How do medieval-themed restaurants get it wrong?
Myth No. 7: Medieval people ate food they couldn't possibly have eaten.
A tomato might seem medieval when used as the foundation for the Excalibur's "dragon's blood soup" (not to be confused with Medieval Times' "dragon tail soup"), but medieval people simply could not have eaten food that wasn't present in their world. Tomatoes didn't make it to Europe until Spanish conquistadors brought them back from South America in the 1500s. The same goes for potatoes (dragon's eggs). Similarly, the Excalibur's roast Cornish game hen is a recent chicken breed that was popularized by a 1960s poultry mogul.
Medieval food was many things—garish, over the top, unsubtle. But it wasn't crude. And neither were medieval people. So, the real question is: Where does the familiar medieval stereotype come from? As with all questions of intellectual decline, Hollywood deserves some blame. (The studios had a thing for bringing the Middle Ages to the big screen in the '50s: Knights of the Round Table, Prince Valiant, The Black Shield of Falworth, The Black Knight.)Yet historical stereotyping, wherever you find it, is symptomatic of a deeper societal ill. Gustave Flaubert famously wrote, "Our ignorance of history makes us slander our own times." When it comes to slander caused by ignorance, history is sometimes on the receiving end, too.
Those still craving their history fix can take solace, however. After all, medieval people must have attended the odd crappy feast, too. During an evening of inappropriate food, some of them surely wondered: What is the king thinking? My own such moment came during a medieval-themed feast near the Tower of London, which was hosted by "Henry VIII." Not only did it feature a historically inaccurate king—Henry VIII was a Reformation king—and historically inaccurate food, it culminated with a historically inaccurate conga line. Indeed, since the dawn of dinner parties, people have found themselves asking: Am I the only one who thinks this dinner is lame? So, while the medieval feast of today may not be historically authentic, it gets you to that bygone era just the same.
Correction, Oct. 7, 2004:Originally this article stated, "No less than 11,000 eggs were eaten at a 1387 feast for Richard III." The sentence was incorrect. Richard III ruled from 1483-85. It was Richard the II who ascended to the throne in 1387. Return to corrected sentence.
Mark Schatzker is a Toronto-based journalist and a writer at large for Toro magazine.
Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.