Meat consumption research – Part 3 Between agriculture and industrialisation

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

Much of the information for this part came from Massimo Montanari’s lessons at the university and his excellent book of food history, The Culture of Food (1994).

With the fall of the Roman empire, the power base became shared between what the Romans had distinguished as “civilised” and “barbarian” societies. This brought about a melding of the dominant food cultures, creating a hybrid system where both meat, especially from hunted animals and agricultural produce were both important for food and ideology.

Leaders of the Germanic tribes that were dominant in this period tended to be powerful warriors and descriptions often commented on their hunting abilities and big appetites for meat. The more ferocious the animal hunted and eaten, the more powerful the man was seen.

With the unravelling of the infrastructure of the Roman empire, human populations reverted to older models of habitat and land use. The widespread trade that had exchanged goods throughout the empire dried up with the absence of security, crumbling of roads and reversion to barter economies. Food had to become locally-produced and cities broke up as their people moved to the countryside and total population sizes gradually reduced from their Roman peaks. Consequently, agriculture contracted and there was a spread of the northern way of living with more dependence on wild areas for meat, fruits, nuts etc.

Between the 6th and 10th centuries a combination of agriculture and gathering of foods from “wild” areas provided a generally diverse diet and population levels were low enough to mean that there was more than enough for subsistence. Meat is thought to have been widely eaten, although peasants may have mostly eaten preserved meats with regular fresh meat more the preserve of the rich. This was a time when forests were routinely measured by the number of pigs they could support. Towards the end of this period population rates started to rise, putting pressure on the balance of the food production system.

By the 11th century the population was considerably higher and there had been a shift in the attitudes and balance between the cultivated and the wild. Wild areas and foods were replaced with the cultivated, providing a greater density of food per unit of land. The church and monasteries were a key force in this drive which saw massive deforestation across Europe. With the importance and value of food production at the time, this was a highly profitable enterprise and greatly increased their power. This put them in conflict, both with the ordinary people, who lost access to lands that they had long relied on for food use and also with the nobility, who were losing their valued hunting areas. Climatically, this was a special time, known as the Medieval Warm Period, with elevated average temperatures from around 800 to 1300 which would have been beneficial for the expansion of agriculture and population.

By the 13th century vast areas of forest had been converted to farmland. The power struggle between the elite, the church and the poor resulted in the elite securing usage rights for much of the remaining wild areas at the expense of the poor who lost almost all rights. Although the agricultural system was massively expanded, production efficiency remained very low. Yields as low as 2 seeds grown for each sown have been reported. Continued population growth coupled with this low efficiency lead to an overall decline in diet quality and quantity especially for the poor.

With loss of land rights, many people at this time passed from self-sufficient autonomy to serfdom (a situation similar to slavery), and employed labour, leaving this class of people in a precarious position with regard to food security. With these changes of relationship in society, the richer and more powerful parts of society were able to create a system that ensured security for themselves at the expense of those at the bottom of the social order. It was in this time that bread again became “the” food (for the poor). With most other foods diverted by rights and economics, breads, usually dark or “black”, made from the cheaper, “inferior” grains like rye and barley became the staple food of the poor while higher society were able to afford whiter bread made from wheat.

Food at the elite end of society underwent a significant change in dietary philosophy. The figure of the fearsome, powerful warrior leader had given way to a different model of leadership, where the nobility’s power was more to do with entitlement,territorial and economic strength. The valuing of giant appetites and vast meat feasts waned in favour of a quality rather than quantity-based system. Refinement and spices, which were very expensive, came to define elite cuisine.

Towards the end of the 13th century agriculture was unable to expand further and overall production started to decline. The situation worsened at the beginning of the 14th century with “the great famine” that decimated food production in Northern Europe from 1315 to 1317. The start of the hundred years war in northern Europe in 1337 further depressed food supplies.

The Black Death that spread through Europe in the middle of the 14th century wiped out between a quarter and a third of the European population. The poor seem to have been especially affected due to weakening through malnutrition and other diseases. Subsequently, rates of remaining population varied across the continent but as society began to rebuild, those poorer members that had survived often found themselves in a much better situation than they had had before. The reduction in population meant labour was in short supply and the poor found themselves able to negotiate much better wages and sometimes land entitlements.

Once agricultural production had resumed, some of the abundance that had been lost from the food system in the preceding centuries was restored. Grain production, which had been key to feeding the massive poor population previously, declined, sometimes replaced by other crops or returned to pasture. In many areas meat-eating became commonplace again, some farms started to grow fodder specifically for animal raising and trade in livestock took off even to the extent of being a trans-national trade.

