A thousand years ago our forebears lived in a “dark age.” They themselves did not think it was dark and they were only half wrong. To those who think we are entering a new dark age…
…Food varied with the region and with class. One could map all of Europe with divisions into wine regions, beer regions, cider regions, with a special patch for Muslim Spain, consumer of fruity sherberts ( a word of Arabic derivation, by the way). Or one could divide the world into butter lands and olive oil lands.
The class difference in foods was equally trenchant. The noble ate meat, game, and pastries out of vanity; he was punished for vitamin insufficiency by skin diseases, a furious springtime itch, and occasional scurvy. The peasant had little meat, and that usually only in the autumn, when the less likely pigs and cattle were slaughtered to save winter feed. Their product was certain to be tough; a favorite joke was to refuse the meat and ask for a piece of hide instead.Herrings and other sea fish were plentiful near the coasts. The peasant’s staples were vegetables, especially peas, beans, lentils, cabbages, turnips, leeks, and onions, and bread, whether of rye, barley, oats, or wheat.
The important meal came in the evening after the day’s work, and the main dish everywhere was a great pot-au-feu, the contents being everything available. Honey and fruit in its prime were the only sweetening. Except in bad years, the peasant’s food was abundant, although unvarying. We would find it dreadfully monotonous, and complain of the lack of salads, sweets, seasonings, hot drinks. But we have substituted a monotony of our own, with the abolition of seasonal foods. We know hardly a difference between the diets of January and July.
As for housing, our noble ancestors of the tenth century occupied rude wooden strongholds, for the arts of stonecutting and masonry were still little practiced, except in Germany, and building stone and lime and cement for mortar were rarely obtainable. The noble family, with their retainers, dwelt together in the hall or common room, by night unrolling their straw pallets on the floor. The peasant cottages in which most of our forefathers lived were built of whatever materials lay at hand. In England they were chiefly wattle-and-daub. Upright stakes were “wattled,” or intertwined with osiers or twigs, and “daubs,” or dabs, of clay and mud were plastered on. A poorly daubed house could nearly dissolve in a downpour.