Today (6th January) is National Bean Day in the USA so we asked Lizzie, one of our amazing volunteers, to investigate medieval beans…

With the increase in the popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets, beans are becoming more and more prevalent in modern cooking, however, they have long been an important food source, including during the medieval period. Here we will examine the role of the humble bean within medieval diets and explore how archaeology helps to provide evidence of the eating habits of our ancestors.

Today in the UK there are a variety of beans available, both canned and dried. During the medieval period though, it was predominately broad (or fava) beans that were consumed. These beans were indigenous to Europe, North Africa and western Asia and were an important source of protein for the lower sections of society, being seen as ‘poor man’s food’. Beans were a versatile ingredient – for example in times of famine bean meal was also used in bread making to supplement the lack of grain.

Peas were another common foodstuff during the medieval period. Unlike beans, however, the pea seems to have been consumed by all members of society, as suggested by its presence in cookbooks that would have been owned by the wealthy. Peas were mainly harvested in August or September after they had dried in the pod but, as evidenced by village by-laws, during June and July the poor were permitted to pick peas from the ends of the strips in open fields for their own consumption.

Historical records, such as by-laws, surveys, and accounts are one of the ways in which we can learn about the consumption of food in the past. Other sources of evidence, like archaeology, can help us build a bigger picture. Both macrobotanical remains, such as seeds and pods, and microbotanical remains, such as pollens and starches, can be used to identify what plant foods were available at a particular site.

Another archaeological source is the analysis of remains in human gut contents, or paleo faeces, (yes, we’re talking about ancient poo here!). This is arguably the most reliable way to determine what people actually ate. Stable isotope analysis is another method that can be used to identify what foods were consumed by an individual. The elements in our bones and teeth come from the foods we eat and these elements are present in varying amounts in different foods. Using small samples of bone and tooth enamel the ratio of different isotypes can be identified to reveal what foods a person ate. This is one of the methods of analysis used on the remains of King Richard III. By combining all these methods together, archaeologists and historians can begin to develop an understanding of how food practices and habits have changed over time.

Beans were commonly eaten in pottage (a thick sort of stew) but there were other ways in which they were eaten. The following recipe for ‘Drawen Beans’ dates from around 1425:

16-20 oz. broad beans, cooked and lightly mashed
1 large onion, chopped into large pieces
2 cups broth
A pinch of saffron
Salt, to taste
Set the broth to boil on the stove. Add the cooked and lightly mashed broad beans and the onions to the broth. Add the saffron and cook until onions are translucent. Taste the dish and add salt if necessary. Yum!