When it comes to food-related fraud in the Middle Ages, most of it was connected with the weight and quality of foodstuffs. Much of the adulteration that occurred concerned the basic foodstuffs wine, beer, bread, meat, fish, and salt, of which great quantities were traded. Of the high-end products, spices in particular were subject to adulteration.

Food fraud in the Middle Ages, Beer quality

Although they were sold in much smaller quantities than the other foodstuffs, the profit margin was much higher which made them a prime target of fraud. To protect medieval consumers from unfair pricing or food of dubious quality that had the potential of endangering public health, governments passed a variety of laws and also appointed food inspectors.

One such law was the Assisa Panis et Cervisae (Assize of Bread and Ale) passed in England in 1266. It regulated the weight and price of bread and ale in relation to corn. With weights and measures being far from standardized in medieval Europe, legislation was needed for both wholesalers and retailers of food products. Wine, for instance, had to be imported in barrels of a certain size. Prior to sale, their contents were measured by the king’s own wine gaugers.

Endless confusion was caused when the barrels did not conform to the standard size but a foreign one customary in the wine’s land of origin. On the retail side, too, standard measures regulated the sale of wine and ale in taverns. The adulteration of wine in the Middle Ages took many different forms. Good wine was sometimes mixed with bad, Spanish with French or German wine, or sweet wine from the Mediterranean was counterfeited. There is even evidence of an artificial wine made from pure alcohol and spices with no grape content whatsoever.

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To ensure that the wine sold in London taverns was in good condition, inspectors known as “searchers” made the rounds and ordered any dubious draughts to be condemned or destroyed. One of the punishments for selling bad wine was to have the taverner drink part of it and pour the rest over his head.

Beer were subject to similar kinds of quality control by officials called Alkonneres in England. Adding water, salt, or resin were some of the ways ale was adulterated, and, of course, consumers would get shortchanged if a measure smaller than the one prescribed by law was used.


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Officials called Alkonneres in England


When in the late Middle Ages Europe gradually switched from ale made with malt and yeast to beer brewed with hops, the once small-scale operations dominated by women known as “alewives” were slowly being replaced by larger breweries run by their product tended to be cheaper than the traditional ale. To ensure that only beer of good quality was sold, surveyors inspected the breweries, paying special attention to the purity of the ingredients used.

Professionals with an especially

One group of professionals with an especially bad image in the Middle Ages were bakers. Justified or not, bakers were constantly accused of selling bread of less than the prescribed weight or bread made with inferior dough, or dough contaminated with sand, dirt, cobwebs, ashes, and the like. Since bakers’ ovens were not just used for baking bread but also pies, bakers were at times accused of selling tainted pies, too.

According to one such scheme that was uncovered in the City of London, cooks sold kitchen waste to the bakers who in turn filled pies with it and sold them at a handsome profit. The standard punishment for a fraudulent baker, as depicted in a medieval manuscript, was to draw him through the street on a sled with the lightweight loaf bound around his neck. To prevent the sale of bad meat or fish, a number of measures were taken by authorities that included laws against selling meat by candlelight, reheating cooked meat, inflating meat with air to make it look larger, or stuffing rags into inner organs to add weight.

Fresh fish was especially problematic because it had a very short shelf life. Hence it was only supposed to be put on sale for two days, and freshened with water only twice.

Spices, first and foremost among them pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and saffron, were the ultimate in luxury food in the Middle Ages. According to estimates, western Europe annually imported approximately 1,000 tons of pepper and 1,000 tons of ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon combined.

The value of these imports was the equivalent of 1.5 million people’s bread supply for a whole year. The abundance of spices in medieval cookbooks clearly marks them as an upper-class commodity because an average household in the High Middle Ages could barely afford 20 to 25 grams of pepper, and about the same amount of the other imported spices a year.

Poor people’s substitutes for imported spices were the garden herbs dill, fennel, chives, leeks, onions, garlic, and parsley. If these were in short supply, the German physician Hieronymus Bock recommended the use of vinegar as a universal seasoning for sauces, fish, crayfish, meat, and cabbage. The high price of spices made them attractive for adulteration by spice merchants intent on increasing their profit margin even more. Ground spices especially were frequently mixed with a variety of foreign substances.

London apothecary filled the order for ginger, wormwood, and frankincense made by a Gloucestershire merchant by substituting the items with rapeseed and radish, tansy seed, and resin. According to Hieronymus Bock, white bread or wheat flour were often mixed in with ground ginger, dried wood with cloves, tanner’s bark or the bark of oak trees with cinnamon powder, and ground nutmeg was frequently nothing more than dry and wrinkled nuts.

Saffron was stretched with sandalwood, and sometimes even gold dust was mixed in with the spices to bring them up to the right weight. This is an impressive demonstration of the fact that some spices were considered more precious even than gold. Another, more mundane way of increasing the weight of spices was to wet them. Peppercorns were adulterated with a whole range of different substances, ranging from unripe juniper berries to vetch to mouse droppings.

Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages physicians, too, put together lists of substitute foodstuffs and drugs known as “quid pro quo.” In them ginger is suggested as a substitute for pepper, figs for dates, and hyssop for thyme, for instance.

Cheap substitutes that could be grown in one’s garden were savory for pepper, and the root of myrtle flag for ginger. High-priced saffron could be replaced by safflower as a coloring agent. The fact that adulteration of spices was such a widespread problem in the Middle Ages shows what a lucrative business the spice trade was.

The quid pro quo lists, on the other hand, are an indication that the poorer segments of medieval society also wanted to emulate the tastes of the upper-class dishes that were laced with expensive imported foodstuffs.