There are few generalizations regarding the diet of the early modern Europeans. The most reliable one is that for most Europeans, grain was the primary ingredient in most drinks and food items. It was eaten in the form of pasta, bread, and gruel. Additionally, it was consumed as ale and beer. In this way, it was the primary nutrition source for most people. Beyond grains, a wide variety of food and drinks was consumed. However, their importance in diets was contingent on many factors. One of these was that the most critical factor was the availability for most of Europe‘s population. Those foods and beverages readily available locally would be the most affordable and, thus, the most sought-after. The cost of imported food items (whether from different countries or regions within the same country) was driven up by the expense of transportation, which meant that these were likely to make it into the diets of the wealthier classes.

There was a wide range of food items and drinks. There were differences due to seasonality and cost of production as well as the preparation methods. Food and drinks were also a sensitive representation of a culture, and the food content and the amount of different elements consumed depended on class, religion, and gender.

The following account and analysis of the food and drink culture in the early modern period of Europe provides a broad overview of food and drink consumption as well as its development over three and a half centuries (1450-1789) while acknowledging the importance of class, regional religion, and gender variations. It also considers introducing exotic cuisines and beverages into the European diet during this time of expansion into regions such as the Americas and Asia. Europeans were exposed to coffee, tea, chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes, and various new spices. Although these foods were primarily restricted to elites in the early modern era, they were later incorporated into the diet of the majority. This is why the period of early modernity is marked by distinct lines of continuity in the patterns of food and drink and by significant shifts.


The primary importance of grains is the mainstay of the European diet until the 19th century, even into the twentieth in certain regions. The grain (especially wheat and Rye) was usually used as bread; however, it was also consumed as gruel, particularly in the Mediterranean region, as pasta. Barley was utilized to make beer and ale.

The importance of grain in the diet is demonstrated by its widespread cultivation throughout Europe, widespread anxiety over the amount of harvest, and the prospect of actual shortages. It was cultivated even in areas that were not a significant crop and in regions where its cultivation was later abandoned after lower costs of transportation and more variety in food choices developed. Through the early modern age, the most significant moment of the year was the harvest of grains. A healthy harvest meant the possibility of long-term survival for the next year. In contrast, a weak harvest was likely to bring shortages and increased prices, particularly in the summer months before the coming year’s harvest. The most popular type of communal disturbances that occurred in the early days of modern Europe was bread or grain disturbances triggered by shortages or by an increase in the price of bread.

The estimates of the significance of grains in the daily diet differ in importance, but as a standard, we can say that, in all forms, it can make up between 75-90 percent of the daily intake of nutrients for a large portion of Europeans. In general, the wealthier people were, and the more diverse their diets, the lower bread’s presence in their nutrition. For wealthy people, bread consumption was at most 20 percent of their daily diet.

The bread came in various varieties, mostly cereals (although it could also be made of chestnuts and beans). The most critical distinction was in the color of the bread because the wealthier people consumed lighter-colored and even white bread. It was generally made from wheat and then carefully cleaned to eliminate finer white flour grains. This meant that it was more costly. As you move down the social ladder, it becomes more coarse and darker, and it was made not just from the corn crop but millet, barley, Rye, and oats, based on the crop grown in the region. Wealthier customers tended to purchase the bread they needed regularly or several times weekly. At the same time, those who were poor (especially in rural regions) were more likely to purchase it less frequently. Even when people baked the bread themselves, they avoided making it often to conserve fuel. As a result, the majority of European people ate what we now call old bread, which was often referred to in the past as “hard” bread at the time. It was more challenging than fresh bread and was typically consumed with liquids like beer, soup, or wine to make it more digestible.

Cereals were consumed in semiliquid or liquid forms, particularly those used to make poor bread. Porridges, gruels, and mashes were prevalent all over Europe, made from cereals such as oats, millet, and Buckwheat. Examples include oatmeal porridge in Scotland and pizza made with a range of cereals in the eastern region of Europe.