So started a period historian Fernand Braudel described as “carnivorous Europe” which lasted until the 16th century. In Germany it has been suggested that per capita meat consumption reached 100kg per year in the 15th Century. The South of Europe ate less but average consumption of 26kg in Carpentras and 20kg in parts of Sicily in the same century point to a considerable consumption. Through the 14th and 15th centuries the balance between produce from wild and cultivated areas continued to shift. Use of pigs, which had been reared extensively in forests, declined in favour of sheep raised on pasture. Cows were more often eaten in towns and cities due to their size and cost, making beef and veal the food of luxury and leaving pork and mutton as the meat of the poorer. During the 15th century pig-rearing was brought closer to the farm, fully domesticated in pens rather than semi-wild in the forests. Medical concerns were raised at the time over the consequences of eating this “penned” animal meat with some physicians recommending only the eating of wild animals. However, in many places hunting had become a carefully protected preserve of the nobility with little rights for the commoner.

The role of the church in influencing diets

The growing consumption of meat with the continued power of the church meant that a greater number of people were affected by the catholic church’s fasting laws. Originally the church had had little influence on diet but at some time in its development, the fasting regimens of some monks were taken up as a model for all members of the church. A complex system developed that came to influence the food choices of its subjects on a significant number of days in the year.

The largest influence on diet was the imposition of fast days which, by the 16th Century, accounted for more than a third of the days of the year. The most noticeable aspect of these fast days was the prohibition of meat. This meant that they affected the rich proportionally more than the poor who often could not afford to eat meat in any case. Originally, fish was also prohibited but was later allowed and became the heart of the non-meat meal, at least for those with access to it. There were problems caused by the geographic spread of Christianity as fish was not always a strong part of local food culture, even in areas that appeared to have an abundant supply, such as in England with its rivers and extensive coasts. Fish, with its high perishability was also a difficult food to distribute, especially when fresh. The fasting rules were behind the growth of a large fishing industry that grew to supply most of Europe, the poorer of society and those furthest from the sea relied on cheaper salted anchovies and other fish.

Over time, the fast rules evolved and were altered by the influence of various powerful interests. Butter, for example, which had been prohibited for use on fast days, became acceptable, no doubt partly due to the lack of alternatives and its importance in many northern European cultures. The rules tended to suffer from being designed by the church in Rome where food choices and food culture were quite different to that of many the outlying areas of their Christian empire.

The church’s reasons for upholding these rules can not have been understood or appreciated by much of the population. They were not well liked, especially with punishments for transgression ranging from having some teeth pulled out, to the extremes of the death penalty, which Charlemagne had recommended. Therefore, dislike of the church’s interference in diets may have played a part in grievances that eventually lead some to reject the Roman church and spread Protestantism.

Role of Protestantism in shaping food culture

The Roman version of Christianity had been heavily involved in what people ate and when. Food had also played an important part in religious celebrations and therefore community life. With the abolition of the Roman church in England, Colin Spencer (2002) finds the first divergence between the quality of food culture in that country and the rest of Europe – With the removal of the numerous celebrations of the various saints and holy days of the Roman church calendar, the traditional foods that were eaten at those events started to disappear and be forgotten. In other parts of Europe, Protestantism was driven by a desire to remove what were seen as hideous excesses in the Roman traditions. Food became a key indicator of how these new worshippers were dedicated to their religion. They decided that food was necessary only as a fuel and that food pleasure and ostentation were incompatible with their faith.

Sometimes the old traditions were not completely swept away. In England for example, the meat fasting days were kept so as to maintain a market for fish and thereby prevent the destruction of the fishing industry (Spencer 2002).

With this branching of food culture in Europe, the food of the more protestant north and Catholic south diverged and never rejoined.

Frequent famines in Europe until industrialisation

The 16th century saw strong population growth and the return of food insecurity in Europe. Consequently, meat consumption started to decline in some areas from the middle of the 15th century. The average consumption of 100kg in Germany previously mentioned for the 15th century had fallen to 14kg by the end of the 18th century. Bread returned as the staple food of the poor. The situation was not uniform across the whole continent, England was able to preserve more meat in its diet and this helped lessen the impact of famines that affected more wheat-dependent countries like France.

By the 18th century there were similar problems to those of the 12th century with massive population growth and little development of agriculture. Famines regularly swept the continent and diets became poorer and less secure. With the resulting desperation, there was increased interest in some of the new world plants that had been found previously but mostly unexploited due to cultural unfamiliarity. Plants such as maize and potatoes helped increase the food supply due to their prodigious yields. Although the poor benefited from these increased yields, heavy reliance on single crops caused disasters such as the Irish potato famine and malnutrition such as pelagra from eating almost nothing but maize (Levetin & McMahon 2003). Better agricultural understanding gradually spread with increased knowledge of crop rotational systems and the use of leguminous fertilisers.

