Diet of the Yeoman and the Poor


Kitchen Still Life[This is taken from W. Carew Hazlitt’s Old Cookery Books.]

The staple food among the lower orders in Anglo-Saxon and the immediately succeeding times was doubtless bread, butter, and cheese, the aliment which goes so far even yet to support our rural population, with vegetables and fruit, and occasional allowances of salted bacon and pancakes, beef, or fish. The meat was usually boiled in a kettle suspended on a tripod [Footnote: The tripod is still employed in many parts of the country for a similar purpose] over a wood-fire, such as is used only now, in an improved shape, for fish and soup.

The kettle which is mentioned, as we observe, in the tale of “Tom Thumb,” was the universal vessel for boiling purposes [Footnote: An inverted kettle was the earliest type of the diving-bell], and the bacon-house (or larder), so called from the preponderance of that sort of store over the rest, was the warehouse for the winter stock of provisions [Footnote: What is called in some places the keeping-room also accommodated flitches on the walls, and hams ranged along the beams overhead; and it served at the same time for a best parlour]. The fondness for condiments, especially garlic and pepper, among the higher orders, possibly served to render the coarser nourishment of the poor more savoury and flavorous. “It is interesting to remark,” says Mr. Wright, “that the articles just mentioned (bread, butter, and cheese) have preserved their Anglo-Saxon names to the present time, while all kinds of meat—beef, veal, mutton, pork, even bacon—have retained only the names given to them by the Normans; which seems to imply that flesh-meat was not in general use for food among the lower classes of society.”

In Malory’s compilation on the adventures of King Arthur and his knights, contemporary with the “Book of St. Alban’s,” we are expressly informed in the sixth chapter, how the King made a great feast at Caerleon in Wales; but we are left in ignorance of its character. The chief importance of details in this case would have been the excessive probability that Malory would have described an entertainment consonant with the usage of his own day, although at no period of early history was there ever so large an assemblage of guests at one time as met, according to the fable, to do honour to Arthur.

In the tenth century Colloquy of Archbishop Alfric, the boy is made to say that he is too young to eat meat, but subsists on cabbages, eggs, fish, cheese, butter, beans, and other things, according to circumstances; so that a vegetable diet was perhaps commoner in those days even among the middle classes than at present. This youth, when he is asked what he drinks, replies, water, or ale if he can get it. The dish so deftly constructed by King Arthur, according to one of his numerous biographers, exhibited that wedlock of fruit with animal matter—fat and plums—which we post-Arthurians eye with a certain fastidious repugnance, but which, notwithstanding, lingered on to the Elizabethan or Jacobaean era—nay, did not make the gorge of our grandsires turn rebellious. It survives among ourselves only in the modified shape of such accessories as currant jelly and apple sauce.

But the nursery rhyme about Arthur and the bag-pudding of barley meal with raisins and meat has a documentary worth for us beyond the shadowy recital of the banquet at Caerleon, for, mutato nomine, it is the description of a favourite article of popular diet in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The narrative of Mrs. Thumb and her pudding is more circumstantial than that of King Alfred and the housewife; and if the tradition is worthless, it serves us so far, that it faithfully portrays a favourite item of rustic consumption in old times. We are told that the pudding was made in a bowl, and that it was chiefly composed of the flesh and blood of a newly-killed hog, laid in batter; and then, when all was ready, the bag with all its savoury burden was put into a kettle.

As we are already on the threshold of legend and myth, we may linger there a moment to recall to memory the resemblance between the description of this piece of handiwork and that ascribed to good King Arthur, who lived in days when monarchs were their own chefs, for the Arthurian dish was also prepared in a bag, and consisted, according to the ditty, of barley-meal and fat. Soberly speaking, the two accounts belong, maybe, to something like the same epoch in the annals of gastronomy; and a large pudding was, for a vast length of time, no doubt, a prevailing piece de résistance in all frugal British households. It was the culinary forefather of toad-in-the-hole, hot-pot, Irish stew, and of that devil-dreaded Cornish pasty. The Elizabethan transmitters of these two Apician nuggets possibly antedated the popular institution of the bag-pudding; but the ancientest gastronomical records testify to the happy introduction of the frying-pan about the era when we were under Alfred’s fatherly sway. It may have even preceded the grill, just as the fork lagged behind the spoon, from which it is a seeming evolution. That no reader may doubt the fact, that Tom’s mother made the pudding, and that Tom held the candle, we refer to the old edition of this choice piece of chapman’s ware, where an accurate drawing of Mrs. Thumb, and the board, and the bowl, and Tom with the candle, may be inspected. The prima stamina of the modern fruit-pudding really appear to be found in the ancient bag-pudding, of which Tom Thumb had such excellent reason to be acquainted with the contents. The mode of construction was similar, and both were boiled in a cloth. The material and subsidiary treatment of course differed; but it is curious that no other country possesses either the tart or the pudding, as we understand them, and as the latter has perhaps been developed from the dish, of the making of which Tom Thumb was an eye-witness to his sorrow, so the covered fruit tart may not improbably be an outgrowth from the old coffin pasty of venison or game, with the superaddition of a dish for the safe custody of the juice.

