More Garbage, Anyone? Eating and Cooking Meat in Medieval England 

Rosalie Taylor

Copyright 2005

A Medieval Recipe for Garbage

Take fayre garbagys of chykonys, as že hed, že fete, že lyuerys, an že gysowrys; washe hem clene, an caste hem in a fayre potte, and caste žer-to freysshe brothe of Beef or ellys of moton, an let it boyle; an a-lye it with brede, an ley on Pepir an Safroun, Maces, Clowys, an a lytil verious an salt, an serue forth in the maner as a Sewe.  (Two Fifteenth Century Cookery-Books, HARL 279.1.17)

This recipe for Garbage (Giblets) is enlightening to the modern cook, as well as the modern linguist, in terms of ingredients and cooking terms.  This is typical of medieval English recipes because it is vague about quantities and cooking times, particular about seasonings, meat-based, similar to stew, and served with bread.  In this article, I will examine various terms used in medieval recipes concerned with meat and its preparation. 


Meat and Flesh, Broth and Brew: Etymologies for “Meat” Words

The term meat comes from Indo-European and distinguishes all solid food from all liquid food (OED cf. MEAT, n.).  The term was used throughout the Old English (OE) period; the OE term flœsc (flesh) was also used, though specifically implying the “muscular tissue, or the tissues generally, of animals, regarded as an article of food” (OED cf. FLESH, n.4a).  These two terms described the eaten part of animals, whose names are still used in Present Day English: cķecen (chicken), *picga (pig), scéap (sheep), cu (cow).  During the Middle English (ME) period, the French influence introduced words that describe the cooked form of the meat: pult(e)rie (poultry), porc (pork), motoun (mutton), boef (beef), and veel (veal).  These loans entered ME either directly from Old French or from Latin through French.  The terms garbage and gysowrys (gizzards) are Anglo-French and Old French respectively, both meaning the entrails of an animal meant for eating (OED, cf. GARBAGE, n., cf. GIZZARD).  The other ingredients listed in making Garbage – head, feet, and liver – are all native to English.  French loanwords usually had prestige over native words when they entered English.  The result is that the words for the whole animals or parts of the animals that would eventually be used to produce the final, edible product were native words, and the end result, as well as the title of the recipe, were French loans.  This signifies the importance of the finished, edible product, with less importance placed on what specifically went into making the stew. 

This recipe calls for a “fresshe brothe  The etymology of the word broth tells an interesting story: OE broš is a cognate with Old High German brod, which was adapted by the Romanic languages, specifically brodum in Latin (OED, cf. BROTH, n.).  In Old French, this became breu, from which Middle English gets browet and brewis.  What is interesting in the recipe for Garbage is that the term brothe is used over browet or brewis.  The majority of the other recipes from the Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books also use the term broth(e).  The word brew was only a verb in OE and was not used as a noun until the beginning of the 16th Century.  If at this point there was competition between broth and brew as nouns, brew ultimately lost its meaning as “the juice of boiled meat” (OED, cf. BROWET, n.), as its current meaning generally refers to beverages such as teas, or ales (OED, cf. BREW, n.).


The importance of boiling

In early Middle English (ME), the most common cooking verb was séošan, meaning to boil or make an infusion or decoction of something through boiling (OED, cf. SEETHE, v.).  The verb is originally derived from the now obscure noun seath (OED cf. SEATH) the fire pit on which a bed of stones were placed for cooking without fireproof utensils.  The sense of séošan was repeated in various synonyms: sode (to boil the salt out of), zeož (to simmer or boil), and boillam (to boil).  Sode and zeož are both derivatives of the OE strong verb séašan.  In Middle English, the verb became weak and conjugates according to the OE past tense, seeth.  Boil was borrowed from Old French into early Middle English.  French synonyms were often considered more prestigious than their English counterparts, and so in Present-Day English, we no longer describe bubbling, hot water as seething.  It is important to recognize that in the above recipe for Garbage, the term boyle is used, not seethe, indicating that by the 15th century, the French loanwords were in frequent use. 

Aside from boiling meat, two other important methods were baking and roasting.  Bake comes from OE bacan originally meant to cook something by dry heat, “primarily used of preparing bread, then of potatoes, apples, the flesh of animals” (OED, cf. BAKE, v.).  Roast entered English later on as a loanword from the Old French rostir.  It was originally semantically the same as bake, but they diverged with the prestigious French word applied generally to meat, while bake is now more often used for non-meat items, such as breads, cakes, or maybe potatoes.  Perhaps this is why we now eat roast beef and not bake beef. 


Conclusion: Not quite vegetarian, but not entirely carnivorous 

Meat was forbidden on over half of the days of the year for religious purposes, and thus there were a whole other set of recipes for those days.  Primary staples included fish, dried fruits, and many, many almonds (of the 258 recipes in Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books, Mead found that over thirty percent contained almonds).  Another popular dish was mustard served with herring, eaten often during Lent. 

The medieval diet is often stereotyped as being unhealthy due to an excessive amount of meat.  Contrary to this belief, the consumption of large quantities of meat was reserved for feasts, and cooks were quite aware of balancing a meal out with seasonal vegetables and salads.  It should be noted that there are rarely recipes for vegetables because it was assumed that the cook knew how to prepare them and in what manner, and that they would be served with every meal.  In fact, the medieval diet is not so dissimilar from the modern-day diner, with the exception of vegetarians, who might strongly disagree!

For Further Reading

Austin, Thomas. Two Fifteenth Century Cookery-Books. London: Oxford UP, 1964.

Gode Cookery.  “Glossary of Medieval Cooking Terms.” James L. Matterer.  1997- 2001.

  • A great online source for all things medieval-cooking-related, including transcriptions of medieval recipes

Hagen, Ann. A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing & Consumption. Middlesex: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994.

Hammond, P.W. Food and Feast in Medieval England.  U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1993. 

Hieatt, Constance B. and Sharon Butler, eds. Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century. London: Oxford UP, 1985.

Hieatt, Constance B., Brenda Hosington, and Sharon Butler, eds. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, 2nd ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996.

  • A very descriptive cookbook aimed at the modern cook, including suggested menus for giving your own medieval feast, as well as transcriptions and translations of many medieval recipes (including quantities and cooking times)

Mead, William Edward. The English Medieval Feast. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1967.

  • An informative but outdated look at medieval cooking

Scully, Terence.  The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1995.