Preceding his appointment as viceroy to the king of Bohemia in 1394, an important foreign prince paid his respects to the Polish court. The precise date of this encounter is not clear from surviving records, but it occurred during a trip through his wife’s hereditary lands on their return to Germany. Of interest to us is the manner in which this visit played itself out at the royal table. For this was Justus, margrave of Morav~aa nd Lausitz, elector of Brandenburg and prince of Luxembourg. He had spent some time in Italy during 1383, and since 1387 his brother had been the Patriarch of Aquileia, thus adding an important churchly dimens~on to his family ties. His wife was Princess Agnes of Opole, a Piast and therefore a distant relative of Queen Jadwiga through her great-uncle Casimir III.

Such distinguished visitors would have sat with the monarchs at dinner while the court learned the latest about the cultural events then unfolding in Italy, Prague, and elsewhere. In this situation the Polish court would have dusted off its best linens and Pi-esented itself in its international role as a leading European power. The food served would also evoke this high standard of the sort preserved in period cookery manuscripts. The dish of baked fruit is just such a recipe, which reflects the ingredients found in royal purchase orders during the 1390s and their heavy emphasis on such expensive imports as almonds, lemons, French wines, olive oil, and Cypriot sugar.

One can easily imagine that royal conversation included a discussion of food and the long culinary shadow cast by Casimir the Great some thirty years earlier. The father of Prince Justus, Johann Heinrich, from whom he inherited the title of margrave of Moravia, married Princess Elizabeth of Raciborz and Tesin in January 1364. She was the daughter of Mieszko, Piast duke of Raciborz, Tesin, and Oswiecim. Her mother was another Pole, Princess Euphrosine of Plozk and Mazovia. Both parents and grandparents had been guests at the convention of nobles in 1364. Thus, the medieval protocol for dining wlth such dignitaries took into account these elaborate dynastic connections. The dinner conversation about the events of 1364 probably served as a jovial common bond echoed in the songs of the minnesingers who entertained that day. But the legends surrounding Casimir’s hospitality made it imperative for the Polish court that followed him to live up to his very high reputation, a task that seems to have fallen to Queen Jadwiga.

Generally on ceremonial or state occasions such as this the king and queen dined together. They sometimes dined together privately, but on a day-to-day basis they ate separately at the head of their respective retinues. The male retinue dined with the king, the female retinue with the queen. Gossip often centered on the arrangement or rearrangement of the seating, based on who had fallen out of favor and who had lately joined the table.

Food was delivered according to this pecking order. What the queen passed over went down to the next in line, and so the food traveled down the head table, through the other tables in the room and into neighboring rooms where even larger numbers of lesser nobles and household staff waited to be served. The court records allow us to calculate consumption figures based on the first “flight,” that is, divided among the headcount of the retinues who had first cholce after the monarch. This provides us with a rough sketch of how much was served, but it does not represent how much was consumed, because hidden behind these figures are all those other members of the royal household who subsisted on the leftovers. Furthetmore, most of the people during the Middle Ages were quite short by resent-day standards. What served as an adult portion for them was probably more like a child’s restaurant portion today. In any case, the style of cooking was heavy and it filled the belly quickly.

This organization of the table, with food traveling downward to individuals of lesser rank, was repeated throughout Poland in the princely and ducal courts, and in the country manors of the lesser nobility. Indeed, even in the peasant households, food was divided up accordingly. The husband and male members of the family ate together first; the wife and other females ate together after the men finished. Guests were accorded special treatment and were normally served first, often with the best food. This rule did not apply to paying guests, who might lodge in a private home for the night. They usually got whatever was on hand or leftover from the day’s meal. Such paying guests were a common feature in the Middle Ages due to the lack of inns in rural areas.

Whether at the royal court or in a peasant kitchen, food was eaten with the fingers, except for porridges and soups. No one used personal forks, although some of the royalty in Europe probably knew about forks by 1364, even though they may not have used them. Individuals ate with a knife held in the left hand, or a spoon in the right. At the royal court and in other situations where “good manners” applied, carving was necessary because meats came to the table in large pieces.