The changes in food culture caused by the protestant reformation were further solidified by the earlier industrialisation of northern Europe. Industrialisation caused a shift of people from the land and countryside to growing industrial cities. This severed the link between people and their food production for a larger proportion of the population. In its place an ever more powerful and important market-based food supply grew, profoundly changing people’s relationship to food. This change predominantly affected lower income groups, as it was mostly they that left small-scale subsistence agriculture to become the labour-force of the new industries.

Over time the early industrial nations benefited from their economic riches and eventually even the wages of poor workers were able to secure them a reasonable diet. Meanwhile, some European countries that remained predominantly agricultural continued to experience food shortages in to the 20th century.

Factors shaping British and American food cultures

Apart from the divergence in food culture that Protestantism brought about in many areas of Europe, Britain’s food culture was affected by a number of other factors making it unique in Europe. The most important of these was the earlier industrialisation that shifted large proportions of the poor population from producing food to producing other goods. Peasant farming was replaced by larger farms employing agricultural workers. Another factor was the long enmity between the British and French which sometimes resulted in the use of food as a nationalistic symbol with the British associating more complex food preparation with the French. This lead to the increased importance of simpler traditional recipes like roast beef. British food was further influenced by geography. Being an island with plenty of navigable rivers, trade had always been easier than in many other nations. After the industrial revolution this natural transport system was expanded further with the creation of the canal and then railway networks. The nation’s maritime power coupled with economic strength allowed the creation of an empire that came to control significant parts of the world. This empire became important for food supply, creating a partly globalised food trade by the end of the 19th century.

In the emerging United States, the initial food influences were mostly British due to the nationality of many original settlers. Food was then influenced by take up of indigenous foods, especially maize, which was rejected as a food for humans in Europe until a couple of hundred years later. Further immigration added other culinary influences, New York was founded by the Dutch for instance. The far south and Louisiana were eventually acquired from the French. Slaves from West Africa were responsible for bringing some of their food culture to the West Indies and south-east states.

With the war of independence from the British, the founding northern states put a more overtly American stamp on their food culture. This culture was based primarily on the importance of production. Farming was vital to the young country, with a massive landmass, relatively few people and little trade or industrial infrastructure, most people had to farm to survive. Land ownership, in contrast to the situation in European countries was very high, so a large proportion of people farmed their own land. From the relatively austere, protestant British and northern European food culture, the newly liberated Americans started to impose their own pattern on their food culture.

This emerging culture was based on the foundation of food being natural with minimal processing, contrasting to the complex and industrialising food cultures of Europe. The importance of farming meant that most people were eating food grown on their own farms and this gave them the ultimate guarantee of its natural origin.

The first American cookbooks (that were more than just reprints of British ones) were produced in the early 1800s and while clearly based on previous English recipes, they started to make the recipes “American”. This was achieved by firstly making sure the ingredients requested were going to be available to their readers and substituting American staple alternatives for British ones when possible. Most noticeable however, was the simplification of the recipes. Instructions for a pork pie were stripped down to the ingredients for the pastry and then directions to put seasoned pork inside. The English recipe it was based on was three times longer and detailed what cuts of pork to use and how it should be layered with other ingredients. An English recipe for sausages required that skin and gristle be removed and that the guts be “very nicely cleaned”, both of these instructions are dropped in the American version though (McWilliams 2005). The American mode of cooking therefore became about simplicity and efficiency with taste and pleasure even less a concern than it had been in British and other European protestant cuisines.

With this simplification of food the Americans were able to define a sense of their own food culture through the rejection of most of the European models. European visitors in the early 19th century were often unimpressed with their results. After a visit, Charles Dickens complained that “dinner was breakfast again without the tea and coffee; and supper and breakfast were identical”. Another English visitor wrote in 1837 that in Virginia all the food she ate – mainly bread, butter, and coffee – was stale. And she thought that her hosts “probably have no idea that there is better food than they set before us”. A French visitor noticed that maize “was eaten three times a day” and that “fresh meat could not regularly be got” as the Americans generally ate salt pork (McWilliams 2005).

Interestingly, the new republic , in identifying itself with simple, down-to-earth culinary choices, was creating a food culture that could be truly democratic. The whole of society was effectively settling on the food of the poor for their culinary identity. Through this they distanced themselves from what was seen as a pernicious class-based European system where complex class-stratification of food culture had long been the norm. The general population, the majority of whom were farmers also distinguished the new republic from the fast-industrialising countries of northern Europe through their close links to agriculture and the land. It is interesting to see how food in the United States, founded with these ideals of simplicity, wholesomeness and the importance of farming had been so eroded by the end of the 20th century.


Levetin, Estelle & McMahon, Karen. 2003. Plants and Society, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Higher Education

McWilliams, James E. 2005. A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. Columbia University Press

Montanari, Massimo. 1994. The Culture of Food. Blackwell Publishers.

Spencer, Colin. 2002. British Food: An extraordinary thousand years of history. Grub Street.


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