17 May 2018 Food and Drink in Tudor Times
Speaker: Martin Sirot Smith
Martin Sirot Smith, director of Sulgrave Manor and suitably dressed in period costume, created an evocative picture of life during Tudor times, when the population was 4 million, only 6% of whom were educated. The rest were poor, ignorant peasants, beholden to the Lord of the Manor. Infant mortality was high-60%; ironically, breast-fed peasant babies were more likely to survive than those of gentry who didn’t receive their mother’s milk. Overall, there was only 1 in 10 chance of surviving until 40. There was a huge social divide and life was a struggle.
The masses were controlled by rules designed to ‘know thy place’. This was clearly evident in food, drink, utensils and clothing.
For ordinary folk, 85% of income went on food; today it is 10%.
There was a complete lack of any scientific understanding of nutritional requirements for a healthy life. The wealthy ate a meat-rich diet absent of fresh fruit and vegetables, which meant they were largely overweight and died of heart attacks. Fruit was grown but condensed to preserve it and therefore heavily sugared and absent in vitamin C, resulting in poor immune systems. Bread was white and made from wheat. They drank mainly red wine, especially Claret. Ale was also a standard drink.
Meals were long affairs for the wealthy. Sumptuary laws governed the amount of dishes you were allowed, according to status. At Sulgrave they were allowed 3 dishes; Henry V111 had 25! The higher echelons ate from silver and gold.
Meanwhile, everyone else ate off wooden trenchers and used their fingers. Rations were a small bowl of potage, rarely with meat, and mopped up with bread made with any grain they could get except wheat. They drank ale made from 2nd and 3rd fermentations.
Water was so polluted it wasn’t drunk apart from when it was used in the brewing process. The value of milk wasn’t understood and therefore not drunk, but was turned into butter and cheese. Bread and cheese-the quintessential ploughman’s lunch!
As most people’s diets lacked calcium they didn’t grow beyond 5’ and had brittle bones which fractured easily leading to amputation if gangrene set in. Also teeth loss, not helped by their love of sugar. Extractions could lead to bleeding to death, due to the lack of white blood corpuses allowing coagulation.
In years when crops failed, the population fell due to starvation, as it did in 1540’s and 1590’s, and consequently the population fell from 4 million to 1.75 million.
This all begs the question as to how this situation of dietary ignorance came about? The short answer lies in the Dissolution of the Monasteries and therefore the loss of hospitals, infirmaries and hospitality for the poor that went with them, and along the way the loss of knowledge of a balanced diet.