The remains of a Castilian king and his family from the 14th century reveal a diet, rich in wheat bread and meat.
One of the spectacular ways in which status is revealed is the food digested. But what – if any – food signalled status in 14th century Spain?
We are all familiar with the small vignettes in films, where the persons discuss whether they should have Chinese or Greek “take-out”; as we are familiar with scenes from family-dinners, where youngsters suddenly claim that they have turned vegan, palaeolithic or local. All this witness to the fact that not only has our choice of food turned global as well as profoundly aesthetic; it is in itself witnessing to the fact that we have a deep and varied choice. The core symbol of this is of course the supermarket, but the ubiquity of cooking books and magazines also represent a vivid testament to this state of affairs. Another symptom is the very varied and complicated grid, which these diverse diets constitute. More than anything a diffuse and un-chequered variability seems be the overall symptom.
The question, however, is what the specific grid(s) were in the Middle Ages. One way to approach this question is of course studying medieval cookbooks; another is to study pollen-diagrams and excavate pits. The most recent, however, is to carry out stable isotopic analysis of the remains of medieval people in order to uncover the general character of their diet. As the isotopic evidence may even be collected from different parts of a skeleton, shifting dietetic profiles may be detected by analysing bones, which present with different re-generational timescales. For instance, teeth are set early in youth and thus witness to where people grew up and how they were fed in childhood, while ribs are able to regenerate within months. By studying isotopic evidence from ribs, we might thus get inside knowledge as to the diet a person lived on during the last few months of his or hers life. These scientific facts recently constituted the basis for the study of the shifting diets, which Richard III had experienced throughout his life.
In 2012 a study was similarly conducted on the remains of King Pedro I of Castile (1334 – 1369), his mistress María de Padilla (1334 – 1361), his two sons, the heir Alfonso (1359–1362) and Don Juan (1355 -1405), as well as his stepbrother, Don Fadrique Alfonso (1333–1358); all buried in the royal crypt in the cathedral in Seville. The study was carried out in order to get a picture of their diet. However, this time the isotopic analyses was not carried out in order to reveal changes in the lifestyle of the individuals; rather, the studies were carried out in order to compare to those of some of their Christian and Muslim minions. Most of the studies were carried out by analysing theribs of the individuals. Only two individuals were profiled through their metatarsals or foot-bones.
What the studies thus revealed was a snapshot of fifteen individuals belonging to three different social and religious groups: the royal family, Christians near Burgos and Muslims from Torrecilla near Granada; all dated to the 13th to 14th century.
The results may be summarised like this:
- The royal family obviously enjoyed a diet rich in animal protein and plants of the C3 type: possibly denoting that the meat was supplemented with wheat bread.
- Interestingly, though, the profiles of the different members of the royal family differed as to how much meat was included in the diet. Here, the young prince (age 3 ½ year) topped the list, with his wife a little below. Next came the king, with a profile only slightly higher in terms of protein as his stepbrother. An outlier was the illegitimate son of the king, who spent most of his life imprisoned in the Castle in Soria.
- According to the scientists, the profile of the royal family witnesses to a large intake of game meats and/or freshwater fish supplemented by wheat-bread. The different profiles of the members are explained by their situation in life. The young prince would have been fed by maternal milk plus a supplement of chicken, chicken broth, white bread, and eggs. His mother would have enjoyed such a diet too, except nuts and sweets would (of course) have substituted the maternal milk. Such diets were recommended for pregnant and puerperal women with delicate health.
- Compared to this, the remains from Christian peasants indicated a diet with a low intake of both animal protein and wheat-bread. It is argued that they lived off a diet consisting of bread with low nutritional value – made of maslin crops consisting in a mixture of rye, barley, millet etc. supplemented with cabbage, leeks and the occasional intake of animal protein from chickens, rabbits, snails, frogs or fish plus leafy vegetables collected in the wild.
- The Muslim individuals offered a different profile, which showed – as was expected – a much higher intake of pulses (or animals fed by pulses). Probably, the diet consisted of a mixture of pulses, millet and sorghum supplemented with protein from smaller animals, chicken and rabbits fed by pulses.
This supplements the results of other studies from the Iberian peninsula which have shown marked differences in diets between peasants, burghers and aristocrats indicating that food was an important symbol of social distance and hierarchy.
Another important study was concerned with the level of abrasions on teeth. While the dental health of the royals seems to have been excellent, the teeth of the Christian peasants all showed abrasions stemming from a rough full-corn diet. One exception was the dental health of the queen, María de Padilla, who may have suffered from a fistula in her jaw as witnessed by a possible periapical granuloma. This may be the result of a diet supplemented with sweets made of the recently introduced sugar from sugar-canes and crushed almonds (marzipan and nougat).
The general conclusion reached by the scientists, who have published this study, is that the isotopic analysis denoted a royal diet higher in animal protein than even the diet enjoyed by other elite groups. Also, the profile denoted a diet supplemented with wheat bread and probably other leafy vegetables, but no pulses; the latter seems to have been characteristic for the Muslim population.
A full and complimentary overview of the diet of the Castilian Royal Family in the 14th century may be had from the handbook, Arte Cisoria, also called the Tractado de Arte de Cortar del Cuchillo (Treatise of Carving with a Knife or the Art of Cookery). Written by Enrique de Villena in the beginning of the 15th century, it lists an impressive and diverse number of different types of foodstuff and explains how to carve and serve it at the royal court.
Listed are (among others):
- Pheasants, partridges, game hens, doves, quails, roosters, chickens, capons, ducks, geese, swallows, sparrows
- Oxen, cows, buffalos, deer, fallow deer, gazelles, rabbits, hares, goats, wild goats, pigs, suckling pigs, sheep, camels, and nutrias (water rats).
- Whale, grouper, conger, eel, turbot, goose-necked barnacle, salmon, sole, elver, ray, cuttlefish, octopus, tuna, dolphin, shad, hake, sardines, crabs, sea lampreys, trout, oysters, shrimp, clams and sea snails.
- Melons, citrons, cucumbers, pomegranates, figs, grapefruit, leons, quinces, peaches, pears, apples, oranges, nuts, pine nuts, acorns, and chestnuts.
- Artichokes, carrots, lettuce, onions, garlic, capers, parsley, and celery.
 As listed in medieval Spain. By Rafael Chabrán. In: Regional Cuisines of medieval Europe. A book of Essays. Ed. By Melitta Weiss Adamson. Routledge 2002, pp. 142.
Palacio Mudejar in Seville built by Peter the Cruel. Source: Wikipedia
How royals feasted in the court of Pedro I of Castile: A contribution of stable isotope study to medieval history
By S.A. Jiménez-Brobeil, Z. Laffranchi, R.M. Maroto, F.A. López Sánchez, and Delgado Huertas,
In: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2016) Vol 10, pp. 424–430