Diet and Disease
** This page contains images of human skeletal remains and may be unsuitable for young learners, teacher discretion advised**
The majority of rural people in medieval Scotland, would have lived on a basic diet, with their access to meat, fish, spices and other expensive items being fairly restricted. Meat was expensive and livestock that could be consumed were more valuable producing things such as wool, milk and cheese than the few meals their meat could provide. Royalty, Lords, wealthy merchants in burghs and people such as Bishops would have all enjoyed a more varied range of foods and would have had people to cook it for them! Burghs were filled with butchers, bakers, and even spice shops, selling spices imported from the east for wealthy people to purchase. Poorer people living in the burghs would have had a similar restricted diet to those living in rural areas; however, they might have been able to supplement their diet occasionally with low cost meat and offal, as these were more abundant in the burghs.
For most of the population, the staple foods of the medieval period were bread, pottage and ale. Types of bread varied as much as the classes and wealthier people were more likely to have access to better quality bread. The bread we eat today is predominantly made of wheat. This was what expensive bread was made of in the medieval period, although many other grains were used as well including rye, oats, barley or a mixture of these. Brown wholegrain bread would have been fairly common and oatcakes would have also been common in Scotland as well as in the north of England. Most medieval people would have made these breads themselves too, with bread-buying saved for the towns and the wealthy.
Accompanying the bread or oatcakes, there may have been a bowl of pottage. Pottage was a kind of soupy stew which could be thick or thin, depending on what went into it. It would have been made from readily available ingredients. This could mean many herbs and spices and bits of meat or meat stock for wealthier people, or people living in towns. For the rural population it would have been made using ingredients grown in the garden and fields. Common garden vegetables may have included onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, peas and herbs. Pottage could be thickened by adding things like beans, barley, breadcrumbs and oats. Although much of this sounds quite healthy to eat - a bit like thick chunky soups - it was common to over-boil vegetables meaning the nutrients were often destroyed. Similarly, without iron rich foods like meat and beans, people could quickly become malnourished, or deficient in iron or vitamin C.
For a cooking activity see our Pottage page
Evidence of disease can be most readily found from looking at peoples bodies. For Medieval Scottish diseases therefore, one of the biggest source of information are skeletal remains. A few diseases can leave marks on our bones, so archaeologists can tell what kinds of diseases were affecting medieval people. Iron deficiency, which was mentioned above, can leave a pitting (a bit like the surface of an orange) on the surface of the upper part of the eye socket. Excavations at the Carmelite Friary in Aberdeen revealed signs of tuberculosis on some skeletons, showing that this disease was affecting the medieval inhabitants of the city.
However, not all diseases leave marks on our bones. Medieval Scotland was home to some of the most devastating diseases in history, including the dreaded plague. The first plague epidemic in Scotland during the medieval period spanned the years of 1349-1351 and it is estimated that during this time nearly a third of the population died. The plague ravaged Scotland again in 1362, where another third of the population are estimated to have perished. Over a hundred years later the plague arrived for the third and final time.
Skeleton from Carmelite Friary at Aberdeen
Tuberculosis evidence from Aberdeen
Medieval Scotland was a terrifying time and place to be sick. Sickness was believed to be a punishment for, or a consequence of your sins, and cures could only come from being a good Christian, or be granted by God. The Church were therefore distrustful of professional healers and herbal remedies were likely to be branded as ‘witchcraft’.
Nevertheless, there were some places that medieval people could go to be cared for while they were sick, until God cured them of their ailments. Monasteries were one such place, as were hospitals. Hospitals in medieval Scotland were slightly different to the ones we have today.
One of three main high status hospitals in Scotland in the twelfth century was Soutra Hospital, situated on the main road from England to Scotland known as the “King’s Highway’ which not only cared for the sick, but also offered hospitality to travelers and care for the poor. It is believed that hospitals such as these would have had doctors in residence who could administer medicines to help with symptoms.
These medicines were derived from herbs, of which there would have been many in a herbal gardens in monasteries and hospitals throughout Scotland. At Paisley Abbey, the preserved remains of several herbs were found in a drain which were used for things such as eye ointment, painkillers and antiseptic on wound dressings.