All nobles were required to understand the art of carving, which was as essential to a gentleman’s training as swordsmanship, equestrian prowess, and falconry. Any member of the royal retinue might be called upon by the king to carve his majesty’s portions. This task was generally managed in the French fashion, the carver kneeling directly in front of the monarch. This meant that the food was sltuated on a table roughly at eye level or somewhat above, and had to be carved in such a way that it could be eaten without a fork-clearly a certain test of a courtier’s mettle. We do not have a Polish treatise on such training from the Middle Ages, but Lukasz Gomicki’s Dworzanin polski (The Polish Courtier) of 1566 describes Polish custom as it evolved during the Renaissance. G6rn1cki’s references to old customs povide a backward glance into the Middle Ages.

Burgrave to the bishop of Lvov, vice chamberlain to the crown, grand crown treasurer, castellan of Sacz, hetman to the duke of Masovia – the list of offices held by Polish members of the royal and ducal courts is long and exotic. None of those just mentioned was hereditary, although by the Renaissance many of these offices were assumed only by the nobility. During the Middle Ages, they were administrative positions of power, offices that could be filled even by commoners who were clever enough to work their way up the political ladder. Most of these high officials ate very well because they were seated toward the upper end of the pecking order when royal meals were served. Privately, their incomes often allowed them to live in the same style as a duke or prince. Some of them even acquired choice estates by holding mortgages for princes hard up for cash.

We have compiled a list of the various individuals who are actually mentioned in the records to better understand the Polish royal household and how it worked during the period from about 1390 to 1420. It is fascinating for the light it throws on the way food came into Wawel Castle, who processed it, and who took it up to the king’s table. The list has been roughly organized to follow the route of foodstuffs from the forest or garden through the kitchen to the banquet. There were two royal kitchens at this time, one for the king and one for the queen, so some positions existed in duplicate.

In addition, the persons working at court, and most or all of their families, including children, normally resided near or within the fortified area, thus the headcount of the staff personnel becomes huge. Even if all these people did not actually reside on Wawel Hill, they often took their meals there. The wife of the royal potter may have worked as a laundress, and some of the potter’s children may have worked with the valets assigned to cleaning rooms. In this sense, the  extensive staff was earning its keep. Following each position name below is the Latin designation given in the original documents, then a description of the duties required and some additional information that may help clarify them. Names in italics are medieval Polish equivalents or Polish terms that do not have an exact English counterpart.

Persons Associated with Food Consumption at the Polish Royal Court

Purveyors and Staff Outside the Castle 

Animal flayer (Listiciarius), oprawcza. He worked in conjunction with the butcher. As his duty was to skin the carcasses, he was primarily concerned with hides and leather, and to some extent the parchment on which the royal court kept records.

Beer brewer (Braxator cervisie). He produced beer, yeast, and vinegar for the royal court.

Butcher (Incisor). He slaughtered the animals and divided the carcass into quarters for the kitchen.

Fishmonger (Piscator). The individual who delivered the fish to the royal kitchens was either a royal factor appointed to bring the fish to court or a person not on the royal payroll who made a living by trading in fish. This person was always at the castle on fast days and Fridays.

Gardener (Hortulanus). Large numbers of these individuals were employed to maintain the royal gardens – both the kitchen gardens and the ornamental gardens on the castle grounds. There were also gardeners who worked on the royal estates but who ate at the castle when they brought produce in from the country. The royal estates, or allodia, were the personal property of the king. For political reasons, the royal court never purchased its provisions directly from farms belonging to other nobles. Since the royal allodia never produced enough food (or income) to support the court, the king was forced to rely on the many vendors mentioned in this list.

Herdsman (Pastor). Guarded the royal cattle and hogs.

Miller (Molendinator). He operated the royal mills or the mills under royal contract, poduced beer, yeast, and bread, and sometimes fattened hogs for the royal butcher.

Potter (Argillator or Argillarius seu glynarz). He made earthenware and cookpots for the royal kitchen. His pottery was usually on or near the castle premises.

Stall-keeper, market vendor (Institor). These traders sold products, mostly in exotic spices, at court. Although they may have been rich, they did not sit with the nobility. They sometimes ate with the household servants.

Vendors (Mangones). These persons would appear at the castle with products to sell. An example is the mangones musci, vendors who sold moss (used as toilet paper in medieval times). They were largely transient but they often dined with the servants. Vendors also purchased things from the court as well, such as dog manure from the royal kennels (used by dyers) and rags.

Vessel and barrel trader (Vasator). He sold these products to the court on a regular basis.