Another rather prominent factor in the diet of the poor classes, not only in Scotland but in the North of England, was oatmeal variously prepared. One very favourable and palatable way was by grinding the meal a second time as fine as flour, boiling it, and then serving it with hot milk or treacle. There is something in the nature of this food so peculiarly satisfying and supporting, that it seems to have been destined to become the staple nourishment of a poor population in a cold and bracing climate. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries unquestionably saw a great advance in the mystery of cookery and in the diversity of dishes, and the author of “Piers of Fulham” complains, that men were no longer satisfied with brawn and powdered beef, which he terms “store of house,” but would have venison, wild fowl, and heronshaw; and men of simple estate, says he, will have partridges and plovers, when lords lack. He adds quaintly:

“A mallard of the dunghill is good enough for me,
With pleasant pickle, or it is else poison. pardy.”

We have for our purpose a very serviceable relic of the old time, called “A Merry Jest, how the Ploughman learned his Paternoster.” The scene purports to be laid in France, and the general outline may have been taken from the French; but it is substantially English, with allusions to Kent, Robin Hood, and so forth, and it certainly illustrates the theme upon which we are. This ploughman was in fact a farmer or husbandman, and the account of his dwelling and garden-stuff is very interesting. We are told that his hall-roof was full of bacon-flitches, and his store-room of eggs, butter, and cheese. He had plenty of malt to make good ale—

“And Martlemas beef to him was not dainty;
Onions and Garlic had he enough,
And good cream, and milk of the cow.”

But in “Vox Populi Vox Dei,” written about 1547, and therefore apparently not from the pen of Skelton, who died in 1529, it is said that the price of an ox had risen to four pounds, and a sheep without the wool to twelve shillings and upwards, so that the poor man could seldom afford to have meat at his table. This evil the writer ascribes to the exactions of the landlord and the lawyer. The former charged too highly for his pastures, and the latter probably advanced money on terms. The old poem depicts in sad colours the condition of the yeoman at the same period, that had had once plenty of cows and cream, butter, eggs, cheese, and honey; all which had gone to enrich upstarts who throve by casting-counters and their pens. The story of the “King and a poor Northern Man,” 1640, also turns upon the tyranny of the lawyers over ignorant clients.

The “Serving-man’s Comfort,” 1598, draws a somewhat gloomy picture of the times. The prices of all provisions, among other points, had trebled since the good old days, when his father and grandfather kept house. Then people could buy an ox for 20s., a sheep for 3s., a calf for 2s., a goose for 6d., a capon for 4d., a hen for 2d., a pig for the same, and all other household provisions at a like rate. The reason given by the farmer was that the landlords had raised their rent. Let them have the land on the old terms, and the former prices would pay. This plea and demand have come back home to us in 1886.

The tradition is, that when Queen Elizabeth received the intelligence of the defeat of the Armada, she was dining off a goose—doubtless about eleven o’clock in the morning. It was an anxious moment, and perhaps her majesty for the moment had thrown ceremony somewhat aside, and was “keeping secret house.”

The author of the “Serving-man’s Comfort,” 1598, also laments the decay of hospitality. “Where,” he inquires “are the great chines of stalled beef, the great, black jacks of double beer, the long hall-tables fully furnished with good victuals?” But he seems to have been a stickler for the solid fare most in vogue, according to his complaint, formerly; and he represents to us that in lieu of it one had to put up with goose-giblets, pigs’ pettitoes, and so many other boiled meats, forced meats, and made dishes. Things were hardly so very bad, however, if, as he states previously, the curtailment of the expenditure on the table still left, as a medium repast, two or three dishes, with fruit and cheese after. The black jack here mentioned was not discarded till comparatively modern days. Nares, who published his Glossary in 1822, states that he recollects them in use.

“A meal’s meat twice a week, worth a groat,” is mentioned as the farm servant’s portion in “Civil and Uncivil Life,” 1579. In “A Piece of Friar Bacon’s Brasen-heads Prophesie,” a unique poem, 1604, we read that at that time a cheesecake and a pie were held “good country meat.” The author adds:

“Ale and Spice, and Curdes and Creame,
Would make a Scholler make a Theame.”

Breton, in his “Fantasticks,” 1626, observes: “Milk, Butter and Cheese are the labourers dyet; and a pot of good Beer quickens his spirits.”

Norfolk dumplings were celebrated in John Day the playwright’s time. He has put into the mouth of his east-country yeoman’s son, Tom Strowd, in “The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green,” written long before it was printed in 1659, the following:—”As God mend me, and ere thou com’st into Norfolk, I’ll give thee as good a dish of Norfolk dumplings as ere thou laydst thy lips to;” and in another passage of the same drama, where Swash’s shirt has been stolen, while he is in bed, he describes himself “as naked as your Norfolk dumplin.” In the play just quoted, Old Strowd, a Norfolk yeoman, speaks of his contentment with good beef, Norfolk bread, and country home-brewed drink; and in the “City Madam,” 1658, Holdfast tells us that before his master got an estate, “his family fed on roots and livers, and necks of beef on Sundays.” I cite these as traits of the kind of table kept by the lower grades of English society in the seventeenth century.