Types of Meat

The types of animals that provided meat to cooks in the Middle Ages

Highland Cow
Photo: scotsann

The average medieval cook or housewife had access to a variety of meat from both wild and domesticated animals. Cooks in the households of the nobility had a fairly impressive selection available to them. Here are some, but by no means all, of the meat medieval people would consume.

Beef and Veal

By far the most common meat, beef was regarded as coarse and was never considered exclusive enough for the nobility; but it was very popular among the lower classes.

Though more tender, veal never surpassed beef in popularity.

Many peasant households had cows, usually only one or two, that would be slaughtered for meat once their days of giving milk had passed. This would usually take place in the fall so that the creature would not have to be fed through the winter, and whatever was not consumed at a feast would be preserved for use throughout the months ahead. Most of the animal was used for food, and those parts that weren't eaten had other purposes; the hide was made into leather, the horns (if any) might be used for drinking vessels, and the bones were occasionally used to make sewing implements, fasteners, parts of tools, weapons, or musical instruments, and a variety of other useful items.

In larger towns and cities, a substantial portion of the population had no kitchens of their own, and so it was necessary for them to purchase their meals ready-made from street vendors: a kind of medieval "fast food." Beef would be used in the meat pies and other food items these vendors cooked if their customers were numerous enough to consume the product of a slaughtered cow in a matter of days.

Goat and Kid

Goats had been domesticated for thousands of years, but they were not particularly popular in most parts of medieval Europe. The meat of both adult goats and kids was consumed, however, and the females gave milk that was used for cheese.

Mutton and Lamb

Meat from a sheep that is at least a year old is known as mutton, which was very popular in the Middle Ages.

In fact, mutton was sometimes the most expensive fresh meat available. It was preferable for a sheep to be from three to five years old before being slaughtered for its meat, and mutton that came from a castrated male sheep (a "wether") was considered the finest quality.

Adult sheep were most often slaughtered in the fall; the lamb was usually served in the spring. Roast leg of mutton was among the most popular foods for nobility and peasant alike. Like cows and pigs, sheep might be kept by peasant families, who could make use of the animal's fleece regularly for homespun wool (or trade or sell it).

Ewes gave milk that was frequently used for cheese. As with goat cheese, cheese made from sheep's milk could be eaten fresh or stored for quite some time.

Pork, Ham, Bacon, and Suckling Pig

Since ancient times, the meat of the pig had been very popular with everyone except Jews and Muslims, who regard the animal as unclean. In medieval Europe, pigs were everywhere. As omnivores, they could find food in the forest and city streets as well as on the farm.

Where peasants could usually only afford to raise one or two cows, pigs were more numerous. Ham and bacon lasted a long time and went a long way in the humblest peasant household.

As common and inexpensive as keeping pigs was, pork was favored by the most elite members of society, as well as by city vendors in pies and other ready-made foods.

Like cows, nearly every part of the pig was used for food, right down to its hooves, which were used to make jellies. Its intestines were popular casings for sausages, and its head was sometimes served on a platter at festive occasions.

Rabbit and Hare

Rabbits have been domesticated for millennia, and they could be found in Italy and neighboring parts of Europe during Roman times. Domesticated rabbits were introduced to Britain as a food source after the Norman Conquest. Adult rabbits more than a year old are known as "coneys" and show up fairly frequently in surviving cookbooks, even though they were a rather expensive and unusual food item.

Hare has never been domesticated, but it was hunted and eaten in medieval Europe. Its meat is darker and richer than that of rabbits, and it was frequently served in a heavily-peppered dish with a sauce made from its blood.

Venison

There were three types of deer common in medieval Europe: roe, fallow, and red. All three were a popular quarry for aristocrats on the hunt, and the meat of all three was enjoyed by the nobility and their guests on many an occasion. The male deer (stag or hart) was considered superior for meat. Venison was a popular item at banquets, and in order to be sure of having the meat when it was wanted, deer were sometimes kept in enclosed tracts of land ("deer parks").

Since the hunting of deer (and other animals) in the forests was usually reserved for the nobility, it was highly unusual for the merchant, working, and peasant classes to partake of venison. Travelers and laborers who had reason to stay at or live in a castle or manor house might enjoy it as part of the bounty the lord and lady shared with their guests at mealtime. Sometimes cookshops were able to procure venison for their customers, but the product was much too expensive for all but the wealthiest merchants and nobility to purchase. Usually, the only way a peasant could taste venison was to poach it.

Wild Boar

The consumption of boar goes back thousands of years.  A wild boar was highly prized in the Classical world, and in the Middle Ages, it was a favored quarry of the hunt. Virtually all parts of the boar were eaten, including its liver, stomach and even its blood, and it was considered so tasty that it was the aim of some recipes to make the meat and innards of other animals taste like that of boar.

A boar's head was often the crowning meal of a Christmas feast.

A Note on Horse Meat

The meat of horses has been consumed ever since the animal was first domesticated five thousand years ago, but in medieval Europe, horse was only eaten under the direst circumstances of famine or siege. Horse meat is prohibited in the diets of Jews, Muslims, and most Hindus, and is the only food ever to be forbidden by Canon Law, which led to its being banned in most of Europe. Only in the 19th century was the restriction against horse meat lifted in any European countries. Horse meat does not appear in any surviving medieval cookbooks.
 

Types of Fowl
Types of Fish

Sources and Suggested Reading

by Melitta Weiss Adamson

edited by Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal

edited by C.M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron

edited by E.E. Rich and C.H. Wilson

by Melitta Weiss Adamson

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Snell, Melissa. "Types of Meat." ThoughtCo, Apr. 17, 2017, thoughtco.com/types-of-meat-1788846. Snell, Melissa. (2017, April 17). Types of Meat. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-meat-1788846 Snell, Melissa. "Types of Meat." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-meat-1788846 (accessed December 17, 2017).