Monday, November 20, 2017

Medieval Farming: Livestock

This post will deal with livestock during the middle ages. It may be offensive, or shocking to some, particularly in this day and age. However, we must remember the time frame this information is taken from. Animals were perceived during this time as simply beasts of burden and the human race had full dominion over them.  It was also literally kill or be killed; either kill or starve to death.  Winter’s in medieval European could be harsh and cruel, survival might be based on how many animals you butchered in the fall.

Animals, particularly livestock (although at times rare), was vital in the survival of the people in the middle ages.  They provided power (in terms of agricultural work), transportation, food, clothes and even warmth during the winter.

One of the major livestock used during the middle ages was sheep. They were vital for they provided wool which was the main cloth during this time. The sheep could also be butchered, this provided two products, the meat, and the skin for clothing or parchment.

Parchment was the primary source for writing documents until paper was introduced from China. The majority of important books and documents were written on parchment, including treaties and of course, the bible written by monks in monasteries.

Speaking of monks, they raised sheep almost exclusively. This was because they needed the parchment, and the wool, but they refrained from eat the meat. Monks did however, enjoy fish (especially on Friday), so the monks might be clustered near streams to fish.

Pigs during this era were semi-domesticated. They were allowed to run free throughout the year fatting up on fruits and vegetation in the woods (the preferred food was acorns).  In November, they would be collectively hunted down.

Cows and oxen was another group of animals that were essential during this time. Cows were not as large as today. People relied on them for milk, there was no refrigeration at the time so it was turned into cheese.

Oxen were used for pulling farm equipment and carts.  Oxen were more reliable than horses for this task. Horses were rare (reserved for the aristocrats), especially before the horseshoe. Also, before the horse harness was introduced from Asia, the horse was unable to pull the plow used in the fields for an extended period of time.  Read more about this in a previous post.

The barn was usually attached to the house.  The cattle (which produce great body heat) in the barn provided a heat source for the living quarters.

Both cows and oxen were valuable after their usefulness.  When a cow was unable to give milk, or oxen too old to pull the plow or cart, they were butchered for meat. Their hide also provided leather to be used in clothing and other products.

Different types of fowl were also a valuable commodity. Chickens provided both feathers and eggs. When they gotten older to lay eggs, they (like cattle) were butchered for food.

People located near ponds often domesticated ducks and geese. They too provided the same resources as the chicken.

Aristocrats sometimes used hawks and falcons in hunting to fly down and catch birds. This was unheard of for the commoner, but they would put a sticky substance on twigs in hopes to catch small birds for food.  They also tried to catch these small birds with nets stung between trees.

Royalty also participated in hunts, mostly deer (later boar), especially the hart (the male red deer).  If they did not participate, they had a hunter designated to do the job.  Deer meat was used in many feasts put on by these royals. The deer was so valued that the commoner was not allowed to hunt them; poaching a deer resulted in a severe punishment.  The royalty employed a gamekeeper to watch over his property to ensure no one would hunt without his permission, if permission was ever given at all.

Now that they had the meat from the animals, they had to preserve it. Meat, like many foods, will spoil rapidly. To keep the meat over the long winter months, it had to be salted or smoked.  Both methods remove moisture from the meat and cures it. This will allow the meat to be kept for longer periods of time.

Salt is the best method for preserving, it draws the moisture from inside the meat.  However, salt was very expensive during the middle ages, so few people except the wealthy and royals could afford it. Using of salt became a status symbol, showing how important you were. During a fancy meal, there might be a salt cellar on the table. A salt cellar could be an elaborate container for the salt, most times it was designed to look like a boat.  If you were an important guest at this dinner, you would be seated nearest to the salt.

One method of preserving was to use a simple brine solution.  The solution was water mixed with salt, and could be used over and over again. Items such as fish and pork would be soaked into this solution until preserved enough to be stored.

Pickling was another variation of this. The simplest pickling liquid was done with water, vinegar, pepper and salt if possible.  This process was used for vegetables and meat; if done properly and sealed in a barrel or pottery, the food could last for a very long time.

Confits was another way to protect food from rotting; the meat was salted then cooked for a very long time in its own fat, then allowed to cool in its own fat. It was then sealed up and stored in a cool place, where it could last for months.  To use this process, the meat must be fatty in content, such as with pork or some types of geese, later the process was modified so it could include fruits and vegetables.

One could of course use an ice house to keep the food cold.  An ice house is buried into the ground, and packed with ice, this would keep the food cold similar to a refrigerator.  However, this was rarely, if ever, used in the middle ages.  Castles in their deepest cellars might place ice and snow to keep some food, and wine, beer and ale cold.  After November, in most Scandinavian countries, because of the weather, a simple above ground structure was good enough to refrigerate food.

Drying and smoking was one of the most popular methods to preserve food.  Drying, was as it described, simply placing the food out until the moisture left it. Usually, this could be obtained by placing it near a heat source.  For meat, it had to be cut into long thin strips.  Fruit could also be dried so they could be used later.

Smoking meant you dried the food via warmth, and infuse it with the smoke from the wood.  This had a dual purpose, one to preserve, but the smoke could also give the food an additional taste. In many medieval houses, the hearth of the fire pit was centrally located. This meant the home was constantly filled with smoke, you would find many meats tied to the rafters being smoked at the same time the fire was used for heating the house.

We have been speaking of preventing decay, but, some food was processed to promote it. Fermentation accelerates the decay process.  The final result, or byproduct of fermentation was what you wanted. Alcohol is the result of fermentation, alcohol itself prevents many bacteria from forming. Fruits, grains, honey all were fermented to create different alcoholic drinks.  Cheese is another product produced from fermentation.

Besides the method described above another form of preserving was to seal your food into sugar. For thousands of years’ people have been doing this by submersing, and sealing food into honey. If properly sealed this would preserve fruits and meat for a long time.

All the processes described above had one purpose; to keep you fed and alive until the next time food was available. During a long winter, this preserved food was a valuable staple in the diets of medieval people.
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W.A. Rusho is a professional wrestler, author and historian. You can contact him via his website or email.


  1. Very interesting William. With winter upon us and being stuck in the house more I've been experimenting with different recipes and ways of preserving food and one of them is pickling. My favorite recipe so far is pickled jalapeno eggs. Yum! Thanks for the fascinating read.

  2. Very fascinating post! I had no idea that parchment paper was made from sheep's skin! I have parchment paper in my kitchen, but I doubt very much that modern-day parchment paper in made in the same way as the medieval version. Or is it?

    1. That is from are cellulose-based paper from plants. Usually has a wax coating. Parchment, or vellum is from younger animal skin, mostly sheep, goats or calf

  3. This post is awesome and brings to mind lots of connections for me. My Early English Lit professor in college had us celebrate the end of the class with a medieval feast that was as authentic as we could make it. My palette was not overly pleased. One of my English teacher friends also ordered parchment for a project once for students to write on, and they loved it. The idea of beasts of burden is one that is difficult for many modern people to make. Even my friend who grew up on a giant sheep ranch was raised to consider all the animals that would someday be on their plate as friends up until the moment of slaughter.

  4. Having just helped my brother-in-law and my sister butcher a huge elk he shot this fall, I'm well schooled in the butchering side of it. It was fun to know that his hunting and our work filled their freezer full. When we toured Mt Vernon, I thought the smokehouse was really neat to see. Nice history lesson, William.