Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Manuscripts and Books

Slaving Over a Hot Medieval Stove

If cooking for a crowd seems like hard work today, imagine what it must have been like in the Middle Ages, before the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, or take-out. Two illuminations from a psalter (book of Psalms) offer a humorous glimpse into the medieval domestic kitchen some 800 years ago.

Baking Bread / Unknown illuminator, Belgium

Baking Bread (detail) in a psalter by an unknown illuminator, Belgium, mid-1200s. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, each leaf 9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 8v

Here we see bread-making as a never-ending struggle between cook and dough. At left, an apprentice is up to his forearms in a vast trough of goo; at right, a baker plunges her peel into the forge, worriedly eyeing the flames licking at her forehead.

A Man Warming by the Fire (detail) in a psalter by an unknown illuminator, Belgium, mid-1200s. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, each leaf 9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 3

This illumination offers a glimpse of the fruits of such labor. Nestled below hanging sausages and a partially eaten ham, a warmly dressed man presides over a veritable feast, with various foodstuffs and eating implements littering the table. With his right hand, he reaches for a large joint of meat, while his left is occupied holding his foot up to a fire—the best of both worlds! In the foreground, a harried-looking serving boy rushes up to refill a pitcher from a barrel. I picture rowdy guests yelling after him for more booze, much like calling for another beer while watching Thanksgiving-day football.

Other pages of this same manuscript feature more wonderful pictures of food-related labor: scything grass for hay, gathering acorns to feed hogs, pruning fruit trees, lugging bags of grapes.

Food is work, and we give thanks to all those who grow, bake, cook, and serve it. Happy Thanksgiving!

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  • By hlāf | Old English Wordhord on July 25, 2014 at 1:12 am

    […] each leaf 9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 8v - From the blog post ‘Slaving Over a Hot Medieval Stove’ on The Getty […]

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      Barley was used to brew beer and bake bread in the Middle Ages.

      This recipe was put together from manuscripts about early English bread-making. 

      Happy Thanksgiving!

      11/27/14

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