The diet in the early modern era was almost entirely meatless compared to the Middle Ages and the 19th century. Numerous complaints in the 16th century regarding the lack of meat on tables. A Swabian writer wrote in his diary that “in the past, they ate differently at the peasant’s house. Then, there was meat and food in profusion every day.  Today everything has truly changed the food of the most comfortably off peasants is almost worse than that of day laborers and servants in the old days” (quoted in Braudel, p. 194). The declining diet was also evident during feast days when peasants ate better and more nutritious food than on regular working days. A peasant in the 16th century from Brittany longs for a time “when it was difficult for an ordinary feast day to pass by without someone from the village inviting all the rest to dinner, to eat his chicken, his gosling, his ham, his first lamb, and his pig’s heart” (quoted in Braudel in Braudel, page. 194).

A key reason for the low-quality meat from the 16th century is the rapid growth of Europe’s population during the 1500s. In the year 1600, 110 million Europeans, much more than 90 million, lived in Europe before the catastrophic Black Death of the 1300s. The production of many food items did not grow with the increase in population, and livestock herds were among them. Naturally, we should be cautious about taking too seriously those claims that meat had wholly disappeared from the plates of Europe’s populace. This could be true in certain regions (Sicily, for example). However, meat was at most an occasional meal in all of Europe. In general, however, the pattern in the early modern age was to reduce meat consumption. For example, about 30,000 cattle were slaughtered annually in late-sixteenth-century Naples to provide meat for about 200,000 people. After a century, the slaughter of only 22,000 animals was killed. However, the population of Naples had increased by a third. One consequence of reduced meat consumption was a rise in grain consumed.

When meat was consumed at any level in European society during the first half of the modern age, There were huge differences according to social class in the frequency it was served at the table and the amount consumed. It was uncommon for people of lower incomes to consume meat, yet accounts of banquets at the other end of the scale record vast quantities of meat.

Also, there was a distinction in religion in the 16th century following the Protestant Reformation. It was the case that Catholic Church required its followers to adhere to specific dietary guidelines, among which was to avoid meat on fast days, especially during the season of Lent. Catholics were required to avoid meat and animal oils (butter, cheese, lard) for between 160 and 170 days per year, which was about half of the time. The Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe were even more strict in their demands for abstention from animal fats and animal products for up to 200 days. However, Protestant churches resisted these restrictions on diet. In areas where Protestants were predominant (northern Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Scotland, and England), meat consumption was likely to be more prevalent and even higher.


Seafood and fish were meat substitutes and were usually allowed when meat was prohibited for religious reasons. They were particularly significant in the diets of those located along the coast, not only because of local fish but also because they could catch them locally but as a result of the fact that they were the homes of fishing fleets operating long distances. In the early modern era, Atlantic ports were the base of fishing vessels that traveled as far as the eastern coastline of North America (especially off Newfoundland) to search for cod schools, while closer to home, ships coming from northern European ports were trawling through the North Sea for herring. Seafood like mussels and oysters were also collected along the coastline.

Fish caught in freshwater were consumed in massive amounts. Fishing was usually the privilege of the fisherman, preventing everyone from having enough food for their families. However, local markets usually sold the fish that was legal to catch. France‘s Loire River was famous for its carp and salmon, and the Rhine is known for its perch.

Fish was generally less valued than meat. Although some locally caught seafood and fish could be sold in fresh condition, everything else was preserved because refrigeration was unavailable. Preservation required salting the fish, and there were frequent complaints about fish that needed to be sufficiently salted and fish that needed to be salted more.

It was possible to misuse it at times. However, salt was essential for seasoning and as a preserver. It was extracted from rock salt or taken from salt pans located along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastal areas. It added the taste to various foods, especially those that were bland, comprised of beans and cereal. Its most significant function was in the form of a preservative; with it, many Europeans could eat the amount of fish, meat, and other vegetables they could have. Salt was so important to the diet and preservation of food that a few governments imposed hefty taxes on salt. The French salt tax, also known as gabelle, was imposed at different rates across the country (and was not imposed at all in certain regions) and led to a significant amount of smuggling of salt. Since this was an imposed tax that imposed on an essential item in food, it became widely disliked and was among the first taxes to be abolished in the French Revolution.

The salt consumption of people varied widely from region to area and also over time, but it was usually lower than 3 kilograms per person each year, and in some areas, it was up to nine. (For example, the average consumption of all salt sources within contemporary Western societies is just more than two kilos.)


