5000 calories before death. What did medieval soldiers eat?

Kyrylo Danylchenko

Today the rations of the European armies resemble the menu of a good restaurant. In the Middle Ages, a soldier's diet was much more brutal.

Wicked war. That’s how winter campaigns were called in the Middle Ages. The army was critically dependent on the weather and food supplies. If the foe captured a food convoy, the soldiers in enemy territory were doomed. Therefore, large campaigns were launched after the harvest, but before heavy rains, otherwise carts and siege vehicles would get stuck in the mud.

«An army marches on its stomach.» – Napoleon Bonaparte

French engraving from the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). Source: Wikipedia

During the World War II, daily rations for Red Army soldiers were supposed to contain 800 g/1.75 lb of rye bread (900 g/2 lb from October to March), 500 g/1.1 lb of potatoes, 320 g/0.7 lb of other vegetables, 170 g/~0.4 lb of cereals and pasta, 150 g/0.33 lb of meat, 100 g /0.22 lb of fish, 30 g/0.7 lb of mixed fat or lard, 20 g/0.45 lb of vegetable oil, and 35 g/0.77 lb of sugar. According to the documents, the total amount was 3450 calories. On the front line, the rations could vary significantly.

Wartime rations

To be able to take off and hang packs on a horse, push a cart, swing an axe, pull stakes and set up tents, a soldier needed up to up to 5000 calories a day. No food, no army. Therefore, if the campaign was successful, the soldiers were fed better than most medieval classes.

Each person was allocated up to 1 kg/2.2 lb of good bread and 400 g/0.9 lb of salted or smoked meat per day. A stock of ‘live canned food’, several dozen cattle, was slaughtered in a critical situation or to boost morale before an important battle. In this case, soldiers ate everything, up to the entrails and tails, which were used to make porridge and soups. Constant consumption of rusks caused diarrhoea, so dried bread was thrown into the common cauldron.

Pepper, saffron, dried fruit and honey were given to the sick and wounded. The rest of the soldiers flavoured their food with onions, garlic, vinegar, and sometimes mustard. In the north of Europe, soldiers were also given lard or clarified butter, and in the south, olive oil. In most cases, cheese was present on the table.

The medieval soldier’s ration was supplemented with herring or cod, dried river fish. All food was washed down with beer or cheap wine.

A medieval military convoy with provisions and equipment. Illustration from the 'Hausbuch' book, 1480. Source: Wikipedia

Drinking like a fish

On the galleys, even slaves and convicts ate better than ordinary people on land. Rowers were fed bean soup, stew with beans, and rusks. They were given about 100 g/0.22 lb of meat and cheese per day. In the late Middle Ages, the meat ration increased, and lard was added to the diet. The strokesmen had the most nutritious food: it was a way to encourage the sailors to fight for the position.

The food on the ships was abundantly washed down with wine: one litre per day for officers, half a litre for sailors. At the signal of the squadron admiral, all rowers could be poured an extra glass for good work. Beer was used to supplement the calorie intake. In total, a sailor drank a litre or two of alcohol per day. No wonder there were frequent fights and riots.

A butcher's shop, 14th century. Illustration from the 'Tacuinum Sanitatis' treatise. Source: Wikipedia
Сheese making, 14th century. Illustration from the 'Tacuinum Sanitatis' treatise. Source: Wikipedia

Wagon army

Fodder for the horses and food for the men were the most important supplies of the army, limiting its size. More soldiers meant more food, more wagons, more fodder for the animals, which meant more wagons.

During long sieges, soldiers, having devastated the neighbourhood, switched to long-term storage products. Wine mixed with water, rusks and biscuits, corned beef and lard became the soldiers’ only food for many months.

The situation slowly changed for the better with the progress of agriculture and the beginning of the preservation era. In 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte awarded 12 thousand francs to the chef Nicolas-François Appert for developing a method of storing supplies in sealed boiled cans.

«The experiments proved that the following foods were perfectly preserved for eight months: meat with gravy, strong broth, milk, green peas, beans, cherries, apricots.» – Brockhaus Encyclopedia about Appert’s invention.

In 1812, the French ran out of canned food, which was expensive to produce, during their long campaign in Russia. Napoleon’s soldiers were forced to rob peasants and eat dead horses, just like their colleagues 200, 500, 1000 years before. Famine, disease, death: it’s always the Middle Ages at war.