Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Eating and drinking during the Renaissance

Lynn Dattler
New York, New York, United States


  La Merienda. Luis Egidio Melendez (1716-1780).

The period of the Renaissance in Europe was a time of great upheavals, of changes in how people thought and acted, and after the return of Columbus’ sailors from America, in how and what they ate. For most people, bread remained the food of choice. The upper classes preferred processed white bread made of flour, but lower class people ate brown bread made of wheat bran, sometimes with added rye, beans, and chestnuts. Rice was also eaten and was grown chiefly in Lombardy. In the south of Europe the people ate porridge and millet, used olive oil, and drank wine, often mixed with their water for fear of contracting disease. Northern Europeans preferred beer, ale, and cider; and used butter rather than olive oil. The lower classes consumed beans, cabbage, garlic, grains, vegetables, and onions. Peaches and melons were eaten mostly at court. Salads were also served, made with lettuce, watercress, radicchio, onions, raisins, and olives; also with artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, fava beans, and fennel.

For meat and milk people raised cows, goats, pigs, and sheep. They ate chickens, duck, and geese; hunted wild birds; and preserved pork by making ham and sausage so it could last all year round. Pork was often made with mustard, a condiment, or a sour sauce. Game meats, poultry, and fish were the standard meats. Peacocks were also used but eventually were replaced by turkey.

In the Baltic and Mediterranean regions, the people ate fish: sardines, cod, anchovies, salmon, and batargo (tuna belly). Porpoise and whale were delicacies. Parsley, dill, sage, oregano, and mustard were widely used by cooks, as were pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. Sugar was considered a spice and was used mainly by the rich because it was costly. Many of these spices, such as chili peppers, were brought from America by Christopher Columbus, as were tomatoes, potatoes, corn (also called maize), chocolate, turkey, squash, and beans; also coffee, chocolate, and tea. Asparagus, carrots, and potatoes were the vegetables used the most during this time. Fruits were mostly used in marmalades. Sauces were made with fruit and plants and were thickened with bread, flour, almonds, or eggs. Tomatoes took centuries to catch on and were mostly used as a garnish.

During Lent, Christians often did not eat meat, butter, or eggs, but during the preceding carnival they would bend the rules and eat fish. Alcohol was consumed and used in cooking even though a sin. Mothers prepared ale for their children. Priests used wine during services.

The first cookbook during the Renaissance was On Right Pleasure, published in 1475. It was followed by the German Kuchenmeystery (1485), the English Boke of Cookery (1500), and the Italian Cookbook (1525). Another big seller was Opera Works, published in 1570 by Bartolomeo Scappi, chef to Pope Pius V. In 1549, a recipe book called Banquets was written by a family member of the House of Este of Ferrara, Italy, designed to be used at court.

After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, many students and scholars moved to Italy and worked in the best publishing houses in Florence and Venice. There were also many other books dealing with food. Haly Abbas, a medieval Persian author, made a distinction between remedial food and pure food and considered that remedial food (lettuce, onion, garlic) could be beneficial. Ken Albala, author of Eating Right in the Renaissance, wrote that diet books had forbidden eating cakes and other sweets and were considered gluttonous. Onions, garlic, and leeks were also recommended, especially for journeymen and barbers.

At court the ruling families held sumptuous banquets. At the House of Este in Ferrara, they used two-tined forks and crystal glasses made in Murano, Venice. Dozens of courses were served, and saffron was used because of its golden color. Pastas such as spaghetti, tagliatelle, ravioli, tortellini, and agnollotti were the favorites, cooked in broth and served with butter, parmigiano cheese, and cinnamon. Usually two meals were prepared per day, the comestio and the prandium. At banquets given for the upper class the guests ate with their fingers, washing their hands in a basin before meals and using napkins to clean their hands. In between courses, people enjoyed concerts, dancing, and plays. The soups served at such banquets were rich and expensive, often with added sugar, pomegranate seeds, and aromatic herbs, and sometimes included mustard, hemp-seed, millet, and verjuice. The French were big soup eaters at that time and claimed to know seventy variations.

In some instances wheat gruel was added to the soups along with milk and eggs and called fromentee. Wheat, along with gravy from meat, was a base for soup. Barley soup was commonly consumed. The meat generally consumed at banquets was sirloin beef. The roast meat was boiled, then basted with orange juice, rosewater, sugar, and spices. The salads served were made of vegetables and herbs, with added liver and brains of poultry, often followed by fish, either fried or sometimes sliced with eggs. Sometimes, the fish and eggs were reduced to a pulp called carpee, sometimes boiled in water or wine and strong seasoning. Dishes of eggs prepared various ways were served as a side dish.

Some types of cheese were made from cream, and peasant women from Montreuil and Vicennes brought them to Paris in small wicker baskets sprinkled with sugar. Parmesan cheese became popular in France when Charles VIII returned from his military expedition to Naples in southern Italy.

For centuries to come, and ever to the present time, Italian and French fare have remained the dominant cuisines on the European continent.



  1. Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance. (2002). University of California Press.
  2. Bramen, Lisa. “The History of Health Food, Part 2 Medieval and Renaissance Periods.” (2009). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-of-health-food-part-2-medieval-and-renaissance-periods-70192474/.
  3. Costa, Leopoldo. “Stravaganza.” (2012). https://stravaganzastravaganza.blogspot.com/
  4. Lawrence, Alexandra. “Renaissance Mealtimes.” (2015). http://exploreflorence.net/2015/10/renaissance-mealtimes/.
  5. Lyons, Albert S. “The Renaissance” (2018). https://www.healthguidance.org/entry/6347/1/the-renaissance.html
  6. Real, Nancy Delucia. “How to Eat Like a Renaissance Courtier.” (2015). http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/how-to-eat-like-a-renaissance-courtier/.
  7. Renaissance-spell.com. “Renaissance Food.” (2011). http://exploreflorence.net/2015/10/renaissance-mealtimes/.
  8. Witt, Victor Dane H. “The Renaissance Period and Renaissance Cuisine at Its Best.” (2012). https://ccrenfaire.com/renaissance_food/.



LYNN DATTLER is an actress, contract worker, and recreational writer. She has worked for a financial firm, for fundraising events, and trade shows. Her poem “Time Passes” was displayed on the homepage of Poetrysoup.com in June 2018.


Summer 2018  |  Sections  |  Food

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