Daily Life in Elizabethan England

By Jeffrey L. Singman | Go to book overview

7
Food and Drink

Food ranks among the most important of human needs, a fact of which the Elizabethans were more acutely aware than we generally are today. By contemporary standards, the Elizabethans were well fed. Travelers from the Continent were often impressed by the Englishman's hearty diet: even the husbandman ate reasonably well compared to the Continental peasant. Yet in England as elsewhere during the sixteenth century, food production was a laborious and precarious endeavor. Agriculture was back-breaking work, which by modern standards yielded only low returns in produce. Worse, it was extremely susceptible to natural misfortunes: mysterious illnesses could devastate livestock, and a summer with too much or too little rain would lead to poor harvests, skyrocketing food prices, and famine. The harvests of Elizabeth's reign were relatively good, but severe shortages in 1586-88, 1594-95, and 1596-98 led to widespread hunger and mortality. Even in a good year, poverty and malnutrition were never wholly out of sight of those who had steady sources of income: the poor were always highly visible in Elizabethan England. Not surprisingly, there seems to have been less waste of food: when an aristocratic family finished eating, the leftovers were given to the servants; when the servants were done, the remains were brought to the door for distribution to the poor, who gathered outside to receive it. 1

The first meal of the day was breakfast, which was generally an informal bite on the run rather than a sit-down meal. Many people did not take breakfast at all but waited until dinner in the late morning. Those who did have breakfast might eat right after rising or up to several hours later. A simple breakfast might consist of porridge or pottage (stew), or even scraps and leftovers. A more hearty breakfast

Meals

-131-

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