Food in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

DELFI / Orestas Gurevičius

The Daily Bread

Grain and meat were the two staple foods in the 13–14th century Lithuania. Cereal and pulses (legumes) dominated the menus, leaving about 30 percent of the total diet as meat and 10 percent as milk products. Rye was the main cereal. People in Lithuania also grew wheat, oats, barley, millet, beets, peas, beans, lentils, vetch, buckwheat, hemp, poppies and caraway. Most of them were used to bake bread and to prepare porridges.

Findings from certain mounds feature bits of bread (in Maišiagala) and fragments of a bread peel (in Kernavė and Vilnius), all from the 14th century. The excavated grinding and rotating quern-stones assert the fact of bread baking. Bread was a valuable dish on every table. Even the great dukes’ guests would be treated with bread. In 1377, the abundant table that the Grand Duke Algirdas offered to the German Teutonic Order’s Marshall and his guests featured mead and bread. By mentioning bread as a special item, the chronicler highlights the abundance of various cereals. Bread was also used as money by merchants to pay trade fees while crossing private lands, according to the 15th century sources. For the lower classes, scones made of coarsely ground grain, often full of chaff, were eaten more than bread, which was a luxury.

Novelties from Livonia

People supplemented their daily ration of cereal products with vegetables, particularly turnips, that stay good throughout winter and can be consumed raw, boiled, or fried. Some anthropologists maintain that abundant consumption of turnips was to blame for the ever-greater spread of teeth-harming caries in the 14th century. Others argue that tooth decay became more common due to starvation and diseases. Turnip seeds, hoes, and remains of spades found by archaeologists provide some information on the culture of gardening in Lithuania. But there are no written documents that specify garden-grown plants except caraway, mustard, and poppies mentioned in the 14th century documents and these were mostly used as spices.

The culture of gardening spread slowly, and the list of cultivated vegetables was fairly short. At the turn of the 14th century, Lithuanians eagerly bought radishes, turnips, onions, and cabbages from Livonia, the vegetables in considerable demand but rarely grown in Lithuania. Cabbages were introduced by the brothers of the Teutonic German Order. People in Prussia had their own idea about cabbage eating that turned into an anecdotal story written down by Peter of Dusburg in his chronicle: “Since [he] saw the brothers eating cabbages that Prussians do not consume, he took it for grass and added: “(…) They eat grass like horses and mules, so who will be able to fight them back if they can easily find food even on barren lands?”

Cabbage growing spread in Prussia and Livonia. In Livonia, cabbage gardens belonging to peasants and town-dwellers have been mentioned in documents from the early 14th century. Alongside, onions and radish or turnips were easy to cultivate. In addition to that, beets, garlic, peas, beans, and mustard were grown in the 14th-century Livonian gardens. People in Lithuania must have started growing these vegetables, because they were so popular. In the 14th century, they cultivated several imported novelties of the time, such as sweet peas, brought from southern Europe, as well as buckwheat and lentils. Fruits added somewhat to a modest selection of foods. Quality apples were a rarity in the early 14th century because they were imported from Livonia. Imported foods also included pears, cherries and plums, the seeds of which were found in the main castles of the Gediminas dynasty, such as Kernavė and Vilnius. The first orchards in Lithuania must have been planted in the second half of the 14th century. Forest products, such as berries, nuts, and mushrooms, must have added to the poor menu of the needy. Honey was apparently the sole sweetener for the hard and short lives of the people.

The Delicacies the Noblemen Relished

Meat was an important product. A number of the 13th and 14th century sources of the Lithuanian historiography refer to cattle breeding and fodder making, particularly from hay and oats. During military raids, cattle and fodder were important objects of plunder and obliteration. Better breeds of cattle were in great demand because the noblemen strived to enlarge their herds, then a measure of wealth, and to ensure meat is on their tables for all feasts and parties.

The osteological (bone) material from the 13th and 14th century gathered during archaeological examination of old settlements indicates that the period’s husbandry was dominated by herds of large cattle (45 percent), pigs (25–37 percent) as well as sheep and goats (11–17 percent). However, beef consumption was relatively modest. Many cattle were raised for milk and field work, and only pigs were grown for meat. Additional meat supplies would come from hunting aurochs (wild cattle), wisents (European bison), moose, deer, roe deer, wild boars, and occasionally bears. However, the game meat wasn’t particularly popular. On the average, bones of the domestic animals account for as much as 90 to 100 percent of the total in the excavated areas.

Milk was considered more a food than a drink. Cows of the time produced very little milk, just 100 to 200 litres a year. However, people milked sheep, goats and mares, which suggests that large quantities of different milk could have been collected. The chemical analysis of a pot found in Kernavė reveals that the vessel was used for storing cream or sour cream. Jan Długosh’s chronicle confirmations that Samogitians, in line with the pagan rite, would render their respect to the deceased with offerings of mead and a cheese-like product. In general, milk products were a luxury: the Grand Master of the Teutonic German Order treated the Grand Duke Vytautas with cheese.

Poultry was dominated by hens, geese and ducks. Their eggs and meat would end up on dinner tables, while feathers were used to stuff noblemen’s beds. Fish and crayfish were eaten by people from all walks of life, one just needed to make an effort to catch it in numerous lakes and rivers. The analysis of fish bones and scales points to a great variety of fish, the top choice being pike, followed by perch, chub, bleak, dace, roach, rudd, cod, bream, silvery bream, sheatfish, and zander. Occasionally, residues of sturgeon have been excavated, the fish that spawned in Nemunas and its tributaries. Even though herring was abundant in the Baltic Sea until the 14th century, these fish eventually left and were replaced in the diet of Lithuanians by sprat. Salted herring was usually brought into Lithuania from Riga. Herring and other sea fish, such as cod and salmon, would end up on the tables of dukes and noblemen.

Food preparation and cooking were neither sophisticated nor adequate. The analysis of teeth reveals that foods usually were hard to chew and would leave all eaters above 30 with considerably ground-off teeth surfaces.

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