By Jerome Gasson
In 1336, King Edward III and a group of magnates passed a law ordaining that:
‘No one, whatever estate or condition he happens to be in, shall cause himself to be served in his house or elsewhere, at dinner, meal, or supper, or at any other time, with more than two courses, and each portion of two sorts of victuals at the utmost, whether it is of flesh or fish.’
This innovative ordinance lasted in the statute book, remarkably, until 1856. Its main purpose was probably economic – to ensure that England’s resources could be employed more effectively in the upcoming war with the French. Unlike many other sumptuary laws, there was no effort to equate different levels of consumption with social rank. The law further stipulated that broth could be allowed with the main meat or fish, as long as it was not too expensive, suggesting that money was a major issue.
As today, the ruling class found the laws hard to obey. Information about what the king actually ate in this period is patchy, but we do know that when he was the guest of his cousin Elizabeth de Clare, for one glorious May weekend in 1340, around 20 different kinds of meat and fish were on the menu for the Sunday roast, including:
- Beef and veal from three-and-five-eighths of an oxen and thirteen and a half calves
- Ham, bacon and pork from fifteen pigs and piglets, plus three ‘dishes of boar’.
- Six deer
- Five swans, five spoonbills, and three bitterns
- An eighth of a porpoise
The rest of the feast included an assortment of other and meat, fish, vast quantities of bread and alcohol, 1200 eggs, spices, and some dairy produce.
Of course, this feast was to be shared among a large number of people – perhaps 780, if we assume one loaf of bread per person.  Even then, there were probably over 6000 calories available per person in bread, meat and alcohol – over twice the recommended daily allowances for active men and women today. This kind of calculation requires many debateable assumptions – how much meat can you actually get from a spoonbill? Nevertheless, this was definitely the kind of meal the 1336 law had attempted to prohibit. Was it, then, the fourteenth century equivalent of ‘ambush by cake’?
Or should we be thinking not just any old birthday cake, but a 75-million-dollar, triple-chocolate, multicolour creation embellished with 4000 diamonds and handcrafted fondant icing figures? Clearly, the 1340 banquet was a lavish and special occasion; despite her high status, Elizabeth de Clare never again hosted the king. This is reminiscent of Tom Lambert and Sam Leggett’s recent findings about Anglo-Saxon feasting, which suggests that expensive meat-filled dinners were relatively rare in the early medieval period.  An inspection of Elizabeth de Clare’s account rolls, indeed, suggests that celebrations of Christian feast days were often more extravagant than the entertainment of notable guests by the fourteenth century – which has important implications for our understanding of the noble economy and how much it was subject to forward planning. Edward III, far from seeing the feast as a breach of the earlier legislation, might have even felt aggrieved that the hospitality given him was not even more lavish and magnificent.
 However, we know that bread was often given to dogs and horses, plus some of the guests must have got more than one loaf for their ration (each one weighed an estimated 250g or 0.5 lbs.)
Sources: Clare account rolls preserved in The National Archives, class-mark E 101/91-5.
Header: Fourteenth-century feasts could be very memorable occasions – a mayor of Lynn even had one engraved on his memorial brass [Photo credit: Author’s own photograph].