What’s That You Say??? Medieval Culinary Terminology Unmasked*

If you’ve ever tried to read Chaucer in the original language, you know what you’re up against when you tackle a recipe dating from the poet’s time period. Actually, when you read The Canterbury Tales, you have it fairly easy, for there’s a multitude of resources to help you as you plunge through Chaucer’s Middle English. Which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, more or less prevailed between A.D. 1150 and 1500. Middle English, in case that last sentence was a bit confusing, endured during that period of time, evolving into toward modern English.

When it comes to recipes and culinary terms, you’re not going to be straddling such firm ground.

Take, for example, the following recipe for stewed beef, from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books:

Beef y-Stywyd

Take fayre beef of þe rybbys of þe fore quarterys, an smyte in fayre pecys, an wasche þe beef in-to a fayre potte; þan take þe water þat þe beef was soþin yn, an strayne it þorw a straynowr, an sethe þe same water and beef in a potte, an let hem boyle to-gederys; þan take canel, clowes, maces, graynys of parise, quibibes, and oynons y-mynced, perceli, an sawge, an caste þer-to, an let hem boyle to-gederys; an þan take a lof of brede, an stepe it with brothe an venegre, an þan draw it þorw a straynoure, and let it be stylle; an whan it is nere y-now, caste þe lycour þer-to, but nowt to moche, an þan let boyle onys, an cast safroun þer-to a quantyte; þan take salt an venegre, and cast þer-to, an loke þat it be poynaunt y-now, & serue forth.

How would this read in modern English usage?

Take good beef from the ribs and fore quarters, and chop them in good pieces, and wash the beef in a pot; then take the water that the beef was boiled in, and strain it through a strainer, and boil the same water and beef in a pot, and let them boil together; then take cinnamon, cloves, mace, grains of paradise, cubebs, and minced onions, parsley, and sage, and cast thereto, and let them boil together; and then take a loaf of bread, and steep it with broth and vinegar, and then draw it through a strainer, and let it be still; and when it is near enough, cast the liquor thereto, but not too much, and then let boil once, and cast a quantity of saffron thereto; then take salt and vinegar, and cast thereto, and look that it be poignant enough, and serve forth.

The biggest stumbling block in this recipe is this guy, “Thorn”:


“Thorn” represents the “th” sound of modern English.

The spelling requires sounding out and playing a guessing game as well.

Transliteration of this recipe gives you a basic understanding of how to prepare the recipe. And if you’ve ever braised beef, you’ll be able to work out what needs to be done. The spices present a bit of a problem, because the recipe presents the standard medieval approach, or the use of exotic spices. Not to mask the taste of rotten meat, but rather to emphasize the wealth of the household. To serve 4-6 people, depending upon appetite, you might calculate quantities as follows – check modern recipes for braised beef to guesstimate measurements for spices:

2 1/2 pounds beef chuck cut into 1-inch chunks

3 Tablespoons beef fat or lard

1 large yellow onion, peeled and minced

3 cups beef stock

1/4 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and grains of paradise

1 teaspoon crushed cubeb pepper (use a 1:1 combination of allspice/black peppercorns as a substitute)

1/8 teaspoon each ground cloves and mace

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage (or 1 teaspoon dried)

2 cups homemade breadcrumbs, made from white country-style bread

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Salt to taste

Sprinkle beef with salt. Heat fat over medium-high heat. When almost smoking, fry beef in the fat until browned. Remove beef from pan and add onion; cook until translucent and beginning to turn golden around the edges. Add beef back to pan, along with 2 1/2 cups broth, the spices, and the herbs. Cover pot and simmer until meat is fork tender, about 1 1/2 hours. (You may also bake the stew covered in a 325°F oven.) Meanwhile, place breadcrumbs in a nonreactive bowl, add the remaining 1/2 cup of broth and the vinegar. Let breadcrumbs sit in the liquid until more or less dissolved. Whirl soaked breadcrumbs in a blender or shove through a sieve. When meat is done, add breadcrumbs mixture; this thickens the broth, making a gravy. Salt to taste and add more vinegar if desired. Sprinkle with more chopped parsley. Serve with bread and side dishes of your choosing.

And, as always, feel free to increase or decrease spice amounts to please YOUR palate.


When faced with the archaic language of recipes such as this one, you might need to rely on glossaries, dictionaries, and encyclopedias to “translate.” Not all of these resources will be online.

That said, one of the best online glossaries for medieval culinary terms – Gode Cookery’s “Glossary of Medieval Cooking Terms” – covers a large number of words and concepts. But, alas, not many of those found in this recipe.

A couple of printed sources also lack somewhat in this case, but provide a wide range of words perhaps helpful in other instances:

Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. Cosman provides a subject index with main headings for “dieting,””fasting,” “food,” and “medicine.” Words associated with cooking do appear under “food.”

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases, by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams. The authors cover a wide range of subjects, but as the title indicates, it’s a dictionary, arranged like any other dictionary where you look for words alphabetically. And not always finding the culinary term you’re after.

Pheasants Ready for the Pot (Illustration by Courtney Nzeribe from “A Hastiness of Cooks”)

Featured image on this post – “Beef” – by Courtney Nzeribe.

*The discussion here revolves around early English words. For more about recipe reconstruction, see “A Hastiness of Cooks”: A Practical Handbook for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks.

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