Dairy products (milk, butter, cheese) were more closely associated with the lives of those more prosperous than the general population. While some cheeses identified as regional such as Parmesan and Roquefort, were already known, cheese was only commonly utilized for cooking up around the late eighteenth century. It was a significant ingredient in protein, but it was not cheap and was not often on the menus of people experiencing poverty and peasants.

The milk supply was not accessible to most people in Europe regularly. The milk was sipped in varying amounts by the upper and middle classes; nevertheless, the data on milk supply to London is evidence. When the wealthy relocated their homes to London in the winter, their milk consumption increased dramatically. When those same people returned to their homes in the summer, London’s milk consumption decreased. The fact that a tiny fraction of the total population of London influenced milk consumption indicates that the vast majority of London’s population who lived there throughout the year ate significantly less milk.

Butter was more prevalent in northern Europe, which was oil of great value, as opposed to the south, where Lard or olive oils were consumed more often. However, butter was seldom located outside the homes of the rich and was widely used for making dishes such as sauces. It is believed that it was considered a bit suspect by the Southerners (some believed that it could cause leprosy), and those travelers who traveled across northern Europe brought their stocks of olive oil along.

Eggs, however, appeared like they were more prevalent. They were relatively inexpensive, and one late-sixteenth-century commentary has it that seven eggs cost a tenth of the price of a fowl, half the price of a melon, and the same as all the bread you can eat in a day.


Cultural prejudices, such as those of southern Europeans towards butter, were typical in the context of exotic food items or products that came from people from other countries in Europe. While some of them quickly found their place in the diets of certain Europeans dependent on their location or wealth, while others were embraced slower. One of these was the potato. It was introduced to Europe in the 1400s and extensively planted until the 1800s; however, it was not extensively used as a human food source until around 1800. After it arrived in Europe, it was thought to be only suitable for animals and was often viewed as dangerous to humans. Like other plants that grew beneath the ground (such as turnips), the potato was placed in the lower rungs of the food items that were considered acceptable.

In an effort to remove their people from dependence on cereal crops, some governments started campaigns to get people to supplement their diets using potatoes. They only achieved success slowly, and in some countries, such as France (which became later linked with several methods of cooking potatoes), there was strong opposition. In the last quarter of the 18th century, several cases of insaneness during the time of France were blamed on eating potatoes.

Other exotic food items were easier to find. Maize was brought into the Americas and quickly introduced as a cereal alternative to the one already being cultivated in Europe. It was generally regarded as an inferior cereal. It was used to produce foods such as porridge and biscuits; in Italy, it was also used to make polenta. Rice also found a place in Europe, specifically within the Po River valley. Po River and rice-based meals became a staple in the Italian diet.

The most well-known import, however, was sugar. It was first grown in South Asia and later spread to Madeira Island. Madeira, and later in the European colonies of the West Indies, was in almost endless demand in some areas of Europe. By the close of the first century, the English enthusiastically embraced sugar and were eating 150,000 tons a year, 15 times more than the 100 years before. Sugar was a luxury item across Europe but became a common commodity only in the 19th and 20th centuries.


At the start of early modernity, the most popular types of drinks were beer, water, and wine. Most historians agree that the water used for drinking is often unsuitable or polluted by nature or human activities. This is why alcohol was popular because fermentation (to create wine and beer) eliminates a certain amount of bacteria by raising the temperature and producing alcohol. However, water should be consumed in massive amounts, and the alleged benefits and risks of drinking it were debated during this time.

Wine and beer. Alcoholic drinks are more documented than water because their production and distribution are more tightly controlled. There are two types of alcohol, wine and beer. The latter was more commonly consumed since it could be made year-round using the exact grain produced across Europe. On the other hand, wine was only made every year in the fall, when grapes were ripe, and sufficient was required to last until the next vintage.

The beer consumed during the early modern era was a cloudy drink rather than the sparkling clear beverage it is nowadays. It was commonly consumed throughout the day, including the first and the final meal, and as a healthy drink not accompanied by food. While it was less popular than wine during the 16th century, it recovered in the 17th century when hops were more popular and more aromatic beers were produced. In 1662, the authorities in Bordeaux prohibited beers in the city because of the danger that the beer could pose to wine sales.


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