The best books on food and drink in the Middle Ages

Andrew Jotischky Author Of A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages
By Andrew Jotischky

Who am I?

My interest in medieval food and cookery combines two of my great passions in life, but I first started to become seriously interested in the combination when researching religious dietary ideas and practices. I am fascinated by the symbolic role played by food and drink in religious life, and by fasting and self-denial as part of a religious tradition, but also in the ways in which medieval communities feasted and how tastes in food and drink developed through trade and cultural exchange. I teach an undergraduate course on Feast, Fast, and Famine in the Middle Ages because questions about production, consumption, and sustainability are crucially important for us all.  


I wrote...

A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages

By Andrew Jotischky,

Book cover of A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages

What is my book about?

Did medieval hermits really eat wild grass, roots, and tree bark? Why were people who led reclusive religious lives apparently indifferent to food? This book explores monastic attitudes to food and fasting, opens the lid on how monks and hermits prepared and ate their food, and places them in the context of new ideas and technologies of cookery in the medieval world.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination

By Paul Freedman,

Book cover of Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination

Why this book?

This is one of the books I wish I had written! Although it is a scholarly book based on the author’s research, it reads like a compellingly told story. It’s full of imaginative and vivid detail. Paul Freedman asks why there was such a high demand for spices in medieval Europe, examines the practicalities of trade and travel that enabled Europeans to acquire them, the ways they used them as commodities and the cultural meanings of taste and what changes in taste tell us about societal development. 


The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages

By Terence Scully,

Book cover of The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages

Why this book?

This is the best overall book on cooking, kitchens, and recipes in the Middle Ages. It is a compendium on everything to do with cookery as a practical art and the theory behind medieval ideas of health and nutrition. Scully argues convincingly that medieval cooks and cookery were more sophisticated and technical than we might think. The book is highly readable as well as being authoritative and comprehensive, and uses extensive passages from the writings of medieval cookery authors. 


The Cookbook that Changed the World: The Origins of Modern Cuisine

By T. Sarah Peterson,

Book cover of The Cookbook that Changed the World: The Origins of Modern Cuisine

Why this book?

This book is about the early modern cooking revolution. Basing her investigation on a ground-breaking recipe book from 1651, Peterson examines the fundamental shift in European food tastes from the medieval preference for fragrant, heavily spiced dishes that combined sweet and savoury to the salt-acid followed by sweet that forms the basis of modern European cookery. This book was not written for an academic audience, so although it is well-informed it is not a demanding read for non-experts. The book contains a few recipes that are worth trying, and as a whole it’s a colourful and compelling story.


Culinary Recipes of Medieval England

By Constance Hieatt (translator),

Book cover of Culinary Recipes of Medieval England

Why this book?

Constance Hieatt, who died in 2011 before this book came out, was probably the most important historian of medieval English food and cookery. She discovered many recipes in manuscripts that would otherwise have gone unnoticed and edited and commented on a huge body of evidence for English medieval cookery. This book is the culmination of a career’s worth of identifying recipes and reconstructing them for modern readers. Its value lies in providing answers to practical questions about medieval cookery with examples and references from the sources. Professor Hieatt was particularly interested in making medieval recipes available for modern cooks, and this is probably the best guide.


Tastes of Byzantium: The Cuisine of a Legendary Empire

By Andrew Dalby,

Book cover of Tastes of Byzantium: The Cuisine of a Legendary Empire

Why this book?

Food and drink in the Byzantine Empire is not a well-researched topic, and Andrew Dalby has been a pioneer in bringing to life a lost culinary culture. In remarkable detail, he shows what was eaten at the imperial court, in ordinary homes, and in monasteries, and how it was cooked. Dalby describes the sights and smells of Constantinople and its marketplaces, uses travellers' tales and other original sources to paint a comprehensive picture of the recipes and customs of the empire, and their relationship to health and the seasons, love, and medicine.