Vice procurator, podrzeczy. This individual was in charge of managing a particular royal garrison. He reported to the procurator.

In-House Puweyors and Processors

Baker (Pistor). The royal baker made all the bread for the court. His ovens were on the premises but he may have had a bakery elsewhere as well. He also ground grains in a quern (hand mill) to make special flour mixes for court use.

Cooper (Doliator). His shop was on the premises. He made and repaired wooden vessels and also sold them in the market.

Coppersmith (Faber ereus). He made copperware for the royal kitchen, as well as copper utensils for general household use.

Cutler (Cultellifex). He made and sharpened knives in his shop on the castle premises. He also sharpened weapons for the knights and soldiers stationed in the castle and made kitchen implements for the court.

Oil presser (Oleator). This specialized craft was carried out at court to press poppy seeds, flax seeds, or hemp seeds for oil. The oil presser was always paid in cash. The actual pressing was often done by peasant girls under his employment. He did not necessarily live on the castle premises.

Pharmacist, royal druggist (Apothecarius). He prepared medicines and confections, such as comfits and pastdles, which were consumed at the beginning and end of meals.

Provisioner and warehouseman (Dispensator). He acted as clerk and cashier in dispensing provisions from the royal stores.

Sopny vel Szepny. This Polish term of somewhat vague meaning is the title of the individual at court whose duty it was to supplement the bread supplied by the royal baker with bread bought in the market. He often dealt in trencher bread, which always seemed to be in short supply.

Kitchen and Related Staff 

Chef de cuisine (Magister coquinae). He supervised the nutrition of the court, discussed food products with the monarch he served, and oversaw the proper functioning of the royal tunes compiled collections of handwritten recipes. He may have been the only person in the kitchen who could read and write, although this was not a fixed requirement. Sometimes the royal chef was also a member of the lower nobility.

Cook (Coquus dictus), cuchta. Staff cooks in the royal kitchen performed all of the duties relating to food preparation. These were mostly young women or girls.

Dishwasher (Abluticius). Washed the dishes in the royal kitchen. Some purchase orders mention horse tails (Equisetum hyemale), the common marsh plant, which were used to scour pans and cooking equipment.

Laundress (Ablutrix), mulier. She was responsible for washing clothes and table linens. Aside from washing the laundresses processed starch from Arum italicum for the best table linens, napkins, and ladles’ head pieces. The herb is highly ornamental and probably grew in the pleasure gardens at the castle or in special gardens at one of the royal estates. Large quantities would doubtless have been used because the starch also went into the manufacture of pastilles and other similar sugarwork.

Persons in Upper Chambers

Vicethesaurus. He was actually the royal purser. He was personally responsible for all royal household accounts, dispensed goods and produce from the treasury, the cellars, and the larders, and authorized the purchase of all products for use at court. He was immensely powerful and usually became quite rich as a result of his position. The most famous and shrewdest of these was Mikohj Wierzynek, chancellor under Casimir the Great. A burgher who was elected to the nobility, he built himself a magnificent house on the market square in Cracow where he entertained the kings of Poland, Cyprus, Denmark, and Hungary and the Holy Roman Emperor in 1364.’

Courtiers (Curienses). Nobles on hand to perform various services for the king.

Marshal of the court (Magister curiae). He supervised the workings of the entire court, the majordomo who was both chief facilitator and head of protocol.

Procurator. His title in Cracow was wielkorwdca, something akin to a quartermaster general. He oversaw all product deliveries to the royal castle and controlled all deliveries to and from the royal garrisons.

Royal custodian (Custos thesauri). Specifically a guardian of the royal treasury. As such, he or h ~ms e n were armed. There were normally several individuals acting as security, both to watch one another as well as to protect against theft.

Steward or chief butler (Camerarius). This was an older valet who served the table in the royal dining room. He was usually a nobleman, and his staff, consisting of “sewers,” brought the food forward after it had been sent up from the kitchen. All food was served  in “messes,” that is, in quantities for four to six persons, thus there was usually a waiter for each mess. The cameranus did not touch the food or carve it unless called upon by the king. His staff laid the food on the table, and where appropriate, served it, except to the monarch, for a noble person served the monarch. Whether valet or noble, no one touched the food with the hands. Dishes and implements were held between long linen napkins that were wrapped around the arms of the server, a feature that often appears in medieval banqueting scenes.

