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1530: Dietary advice from a C16th century Cuckfield man ... I

Two meals a day

How strange it is that we can read the dietary advice from a Cuckfield man in the early C16th - and that some of what he wrote is as true today as it was then. This was published in the British Medical Journal in 1926.

Andrew Boorde, who was born in or about 1490 at Cuckfield in Sussex. began life as a monk and was afterwards nominated suffragan Bishop of Chichester, although he never seems to have discharged any episcopal duties. He finally obtained dispensation from his orders, and became a physician - partly to improve his knowledge and partly to find out what was thought of Henry VIII.

He travelled over many parts of Europe, and, like a sixteenth century Flexner, visited and inspected many universities. Some have supposed him to be a Scot because he studied at Glasgow; but he, in fact, had a very poor opinion of Scotsmen. In addition to a sort of guide-book to Europe he wrote several medical books, including one entitled ‘Dyetary’, in which he gave much shrewd advice. Of a man’s s ordinary diet he said:

‘Two meales a day is suffycyent for a rest man; and a laborer may eate three tymes a day; and he that doth eate after lyveth a beestly lyfe’.

Mr. Salzman, who quotes this in his English Life in Middle Ages (London: Humphrey Milford), says that at the time when Boorde wrote 'the two universal meals were dinner, taken about 10 or 11 in the morning, and supper, for which the usual hour was 4 o'clock …

Elaborate food preparation

Mediaeval cookery was more elaborate than is often realised. A great variety of soups, stews, pasties, fritters, jellied, and so forth were in common use, and the recipes that have survived from the fifteenth century show that many dishes were of very elaborate composition, most containing quantities of spices'.

As an instance of an elaborate recipe Mr Salzman takes that for ‘leche lumbard,’ which was something in tho nature of a saveloy or German sausage: ‘Take pork and pound it in a mortar with eggs; add sugar, salt, raisins, currants, minced dates, powdered pepper, and cloves, put it in a bladder and boil it; then cut it in slices’. This was served with a sauce made of raisins, red wine, almond-milk coloured with saffron, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. If our forefathers of the sixteenth century only had two meals a day, each would seem to have been copious whenever the house could afford it.

Table manners

Mr. Salzman quotes some rhyming instructions, one of which is:

‘Defyle not thy lips with eating much, as a pigge eating draffe;

Eat softly and drinke mannerly, take heed you do not quaffe.’ *

It would seem, however, that our forefathers had some difficulty in providing meals containing much meat during the winter season. The system of saving fodder from the summer and into autumn was not efficient, and cattle had to be killed and cured in the autumn - at any rate, that was the case a century earlier. The dearth of fresh meat accounts for the obligation there was on the lord of the manor to keep a capacious pigeon cote. Probably he ate most of the pigeons himself, but doubtless the tenants took toll.

Pepys meals and time-wasting committees

If we come to the next century [c1660s] we find a considerable number of entries in Pepys Diary of what he ate for dinner, which seems to have been a movable feast any time between noon and two o'clock; the latter hour probably was exceptional, and due to the pressure of his work and the talkative habits of committees, which would sometimes sit much longer than he thought at all necessary, but. without getting very much work done. This fault is not altogether unknown at the present day.


But here is a fuller quote from 'English Life in the Middle Ages' P95/6 which was perhaps excluded for good reason from the BMJ article:

Andrew Borde, a shrewd physician in the time of Henry VIII, wrote : Two meales a daye is suffycyent for a rest man ; and a laborer may eate three tvmes a day; and he that doth eate ofter lyveth a beestly lyfe.'

The two universal meals were dinner, taken about 10 or 11 in the morning, and supper, for which the usual hour was 4 o'clock; breakfast as a regular meal is little heard of, though probably most men started the day with a draught of ale and some bread, but the more luxurious indulged in 'rere-suppers' at night, which were often denounced as an occasion of drunkenness. Dinner and supper were substantial meals, which naturally varied very much according to the wealth of the householder.

The English peasant, unlike those of the same class on the Continent, had meat - bacon, beef, or at least a herring almost every day, as well as bread and cheese ; the ordinary gentleman dining by himself would have two or three dishes of meat and sweets; the nobleman, who was bound by tradition to keep open house and show hospitality to all comers, would have a dinner of two or three courses, each course consisting of a score of different dishes, meat, fish, game, and sweets mingled indiscriminately, ending with fruit and nuts.

In a great house the serving of the dinner, from the laying of the table-cloth to its removal, was a ceremony conducted with the solemn precision of a religious rite, and a knowledge of the correct method of carving the innumerable kinds of meat was part of the necessary education of a gentleman.

In less polite society, when the meat was put on the table for the diners to help themselves, there were not infrequently unseemly scrambles and such points of good manners as washing the hands before meals, not putting more than a thumb and two fingers on the joint when carving it and not picking the teeth with a knife were apt to be disregarded.



The British Medical Journal Vol. 2, No. 3439 (Dec. 4, 1926), pp. 1064-1065

The article quotes: English Life in the Middle Ages, Louis Francis Salzman, Oxford University Press, Humphrey Milford, London (1941)

An etching of a woodcut of Andrew Boorde by an unknown artist (1547), National Portrait Gallery, London

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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