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Dietary habits in the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine cuisine is inseparably linked with the Greek and Roman legacy.  As  Constantinople was located on important commercial routes, the diet could have been enriched by numerous types of spices, as well as full meals taken from the western areas and the Arab Empire 1.

Taking into account the fact, that there are very few Byzantine cookbooks, such sources like reports of travellers, church rules or medical descriptions can be considered helpful.

Daily menu consisted of one to three meals  (breakfast, dinner and supper). There is not much information left regarding diet of ordinary people. We know, however, that it probably included mainly bread, vegetables and fruits, legumes, fish and wine. People from the lowest social classes ate vegetables, flour or barley gruel, legumes prepared with olive oil or omelette made of onion (sphoungaton).

The menu of the upper classes consisted of sophisticated and exotic meals such as sturgeon and caviar. Each meal was very rich and it usually ended with dessert and honey cakes. They were mainly prepared of flour and must (oinoutta) or alternatively of high quality wheat flour (kriketos) and formed in a round shape. The most popular one-course dish among all social classes was monokythron being a mixture of fish, cheese and cooked vegetables1.

The Byzantine wine was characterised by addition of various herbs and spices. In particular, the anise-based wine called anisaton, which later evolved into currently known Greek ούζο. Resin was also added to wine, however, this type of wine was not really popular in Western Europe. It can be proven by a critical report of the ambassador Liutprand of Cremona after his visit on the Byzantine court (ca. 970 A.D.,Constantinople)3.To add to our calamity the Greek wine, on account of being mixed with pitch, resin, and plaster was to us undrinkable4.

The Byzantine ate using two or three fingers. This fact can be encountered in the 12th century poems of Ptochoprodromos who mentioned a knife as only necessary utensil2. The upper classes, however, used cutlery at the Byzantine table. The invention of the forkis assigned to Byzantine. Petrus Damianus, the eleventh-century author and saint of the Catholic Church (ca. 1007-1072 A.D.)6, described with obvious disapproval how a Byzantine princess married in Venice insisted upon using "little golden forks" (fuscinulis aureis) to eat her food, which her eunuchs had cut up in small pieces beforehand7.

Archaeological finds confirmed that the knives had been used and while decorated forks and spoons to a lesser extent 3(e.g. finds dated from 9th to 12th century, which can be found in the Archaeological Museum4 of Corinth and Preslav).

 

forks Example of two forks made of bronze, dated  9-12th century. Archaeological Museum of Corinth (photo from the author’s collection).

 

 


H.W. Haussig, A History of Byzantine Civilization, Praeger Publishers 1971.
2  Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Edited by ALEXANDER P. KAZHDAN, Oxford University Press 2005, p. 621-622.
Praca zbiorowa,Historia powszechna Tom 7 Od upadku cesarstwa rzymskiego do ekspansji islamu. Karol Wielki, Mediaset Group SA, 2007, p. 139
Liutprand of Cremona: Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana (Report of his Mission to Constantinople) from Henderson, Ernest F. Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages . London: George Bell. 1910, p. 440-477.
5  H. Eideneier (ed.), Ptochoprodromos.Einführung, kritische Ausgabe, deutsche Übersetzung, Glossar, Cologne 1991, poem IV, 248-25.
Maria G. Parani, Picking at an Old Question: The Use of Cutlery at the Byzantine Table, 2002, p. 155.
Petrus Damianus, PL 145, col. 744
8  A.A.M. Bryer, Eat, Drink, and Be Merry (Luke 12:19) – Food and Wine in Byzantium, 2007.
Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections, 2013, p. 15-16.

 

 


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