Valet (Cubicularius). His duty was to keep the rooms clean, basically a janitorial function. He may have had a staff of lower ranking individuals (even children) who worked in teams.

Wine steward (Subpincerna). Although referred to as “cup bearer,” this was customarily a person of noble birth who was in charge of the beverages at court and their distribution. The position was considered a great honor.

These anonymous nobles and craftspeople take on a more individual qual~tym the art of this period. The painted religious panels of southern Poland show an array of kneeling knights in armor and woeful saints draped in clothing typical of the era.I The wonderful altar carvings In the Zips region of neighboring Slovakia (part of the same artistic circle led by Veit Stoss in Poland) evoke the very soul of the period in the gentle features of everyday people captured in richly wood. One of the panels on the great triptych in the church of St. Jacob at Levoca shows Salome dancing before a group of diners. The table is set with a large platter in the center, manchet rolls are arranged beside each person, and rye bread trenchers lie before them. All of this is spread on a handsome white linen tablecloth with woven stripes. A cup bearer sets a large glass of beer on the table and behind him a valet brings a covered dish of food.

Such vivid everyday images are nevertheless quite rare in Polish medieval art. The best source by far is the richly illustrated Codex Picturatus of Cracow patrician Balthasar Behem, compiled in 1505. It contains scenes of tradespeople engaged in daily life, including potters, bakers, and many others who were part of the royal household. The group of portraits of the Jagietto family by the atelier of Lucas Cranach the Elder gives us the appearance of some of the royalty mentioned in the course of our discussions, but they are a bejewelled and sternlooking lot and quite aloof from life on the street.

Food Consumption at the Royal Court

Before turning to individual foodstuffs and how they were used in medieval Poland, a few words should be said about the actual quantities of food eaten by Poles during this period. First, there was a general behef among medieval Poles that quantity of food was more useful to the body than type of food, although meat was seen as the ultimate source of protein. Bulk foods were also considered important, so a dinner attended by nobility would include not only a large quantity of meat, but also huge quantities of bread and rolls as well as millet mush prepared in some form. Considerable time has been spent analyzing historical data and then converting this into measurable quantities. In some cases, the material defies analysis (uniform measurements were not instituted throughout Poland until 1764), or is so complex that the reader can easily sink into hopeless confusion over such polnts of discussion as meat mass in medieval pigs, the quantity of beer in a one mug measure, or the proper interpretation of terms like dunica, which could be a flowerpot, a bowl of a very specific volume, or even a grater. Rather than repeat the data in full detail, we here summarize the material to show how the dishes re-created in the recipe section of this book fit into the format of a meal. Fortunately, we have nearly thirty years of consistent data relating to the personal eating habits of Klng Wladyslaw Jagiello and Queen Jadwiga during their reign.

We have already mentioned purchase orders for food, which can serve as menu outlines, but which lack a breakdown explaining how the food was used. For example, a purchase order for one of Queen Jadwiga’s dinners at Korczyn on August 21, 1394, itemized fish, lamprey, crayfish, green peas, dried peas, walnuts, pears, plums, cucumbers, parsley, 360 loaves of rye bread, four achtels of beer, and sixty loaves of wh~teb read.4 In many cases the exact amounts are given, and these help to create a sketch of food consumption on a per capita basis, although by no means exact.

By averaging this material against retinue lists, we are able to calculate that a royal dinner or supper for the first serving (excluding those “down table”) would include on a daily basis forty to sixty pieces of poultry, 120 manchet rolls (each weighing about 60 grams or 2 ounces), and three to four achtels of beer, assuming there are forty to sixty persons attending each monarch. Each person consumed about two to four manchet rolls and one and a half to two liters of beer. Rye bread was mentioned in huge amounts, and if the Wroclaw price list of 1362 is used as a base measure, then each individual consumed about three small loaves of rye bread (weighing about 320 to 350 grams or 11 ounces) at a meal. Considering that the bread was used to make trenchers on which each person ate, this is a fair estimate. Much of this bread became waste in the form of trimmings, which were sent down to the servants’ dining room, used to thicken sauces, or sent out to the poor. It is also interesting that the three-loaf count corresponds to the general number of courses in a typical meal at court, if we allow at least two trenchers from each loaf.

