The Hunger Gap
Our Medieval and Tudor ancestors loved eating and drinking well, just as we do, but unlike us they were limited at certain times of the year due to practical considerations.
Day to day, the average yeoman farmer, such as the Wells family of Bayleaf Farmhouse would have had a basic but nutritious diet. The main meal of the day consisting of a potage (imagine a thick barley-based vegetable stew), bread and ale. The latter two would have had a symbiotic relationship; wheat was brewed to make the ale and the scum from the top of the brew skimmed off to create the yeast to make their bread.
At this time of year, everything would be in short supply. Having prepared for winter, with stocks of smoked, dried or salted meat and preserves, these would now be running low and crops sown at the beginning of the year would not yet be ready for harvesting. Alongside this, wild pot herbs would only just be appearing after winter. This period was known as one of the ‘hunger gaps’ and conveniently coincided with the forty days of fasting for Lent.
Lent was instigated as far back as the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century but was codified by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Friday was always a fasting day, with no meat other than fish being eaten. But during Lent this extended to most days of the week with the exception of Sunday, as the Lord’s Day. Prohibited food included dairy products and eggs. Even access to fish would have been limited to availability and location. Those on the coast having better access to fresh produce, whilst the rest of the population would have had to rely on dried or salted cod and herring.
If that doesn’t sound miserable enough, consider that your firewood would also be restricted. Any wood prepared the previous winter would by now be running low and would be needed to last until early autumn, when the wood you had harvested this winter would be ready. So not only are you eating a basic diet, you may well be chilly to boot!
By Aaron Baker, Interpretation Team