Let them eat cake

If Marie Antoinette had little idea, supposedly, of what her own, poorer fellow countrymen ate, the task for the historical novelist is of course harder.

So what was available in 1640s England? “Can’t they eat something but stew?” my editor complained, tired of the monotonous diet of the roving armies. They could, of course. But army rations, for the luckier soldiers whose commanders had organised food for them, were pretty unexciting – bread or biscuit, cheese, bacon, pease pudding (a kind of lentil stew) were the staples. Sometimes an army took their meat on the hoof, driving cattle and sheep along with the foot soldiers – and making for a very slow pace of march.

Vegetables were generally conspicuous by their absence. This was partly because they had a shorter life than hard cheese and salted bacon; and partly because diets, at least for those with the means, were very meat-centred. A soldier in the field, marching long distances while carrying heavy weapons and his personal possessions, needed 4000-5000 calories a day. That meant around 1lb of meat and 2lbs of bread. And beer was part of the daily ration.

Fish was a normal part of the diet of most of the population, whether it came from their nearest river or lake or from the ocean. So much so that London apprentices petitioned to be given salmon no more than 3 times a week. But during the civil war Parliament controlled the fishing ports. This led to King Charles, in his capacity as head of the Church of England, suspending the statutes prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent for fear his soldiers, deprived of fish, the usual substitute during Lent, would be too weak to fight.

When billeted in a town or village overnight, soldiers dined on whatever their host family did. They did better if they were part of a garrison, for the inhabitants of the town and surrounding villages would be obliged to supply cattle, pigs, poultry and eggs. This might be a formal procedure in the form of demands sent to each “hundred”. Cavalry attached to a garrison spent much time on the mundane task of collecting these levies. Sometimes the garrison just raided the local market town, as did the Basing House garrison in 1644.

“Villains, papist thieves!” Men and women traders grabbed at their baskets of cheeses, herbs or ribbons. Eggs smashed as stalls overturned. Shop keepers yelled at their apprentices to get the shutters up again. Those with livestock vainly tried to herd their startled beasts from the square. Two loose bullocks added to the confusion. (The Tawny Sash)

And in our own days of obsessive hand washing, I was interested to discover that in an earlier era of “share plates” it was the height of bad manners not to wash your hands immediately before eating. Forks were a very recent invention and even the gentry ate with knife, spoon and fingers. Most soldiers (and civilians) carried their own spoon and knife around as a matter of course. More on that another day.

References: Going to the Wars by Charles Carlton and Malmesbury Garrison Accounts

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