One must keep in mind that this food was intended to be eaten mostly with the fingers and that there was an elaborate etiquette involved both in serving the food and in raising it from trencher to mouth. Trencher bread was extremely important. We know, for example, that during a meal In 1390, Queen Jadwiga dined with about forty ladies. Forry trencher breads were served, and the main meal consisted of thirty boiled hens and ten young roast chickens. We are given the impression that In spite of her love of high-style cookery, the queen was in fact eating a very simple country meal, perhaps to emphasize her Polish roots and symbolic role as patroness of the Polish people. But we should not overlook an important feature of this simple fare: poultry was served only to persons above a certain rank. The old hens that were boiled for this dinner were presented to the ladies of lesser rank; the plump roast chickens went to those of higher status at the far end of the room.

During a dinner in 1563, the forty-nine women attending dowager Queen Katarzyna at her meal consumed ninety-five loaves of bread, nmety-five rolls, and 184 mugs of beer (about three mugs each).5 The bread consumption dropped during the period since 1390 because custom has changed: the court now ate from silver plate, majolica, or gilded pewter. The bread was still either used as sops or to the lesser tables. Therefore, the meat was actually feeding a much larger number of individuals than the king and gentlemen. For this reason the menus for the royal servants often said “meats” without further description.

Meat was expensive, and in many accounts the food was portioned carefully to contain costs. In one late case, for the annual obiady kiermaszowe (“dining fest”) held in 1555 for professors at the university in Cracow, a quarter of an ox was served.’ Only forty-eight meat portions and four roasts (each equivalent to several servings) were taken from it, with each serving weighing about one pound. This might seem a normal serving size for something like beefsteak in a modern restaurant, but the true context of this meal is not evident unless we also calculate its real price: the dinner cost each professor the equivalent to 20 grosze, or the market value of twenty chickens.

By contrast to what was eaten at court, Andrzej Wyczanski calculated food consumption among the people of lower social standing, especially manorial work hands, during the latter part of the sixteenth century turns out that slightly more than half a pound of meat with fat was consumed by individuals of this class on a daily basis. We now know that such calculations can be misleading, yet one can approximate the daily consumption of other foods, such as dry peas (500 g or 2 cups cooked) and millet kasha (1 kg or 4 cups cooked). By the late 1500s, the manorial system and its gradual pauperization of the peasants had clearly opened a vast chasm between the diets of the nobles and the farmers.

The great flaw of medieval diet was its reliance on quantity as most important to the development of the body, together with its adherence to cooking methods that destroyed a lot of the food value of what was being consumed. After people realized that thick, heavy foods consumed tn large quantities required an increase of stomach acids necessary for their digestlon, spices were introduced to spur on the flow of gastric juices. This theme is prevalent in old Polish medical works like Falimirz’s 1534 treatise on condiment.

Unfortunately, poor nutrition was the source of many diseases and no amount of exotic flavoring could prevent this result. People were aware of which food products were the most valuable in terms of satisfying hunger, but the medieval Polish diet was extremely deficient in iron and in sugar. There were also few raw foods to supply the missing nutrients. Vegetables were always cooked; even lettuce was prepared with a hot dressing so that it wilted before it was consumed. Only apples and other fruits were eaten raw, but these were mostly dessert foods of the rich.

The recipes included in the last section of this book have been plucked out of this overall dietary context. Standing alone, they do not convey the dietary relationship they may have had to other foods on the table. The elaborate ones were only part of a larger meal scheme when they were made many hundreds of years ago. torn apart and eaten with the gravies that were served with the meal. On fast days, however, it was customary for the Polish court to eat from bread trenchers rather than from silver plate or fine majolica.

We get a clearer sense of food consumption from a royal meal given on May 10, 1389, with fifty to fifty-four gentlemen in attendance at the king’s table.6 The meat served included a boiled calf’s head, two hams, fifty-four pieces of poultry, one mutton, and four piglets. If we calculate the various weights of the animals, accounting for meat and bone mass and how they were hutchered, some of which is evident in the royal account books, the yield is 2 kilograms (4 pounds) of meat and one bird per nobleman. This figure would seem substantial were it not for the fact that the meal was a special one where the gentlemen would have indulged themselves more freely, and that a large part of the food was only picked over, then sent down.

By Maria Dembinska (translated by Magdalena Thomas and revised by William Woys Weaver) in ” Food and Drink in Medieval Poland”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, excerpts pp. 47-55. Adapted and illustrated to be posted by Leopoldo Costa.