England is famous for our 'English breakfast'. Yet in the Middle Ages breakfast in England was a rarity. It was not until 1600 that breakfast become a key part of daily routine.
In historical terms, breakfast is hardly noticeable. Whole books have been written about feasts and banquets, dinners and suppers. This is mostly because feasts and banquets have ritual and theatre, meaning there are hundreds of sources on them. For example a source about the tens of thousands of animals killed for a two-day visit by Queen Elizabeth because accounts had to be compiled to manage the provision of so much meat. Likewise in the medieval royal household, feasts were occasionally described by chroniclers who witnessed the king eating in the company of his courtiers. These sources tell us about seating plans, table arrangements, etiquette and procedure at many formal meals. Cookery books survive to reveal the kind of dishes that were informally served, and poems and stories attest to what poorer folk ate for supper and dinner.
Breakfasts, by comparison, do not have their literature. Chroniclers did not observe monarchs eating breakfast. The first meal of the day is thus one of those features of life that has slipped through the historian’s net.
What historians have known for a long time is that in the late medieval period many people did not eat breakfast. Evidence for this lies in such sources as the household ordinances of the nobility and gentry, which regularly specify who was allowed to eat breakfast and who was not. In 1412–13 only half a dozen of the 20 or so people in the household of Dame Alice de Bryenne were permitted to eat breakfast.
Sixty years later, in the household of Cicely, Duchess of York, the privilege of attending breakfast was extended only “to head officers when they be present, to the ladies and gentlewomen, to the dean and to the chapel, to the almoner and to the gentlemen ushers, to the cofferer, to the clerk of the kitchen and the marshal”. In the ‘Black Book’ of Edward IV, careful attention was paid to the ranks that were allowed to eat breakfast: breakfast was a privilege in the 15th century. Travellers, however, did eat breakfast, but, on the whole, the lack of evidence for breakfasting in the late Middle Ages (by comparison with plentiful references to dining, supping and feasting) leave us with the distinct impression that most people had two means a day; the main meal, dinner, was held at about 10.30 or 11 in the morning, and supper about five hours later.
However this all changed during the Tudor era. In Claudius Hollyband’s book The French Schoolmaster (1573), a maidservant says to a schoolboy: “Ho, Frances, rise and get you to school; you shall be beaten, for it is past seven. Make yourself ready quickly, say your prayers, then you shall have your breakfast.” - i.e. for schoolboys breakfast were now the norm. Thomas More wrote in 1528 “men should go to Mass as well after supper as before breakfast”, and Thomas Elyot recommended eating breakfast four hours before dinner in his popular work The Castell of Health (1539). Lest it be thought that these references only apply to a minority of literate gentlemen, Andrew Boorde in his Dietary of Health (1542) stated that “a labourer may eat three times a day [ie including breakfast] but that two meals are adequate for a rest man”.
Before 1500 non-ceremonial breakfasts were routinely taken by several sections of society. First, breakfast was seen as medicinal: people might be prescribed “a breakfast of…” as a means to sustain them in illness or old age. In 1305, Edward I (then aged 65), employed a cook just to prepare breakfasts. Second, many monks ate breakfast. Old and sick monks, of course, but also some young monks. At Peterborough it was argued that if the young monks did not have a breakfast, they ate so much at dinner they fell asleep in the afternoons.In 1402, Westminster monks having their blood let were provided with breakfasts of bread and ale; and the Norwich jantaculum was traditionally of wine, bread and cheese. Monastic breakfasts are understandable in the context of young men having to get up in the early hours to sing Mass .Labourers working on York Minster in 1352 were permitted to eat their breakfast in part of the building – no doubt due to the long hours they were working.
Manorial tenants were also sometimes entitled to breakfast at harvest time. This was only recorded when the duty for providing the breakfast fell on the lord of the manor, such as at Bicester in 1325, when a customary (written selection of customs) declared the harvest workers should be provided with a breakfast at the expense of the lady of the manor. Some manorial customaries state when the lord was not responsible for paying for a breakfast. On the manor of Chinnor in 1279, for example, all the tenants had to scythe the lord’s fields and cart hay: when carting hay they were provided with a breakfast, but when scything they had to provide their own. 12th and 13th-century manorial breakfasts at harvest time were often bread, cheese and ale.
It seems as if breakfast was often provided for labourers and the gentry in the late 13th and early 14th centuries – but that labourers and men and women of modest means tended to eat breakfast only if they were rising very early, working very long hours, or they were old or sick.
There were also ceremonial breakfasts. For example when Joan de Valence was travelling in 1297, she hosted a jantaculum (breakfast) attended by several noblemen and women and 20 paupers. In 1415 Henry V invited a large number of noblemen to discuss the forthcoming Agincourt campaign with him in a great jantaculum at Westminster. Ceremonial breakfasts were held by a number of guilds and corporations on the admittance of a new member. For example, in 14th-century Reading, new burgesses entering the Guild had to pay 3s 4d for a ceremonial breakfast on top of their entry fee. A similar corporate jantaculum was held at Norwich before the start of the annual procession of St George in the 15th century.
However in the 1600s the idea that breakfast could do you good was no longer considered to apply solely to the sick and old. Indeed, in some quarters, people began to think that the old did not need breakfast at all. In 1602 the physician William Vaughan advised: “Eat three meals a day until you come to the age of 40 years.” The majority of the middle class and many yeomen and labourers were regularly eating breakfast by 1600.
So, why the change? Some historians have attributed the increase in breakfast-eating to the Reformation, or the greater availability of food. However neither of these explanations explain why they affected society’s dining habits as a whole.
The answer is probably due to changing patterns of employment. In the earlier Middle Ages, the majority of people organised their own time. They were not ‘employed’ as such. A manorial tenant had work to do on his lord’s land, but he did not have to get up at the crack of dawn to do it. Only in summer, with haymaking and hay-carting responsibilities to fulfil, did the breakfast become a necessity, because of the long hours in the fields. It was the same for travellers setting off on long journeys: the early start made breakfast a necessity. It was such a long time until dinner at 11am that they needed the sustenance to keep them going. Young monks clearly ate breakfast for the same reason.
What happened in the 16th century was that men increasingly started working for other people, employed for a prescribed set of hours each day. The long hours that employees could be expected to work can be seen in a statute of 1515 which declared that, between mid-March and mid-September, the working day of craftsmen and labourers should begin at 5am and continue to 7 or 8pm with only an hour and a half for dinner.
The consequences are obvious: if a labourer cannot have his supper until 7 or 8pm, he is going to get hungry if he has his dinner at the traditional medieval time of 10.30 or 11am: a nine-hour gap. As mentioned above, Thomas Elyot recommended that dinner and supper be no more than six hours apart. Thomas Cogan echoed this in his 1584 treatise. Thus the old medieval dinner time was pushed back to the later time of luncheon.
Delaying lunch had a knock-on effect on the start of the day. As the time of dinner was pushed back to luncheon, at 12 or 1pm, people needed a solid breakfast to keep them going. As for the gap between breakfast and dinner, Elyot, Cogan and Vaughan all agreed that this should be no more than four hours. Such a shift, based around employment, was thus primarily an urban phenomenon, or one of workers in towns, and areas providing the towns.
The history of breakfasting is thus much more nuanced than the traditional conclusion that, in the Middle Ages, ‘only the rich ate breakfasts’. It is bound up with, and indicative of, our emergence as a people who worked for a living rather than lived off the land.