The sanitary rules of meat in the Middle Ages

Today, the health crises - mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza - in the meat industry raise questions about the regulations of the food chain. Indeed, from the Middle Ages, fear of the unhealthy and corrupt led the West to put under surveillance and to legislate on food, especially on meat in order to prevent any potential risk. During the recent horse meat scandal, the media spoke of "deception worthy of the Middle Ages" but what about the sanitary rules of the time?

A multitude of laws

One of the main concerns of the powers that be in the medieval West when it comes to food security is to avoid the perils that may arise from consuming meat. These dangers are often unknown or falsely diagnosed, but the fear that they cause is very prevalent. The result is a multifaceted and prolific legal system. Whether it is a lord, a municipality, or more rarely the king himself, we regulate to avoid any disturbance of public order and peace. These are not just simple recommendations but real "laws", sometimes hard-negotiated and accompanied by inspections, checks and fines for violations.

As such, the Mirepoix charter of 1303 is a particularly relevant example of legislation on meat. It is signed in the presence of the lord of the city, Jean de Lévis, notaries, law professors, municipal representatives, all the butchers of the city but also the King of France, Philippe le Bel, proof that this the latter is aware of the legal, commercial and political issues related to food. And this charter is far from unique. Between 1200 and 1500, many texts standardized the sale of meat. In the cities of the South of France and in Italy, this is mainly the action of local elected officials. Further north, it is the craft guilds of the Middle Ages which take the legal relay like the great and powerful Parisian butcher's shop, whose statutes act as laws for all those practicing in the city.

Thus, from the 13th century onwards, medieval society gave growing importance to food law, which was formed in a sparse and fragmented manner: customs, ordinances, capitulations, charters, statutes, etc. And this right is sometimes particularly strict.

Prohibited meats

If every Christian is freed from the food taboo, unlike Jews or Muslims, the flesh of animals can on certain occasions be unhealthy and it is advisable in the name of public health to avoid it at all costs. To do this, we first refer to the ancient authorities inherited from ancient Greece and Rome, Hippocrates and Galen in the lead, to determine what can be consumed or not. Two formal bans primarily target the animal as such. The first concerns goat meat, the purpose of which is more to produce milk and cheese. If in general, the countryside consume goat meat, in the city it is depreciated because it is considered a vector of diseases such as fever or cholera if we refer to Hippocrates. Sometimes the sale of kid goat is authorized without a specific reason emerging beyond a desire for taste in the face of health precautions.

The second meat that is strictly prohibited is that of the horse. Eating it is infamous and the Church perceives its consumption as a barbaric and pagan gesture, while the layman sees the animal as his work companion helping in the plowing of the fields, even as a confidant. It is therefore unthinkable to feed on your friend. On their stalls, butchers can therefore sell mutton, beef and pork, but under certain specific conditions: the flesh must be "good, useful and not sick" if we refer to the charter of Mirepoix mentioned above. Therefore and due to the poor progress of medicine at the time, the door is open to all bans as soon as a disease is suspected. One of the main concerns of medieval man when it comes to food fear is the transmission of disease from animals to man. To avoid it and although he is much more in doubt than in certainty, he takes extreme precautions until he imagines many diseases like that of the leper pig.

Slaughter and sale precautions

Among the sanitary rules affecting meat in the Middle Ages, the strictest most certainly concerned the slaughter of animals. Among the many standards, several should be mentioned: animals must enter the city on foot and undergo a health check before being slaughtered and not just anywhere. If in Verona, from 1450, the butchers had to carry out the killing in their own shop, they were generally forbidden to do so in their own house but rather in kinds of public slaughterhouses responding more to the term of killings or death. 'skinners. The powers that be are thus seeking to physically separate the place of slaughter from the place of sale for better control. And the animals must make their own way to these places, giving the consumer a guarantee that they are healthy. This system also avoids fraud and allows taxes to be collected, each animal being taxed when it enters the city, with taxation helping health rules. Finally, before being put to death, animals must undergo a double examination, both external and internal to ensure that they are not sick. From then on, butchers could proceed with the slaughter and then the sale, but again under certain conditions.

Indeed, the sale of meat, a perishable foodstuff, is also the subject of great attention. Butchers work just in time, depending on demand, because storage is impossible and sales deadlines are rigorous. Generally speaking, these delays are at best two to three days, at worst a day and a half following the slaughter. In Paris, butchers cannot keep dead flesh for more than two days in winter and a day and a half in summer. And meat is far from being the only food concerned, bread, milk, fish, seafood, are everywhere subject to strict regulations on time to sell. As for butchers, they are prohibited from selling cooked meat, an activity of butchers and sausages, thus avoiding the recycling of unsold or unhealthy meat.

To conclude

Is the horse meat scandal really worthy of "a deception of the Middle Ages"? Nothing is less certain when you observe the impressive legislation on the sale and consumption of meat. Nevertheless, between theory and practice, there is sometimes a big difference and the historian finds himself confronted with this question of the real respect of these rules. The fact remains that health control appears to be a major concern of medieval society, a concern reflecting the fantasy of the fear of food still present today.


- Madeleine Ferrières, History of food fears. From the Middle Ages to the dawn of the 20th century, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2002.

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