In the Bayeux Tapestry, William the Conqueror is depicted enjoying a fine feast soon after his invasion of England in 1066. As well as a new language and the clean-shaven look, what else did the Normans bring to the English table?
The Romans had apparently tried to introduce the rabbit (which came from Spain) to the British Isles, but with limited success. Perhaps there were too many natural predators in the English forests. They obviously had more luck in France, and by the 6th century rabbits were being bred in French monasteries. Apparently, the ‘laurices’ (new-born baby rabbits or sometimes rabbit foetuses) were not regarded as meat, and were therefore fine to eat on fasting days!
The Normans would breed rabbits in specially constructed warrens known as ‘cunicularia’–or ‘coneygarths’ in English. Animals under one year were known as rabbits. The adult beast was called a coney. However, it was the young rabbits that were prized most for their meat.
Rabbits were not an everyday food. To own a rabbit warren, like the one around Thetford Warren Lodge, was a sign of high status. Rabbits were a luxury item, and could cost four or five times as much as a chicken.
In the 13th century, one rabbit was worth more than a workman’s daily wage. Rabbit recipes are therefore scarce before the 15th century, although Taillevent (meaning ‘slice-wind’), chef to King Charles V of France, included a few in his cookbook ‘Le Viandier’ (published about 1380), like this one for rabbit stew:
Cive de Connins
Roast on the spit or on the grill, without overcooking, cut up into pieces and fried in grease with chopped onions; steep burnt toast in wine and beef broth or pea puree, and boil your meat with this; then add ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, grains of paradise, and saffron for colour, infused in verjuice and vinegar. It should be thick, there should be enough onions, the bread should be dark and sharp with vinegar.
Beware the lamprey
Another much-coveted food during this period was the eel-like lamprey, found in fresh and coastal waters. The Oxford Companion to Food describes them as “slimy, jawless” with “a single nostril on top”. This is not a fish renowned for its good looks.
The popularity of the lamprey is a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, they were considered a great delicacy. However, as a ‘cold’ fish they were thought to be incredibly dangerous to eat. Their dubious nature could be countered by marinading them in red wine or salt, then roasting them with warming spices. Taillevent provides this recipe for the hazardous fish:
Lamproie fresche a la saulce chaude (Fresh Lamprey in a Hot Sauce)
The lamprey should be bled by its mouth, and its tongue removed; you should shove a skewer into it to help bleed it, and keep the blood because that is the grease and scrape the inside of the mouth with a knife, then scald it as you would an eel and roast it on a very slender spit inserted through it sideways once or twice.
Then grind ginger, cinnamon, cloves, grains of paradise, nutmegs and a little burnt toast moistened in the blood together with vinegar, and if you wish, a little wine; infuse all of this together and bring it to the boil and then put the lamprey whole into it. The sauce should not be too dark – that is, when the sauce is thin, but when the sauce is thick, and it is called ‘mud’, it should be dark.
Also it is not necessary for the lamprey to be boiled with the sauce; rather the lamprey is brought dry to the table and the thin sauce, or the mud, is poured over the lamprey or is served in bowls; and the lamprey should be cut into pieces lengthwise and sent to the table on plates; nevertheless, some gourmets insist on having it dry with the sauce, made of the drippings and fine salt, served on the same plate in which it is brought.
If you doubt the injurious nature of this fish take heed of the Anglo-Norman historian Henry of Huntingdon’s account of the death of King Henry I. The king had a particular penchant for lampreys even though they always made him ill:
“When the doctor forbade him to eat the dish, the king did not take this salutary advice. As it is said, ‘We always strive for what is forbidden and long for what is refused.’ So this meal brought on the most destructive humour, and violently stimulated similar symptoms, producing a deadly chill in his aged body, and a sudden and extreme convulsion. Against this, nature reacted by stirring up an acute fever to dissolve the inflammation with very heavy sweating. But when all power of resistance failed, the great king departed.”
Spice of life
Whilst the Normans can’t be credited for introducing spices to the British Isles, they did hold these aromatic ingredients in high regard. Not only were they expensive (and therefore only used in the kitchens of wealthy households) they were also believed to have health benefits.
Food could be perilous. A common misconception is that medieval people ate rotten meat, and used spices to disguise its rancid flavour. In fact, one of the real reasons spices were used was to counter bad humours. It was merely a question of striking the right balance, and spices helped the medieval cook do just that.
Pork, for instance, was thought to be cool and moist. Eating pork without any flavourings was therefore believed to aggravate the ‘cool and moist’ phlegmatic humours. To prevent this, you could cook it with warming spices like cloves and pepper. Cinnamon in particular was thought to prevent plague and be good for the guts.
Mind your manners
If you really wanted to fit into the Norman court, you needed to brush up on your table manners. Fortunately, there were a number of etiquette manuals available during this period.
Leading the way was Daniel of Beccles, who may have been a knight at the court of King Henry II (reigned 1154-89). His 3000-line poem in Latin, Urbanus Magnus (The Book of the Civilised Man), provided a good guide for what was considered to be courtly behaviour.
Reassuringly, much of the advice Beccles gave is still relevant today – don’t put your elbows on the table, don’t lick your fingers and don’t speak when your mouth is full. Belching and spitting were also frowned upon. Or at least if you were compelled to do either, it should be done in the correct manner.
If you were to belch, you should look up to the ceiling. You should never spit over the table but rather behind you or into a cloth. And you should never spit ‘like a rustic’ or ‘eat like a ploughman’. The key mantra for medieval etiquette was ‘A place for everyone and everyone in his place’.
Year of the Normans
Join us commemorating 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. Explore the impact of the Norman Conquest and discover Norman sites you can visit around the UK.
You can even take our quiz and find out if you’re a Norman or a Saxon.
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