[Sca-cooks] Myth of Spoiled Meat

Terry Decker t.d.decker at att.net
Sat Nov 21 13:23:40 PST 2009

> 2.  Supply and demand:  records indicate a great quantity of meat was
> being sold and consumed on a daily basis, so why would it all be left to
> spoil before selling and/or eating?
> Well, supply and demand works in a city or town, possibly even a large
village.  But what about rural life?  Also, we've heard tales of mini ice
ages, and overtaxation and poverty, famine or malnutrition.

In these cases, mightn't meat have been scarce?  Especially if your access
to meat was subject to the whims of a feudal lord....
To get a feel for supply and demand in period, you really need to look at is 
grain prices as grain was the primary food source for the Middle Ages and 
Renaissance.  Meat was an adjunct to the diet of all classes.

While data are limited for the earlier part of the Middle Ages, there is an 
upward trend in prices matching a population spike until the early 1300's 
(the Great Famine, 1315-1322).  The grain prices trend downward for the next 
200 years with localized spikes for wars, famines, etc.  The Black Death 
caused a significant population reduction between 1350 and 1370, raising 
individual wealth and cutting demand below supply.  All of this occurs 
during a cooling period between 1150 and 1460.  Prices only start a serious 
climb toward the end of the 1500s matching to rising population and a 
seriously cold climate from 1560 to 1850, pushing demand higher than supply. 
At the same time, there is an expansion in the money supply from the influx 
of New World gold.

Outside of town, access to meat was more dependent on one's ability to raise 
the animals than on the whim of a feudal lord, who had specific legal 
obligations to his serfs and contractual obligations to his tenants.  In 
most European countries, there were specific rules that permitted huntsmen 
and foresters to provide meat for widows and the disabled and to sell meat 
from the hunt to local markets.  Late period paintings of kitchens, 
butchers, poulters, etc., give some idea of the quantity and variety of meat 
available with live, caged animals showing how meat was kept fresh.

Braudel shows that there was a large and growing market in livestock all 
across Europe from the end of the 14th Century suggesting that the 
availablity of meat was steadily increasing all through the Renaissance. 
However, many of the initial town regulations date from the 11th and 12th 
Centuries, which suggest that there may have been a growing market for meat 
then which required such regulation (and to protect the local merchants from 
outside competition).

> 3.  More supply and demand):  surviving recipes (the ones that
> supposedly called for so much spice) were intended for the wealthy, so
> if only some of the meat was spoiled then they could afford the fresh
> stuff, and therefore wouldn't have been using so much spice.

Granted.  But that doesn't change the question of what was COMMON; the
situation that normally existed for the non-ultra-wealthy.  I know there
aren't as many recipes for that, but wasn't there a book of recommended food
for a farmer?  It listed menus for everything down from nobility to
peasantry, if I recall....what was that reference?  Also, there might be
non-direct sources, like legal writings, farming records (what
herbs/flavorings were grown), and so forth.

Take a look at the inventory of one of Charlemagne's villas.  It's in the 

Well, actually, the legal injunction against serving spoiled food argues
that it happened at least once; one should keep in mind the existence of
unscrupulous people.  How much did enforcement vary?  How often did people
circumvent the law (or unsuccessfully try)?

Would open-air market stalls have had spoiled meat to sell to the rubes who
you might not have to answer to, because a.) they weren't local, and had to
go home after selling their produce, or b.) you weren't going to be here
tomorrow, or c.) being outsiders, they were unlikely to be listened to
(their status might come into play, here)?  How common was this practice?

The situation probably happened more than once, because cheating is 
profitable.  The regulations were as much to protect the local vendors from 
unfair competition as to protect the people of the town.  Enforcing the 
regulations fairly enhanced the reputation of the town or market and served 
to increase and improve trade.  Remember, the politicians who set these 
local rules were often leading guild members from the trades being 
regulated.  They were protecting themselves, their town and their customers.

>From William FitzStephen:

"If friends arrive unexpectedly at the home of some citizen and they, tired
and hungry after their journey, prefer not to wait until food may be got in
and cooked, or "till servants bring water for hands and bread", they can in
the meantime pay a quick visit to the riverside, where anything they might
desire is immediately available. No matter how great the number of soldiers
or travellers coming in or going out of the city, at whatever hour of day or
night, so that those arriving do not have to go without a meal for too long
or those departing leave on empty stomachs, they can choose to detour there
and take whatever refreshment each needs. Those with a fancy for delicacies
can obtain for themselves the meat of
guinea-hen or woodcock – finding what they're after is no great chore, since
all the delicacies are set out in front of them. This is an exemplar of a
public cookshop that provides a service to a city and is an asset to city

So, I know the kind of traveller's food shop that I'm thinking of existed.
And, having clientele that is here-today-gone-tomorrow makes it a lovely
place to break laws.

Now, I'll agree that it might be unlikely for the selling of spoiled meat to
be common enough to be considered the "common practice," and that, thus, the
argument that "medieval meat was spiced to hide being spoiled" refers, not
to the rich, but to the situation that commonly pertained is probably
inaccurate, but I can't rule it out, entirely.

Can someone help me out, here?  I'd love to put these doubts to rest.

>  --
> Ian of Oertha

Your argument can be applied to any restaurant, deli, or fast food joint 
today.  They serve local and travelling clientele just as the 
Roman/Medieval/Renaissance cookshop or tavern did.  They comply with the law 
because that is easier than trying to consistently cheat everyone and 
maintain the reputation needed to stay in business.  It is easier to run a 
grift being a travelling man, than as a businessman with a fixed address.

Modern regulations don't solve dishonesty and I'm certain Medieval 
regulations didn't solve it either (considering some of the punishments 
meted out to thieving bakers).  What they do is establish limits and provide 
a means of redress.

Was spoiled meat served?  Probably.  Was it so common that spices were used 
to hide the spoilage?  Probably not.


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