MIDWAY : Medieval diet

Life in the early Middle Ages, we’re usually told, was nasty, brutish, unpleasant and short. Picture a medieval scene — Monty Python’s knights clip-clopping by with their coconut shells, say, or the magnificently brooding cheekbones of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the BBC production of Henry VIII — and a revolting peasant won’t be far away, eking out a

miserable existence before expiring in one of a variety of unpleasant and unhygienic ways.

But now one pharmacy chain would have us believe that there are lifestyle lessons to be learned beneath medieval England’s scrofulous exterior. Our ancestors may have succumbed to pox and pestilence, but they did so, it seems, with lithe figures and unfurled arteries.

Research shows the average medieval diet was a model for healthy living:

low in saturated fats and transfats, high in vegetables, and topped off with a working life of invigorating outdoor exercise.

So at a time when most of us suffer from dietary problems, should we all be following the Medieval Diet? Well, yes and no. We could do a lot worse than model ourselves on a prosperous medieval smallholder, eating pulses and whole grains, home-grown fruit and vegetables, a little meat and fish, and no refined sugar, the whole lot washed down with weak ale (safer than drinking dirty water).

The diet of the average aristocrat, however, was even more alarming than those of the ordinary farmers. Conspicuous consumption was the order of the day: the wealthy shunned the peasant vegetables in favour of gigantic quantities of meat and fish (lots of it salted, thanks to the fact that fridges and microwaves hadn’t yet been invented), followed by elaborate sugary confections and creamy custards. And they cultivated a taste for expensive wines on top of their usual daily allowance of eight pints of beer or perhaps even more.

That, of course, raises the important question of how much of world history can be explained by the ruling classes being drunk all the time. As for the medieval diet, the real lesson is of global importance: the rich have always eaten too much meat, salt and sugar, leaving the poor uncertain of being able to eat at all.