was a philosophy, along with astrology, followed by most physicians, medics, and intellectuals of the Middle Ages that believed, like astrology, that all things - man, animals, the four seasons, planets, etc. - existed under the effects of certain influences and inner manifestations; in this case, four specific properties called the Four Humours. These four qualities, or conditions, were Melancholy, Choler, Phlegm, & Blood (with many other names and versions also in existence). Melancholy had the properties of cold and dry, and was associeted with the god Saturn. Choler was hot and dry and was linked to Mars, the god of war. Phlegm was governed by the Moon Goddess and was cold and moist. Blood was a hot and moist condition, ruled by Venus. Men & women were supposedly influenced by the bodily presence of these Humours, with the excess of any one of them affecting personality, feelings, and behavior. A person with increased Melancholy was said to "loveth and desyre dethe" and to be prone to delusions and depression, but to also be sensitive and perhaps dignified. Choler made one unkindly and "wrathful, hardy," and "unstable." Those affected by an excess of Choler were recommended to eat leeks, onions, or garlic only at their own peril. An excessive amount of Phlegm induced slothfulness, and its subjects were "fatte, greate and shorte and croked in extremyties," while Blood was a sign of heat, youth, and passion, and other healthier aspects. Too much Blood in an older man, however, could cause a heart attack.
The Humours portrayed as Four Men, from a manuscript in the British Museum; clockwise from upper-left: Melancholy, Blood, Phlegm, & Choler .
As these four influences played their part with man, they did so with food as well. Medieval cooks were advised by physicians to prepare foods that were properly balanced with these four Humours in mind, the same as today's cooks are trained to present meals that are balanced in nutrition. For example, fish, which are cold and moist, should be served with spices or sauces that are hot and dry, to counteract against an excess of Phlegm. Plump and moist young male chickens were castrated into capons to prevent them from maturing sexually, a process which would increase Blood and therefore make their meat dry. Foods which were naturally dry were boiled, never roasted, while moist foods were baked to dry them out. (Consider how dry a plainly roasted carrot is, and how horrible a boiled pie would be!) Eating foods that were properly in balance kept the eater in balance as well, and menus were arranged with the familar concept of light foods first, heavier foods later, all properly spiced and prepared in such a manner as to counteract whatever excess of humour was present.
Dinners & feasts usually started with foods that were considered easily digestible, such as light meats, warm & moist foods such as soups and broths, moist fruits (especially peaches), and greens such as lettuce, cabbage, and "herbs." Spices were thought to warm the stomach, and were therefore an excellent stomach opener. Cheese was eaten both before and during the meal, as an aid to digestion and to help a "weak stomach." Foods that were more difficult to digest, such as beef & fatty pork and heavy fruits, like pears & chestnuts, were consumed later in the meal. In large feasts, very rich and exotic foods were served in smaller portions only to highly distinguished guests after the more filling and common dishes had been served to the entire hall. This practice would continue as the feast progressed, ending with the finest of delicacies being served to just the table of the king or nobleman in charge of the affair.
When meat was eaten, it was normally followed with cheese, which physicians recommended for proper digestion. When fish was served, it was followed with nuts, for essentially the same reason. Wines and ales of all sorts were consumed during the entire meal. Sweets, like today, were saved for last, and spices were again used here as a digestive aid to end the meal. Wine, as a custom, was drunk just before retiring, and so the evening would usually end with a snack of sweet fruits & cakes, & spiced wines.
Dinners were arranged in courses, each course containing several items, with several courses in each dinner. A feast may contain many courses with just a few dishes in each, or just a few courses with many dishes included. After the final course came the concluding presentation of wine and sweets. At royal feasts, the courses were broken up with a mini-course called an entremet, featuring lavish presentations and spectacles, and fantastic and fanciful foods called solteties. These exotic creations were crafted mainly from sugar and made to represent saints, warriors, heroes, scenes from mythology, etc., but also were such dishes as the Cockentrice and the Coqz Heaumez. Food-in-disguise was also a popular soltetie, and a cake could appear as a realistic looking fish and a meatloaf could be crafted to resemble a fancily painted pitcher. Beautiful and awe-inspiring, a well-presented soltetie was a masterpice of imagination and skill on the cook's part. Spectacles often included music, singing, and play-acting. The French cookbook Le Viandier de Taillevent describes a spectacle which featured a tower manned by a boy dressed as the mythological wild man of the woods, who would throw rocks at a group of attacking soldiers below.
A modern medieval feast, whether done for friends and family as an amusement, or presented by schools and historical societies for the public, should follow the traditional standards of the Middle Ages. Begin dinner with soup or broth, bread, & cheese. Follow with green vegetables, a meat dish of lean pork or chicken, or perhaps fish, accompanied with sauces, then move on to the heavier and fancier items, in smaller portions. End with sweets and spiced desserts. Serve wine and ale throughout the entire meal, or if the event is non-alcoholic, use apple cider, grape juice, lemonade, water, etc. Just don't let your guests go thirsty! Divide the various dishes among two or three courses, serving each course in its entirety and leaving time for talk, music, & entertainment for guests between courses. For larger events, separate the two main courses with an amusing and entertaining presentation, such as a performance of some sort or an unusual or flashy food item - a roast pig always has a welcome audience at a time like this, or try a fancy food-in-disguise soltetie. A good medieval feast should last at least several hours, and your guests should leave not only full of delicious food, but emotionally satisfied and intellectually entertained. Give them one final drink and a sweet morsel to send them on their way home, but first make sure they offer a toast to the evening, the friends present, and the magnificent cook who made it all possible!
"Messe it Forth" was a common medieval expression meaning "Serve it."
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