Throughout the middle ages the English enjoyed a reputation with their European neighbours for gluttony and heavy drinking! The Bayeux tapestry gives a valuable depiction of the dining arrangements of King William’s court when on campaign.

Nobles feasting, as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. By special permission of the City of Bayeux.  Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century
Nobles feasting. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century; by special permission of the City of Bayeux

Cooks are depicted preparing and serving a banquet on the Bayeux Tapestry. A raiding party would return from the countryside with a cow, sheep or pig. The feast was cooked in the open air, roasted on spits, while a cauldron bubbled over a fire. The food was passed to the servants, who ate the coarser fare on a table assembled from shields. They in turn served their masters who sat at a table and dined in some style.

By contrast, monks were supposed to eat a frugal diet, and their rules and customs usually outlawed the eating of meat except by the sick. In theory their standard fare was two simple dishes a day – cereal, beans, vegetables, eggs, cheese and bread – although in practice many Benedictine communities ate very well. Meat, fish, butter, lard, dripping, milk and honey all appeared on monastic tables at the time of Domesday, although the reformed orders which sprang up from the late 11th century eschewed excessive eating.

Most of the peasants in the villages of Domesday England had no such choice – theirs was a subsistence diet of bread, with beans, peas and root vegetables cooked as a stew, supplemented by cheese, fish and fowls and occasionally by red meat.

For all of society, beer was the basic beverage. Although it was brewed at a weak strength it was consumed in vast quantities: the average monk had an allowance of at least three gallons a day.

Man catching bees in a bag.  Book of Hours 14th century. By permission of The British Library. Stowe 17.
Man catching bees in a bag. Book of Hours, 14th century. By permission of The British Library.

Mead, based on honey, was consumed on special occasions. There are many entries in Domesday for bees kept in Essex and Norfolk. Honey is recorded in both of these counties and many others.

Domesday Book records many vineyards, often newly-planted to cater for the tastes of the new rulers. But this attempt to establish a significant English wine industry was to prove short lived. English wine was of poor quality, and from the 1150s fine imported wines from Bordeaux and La Rochelle put the English vineyards out of business.

Domesday entry for Ely, Cambridgeshire.  Catalogue reference: E 31/2/1 f.192.  Digital Images and Translation reproduced by kind permission of Editions Alecto Limited
Domesday entry for Ely (link to transcript). Catalogue reference: E 31/2/1 f.192. By kind permission of Editions Alecto Limited.

The most northerly place in which vineyards are recorded is Ely in Cambridgeshire. In most instances vines are recorded in arpents, a unit equalling roughly one acre. After the Norman Conquest wine became increasingly popular – the monks of Battle Abbey were each allowed a gallon a day.