Stouff L. (1969) Meat consumption in 15th century Provence

Stouff Louis (1969) “La viande. Ravitaillement et consommation à Carpentras au XVe siècle”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 24/6, 1431-1448.


Historians have shown that despite the image of the Middle Ages as a time of constant hunger, some regions at some periods avaided famine and even manage to feed their population regularly with meat. Germany in the 14th and 15th centuries for instance was under-populated, the best way to use the Wüstungen (deserted lands) was to have cattle grazing on them (in many places consumption close to 100kg per caput per year). This guaranteed a steady supply of meat. During the 16th century, on the other hand, inflation and demographic growth diminished the access the lower strata of the population had to a meat-based-diet.


In France, a fairly similar trend has been documentedby historians such as Le Roy Ladurie. He observed that in cities, by 1500, there was a significant number of butchers but in the following two hundred years this number collapsed (1432). This was mostly due to the collapse of the real wages; in 1480 a journeyman could buy 40kg of mutton a year in South East France, but only half that amount a century later.

The author of this article points out that if the number of butcher did decrease, so did the total population of France’s southern cities due to the 14th century crisis. There was one butcher for 250 to 350 inhabitants during the 15th century (1433). But a high number of butchers did not necessarily mean high consumption of meat. People often complained over both the quality and the quantity. Even in producing regions such as around Grasse, shortage often occurred.

Massive flocks of sheep are leaving every year the highlands to reach the fairs and the urban markets between September and December every year (1434). But this is not enough, Marseille and the other cities often have to import flocks from central France. This dependency on import explains the frequent shortages: war, bandits, diseases and other catastrophes interrupt the traffic; unlike those of the 16th century, the Middle Ages meat supply shortages are due to the conjuncture (1435).


During the 15th century, the city was consuming from 70 to 103 tons of meat a year with an average at 87 tons. Variations from one year to the other were significant (up to 25%). But shortage may kick in only for a few days or weeks and trigger the population’s complaints. Overall, total consumption and prices remained noticeably stable, but as the population decreased by 25% over the century. So it is likely that the average consumption increased also by 25% (1437).

The inhabitants of Carpentras consumed nearly no goats and kids (1% of the total) but, as it is common around the Mediterranean, a lot of mutton and lamb (from 47 to 62%) and a significant amount of cow, beef and veal (37 to 53%). The superiority of the mutton is more a matter of taste than of supply as mutton as nearly always more expensive than beef (this preference went on during the whole period all the way till the 19th century). Pork (that is fresh meat) is rare (3 to 9%), but many were consuming and even exporting important amounts of salted and smoked bacon-like cooked-meat (1439). The quality of the meat was certainly lower in the countryside than in town; for instance peasants were selling goat kids away and keeping elders goats for themselves or the village butcher. Out of town beef was extremely rare, and the average consumption of meat was much lower as well in the countryside. (1442).


The supply of meat by the butcher was seasonal. It reached its lowest in May, than increased steadily and finally peaked in December (about twice as much meat was sold in December than in May). Consumption decreased after January. It almost totally stopped during Lend (February-March), only a few animals were killed for the Jews and the sick. Consumption re-started after Easter, but went on decreasing until May. The type of meat also varied greatly over the year. From April to June, only mutton, lamb and kid were available. In July, there are no more lambs and kids, only mutton and veal, as well as a little bit of pork. After August, cow meat and beef became increasingly available and represent the majority of the meat bought from November to January. The winter was the season when the most pork was consumed. Finally, in January lambs reappear in the butchers’ shops. Noticeably, by the 18th century, this seasonality had almost disappeared, beef was available all year round, only lamb was still solely available during Spring (1443).

The sheep of Carpentras’ neighbouring region (Provence) are lighter and older than those imported from Central France because they were kept 4 to 6 years for their wool before being sent to the butcher. The veal are killed very young (usually a week after birth and rarely more than a month), and their quality is quite poor. Beefs and cows are killed after the harvest but before going to the cowshed for Winter (it would be too expensive to feed them). They are small and light (from 100 to 220kg) (1444). It is likely that they had been put to work in the fields for several years before being hastily fattened so as to be sold for more to the butchers. A few, higher quality bovines come from the mountains (Alps, Dauphiné) and have been solely raised for being eaten (1445). Most pigs, and the heavier ones are killed during Winter. On the contrary of beefs and sheep, the pigs were only raised for their meat, and thus they were on average of a better quality.


The total consumption in 1472-3 was sold 84,000kg in Carpentras (3,200 inhabitants, that’s 26kg per caput per year). This does not include the offal, poultry, domestically grown animals and game. (1446).This is roughly similar to the average meat consumption in Spain and in Greece in the early 1960s and up to twice more than the one of Southern France during the early 19th century (1447). Despite, this decline, the consumption of meat in Carpentras was not particularly high when compared to Central and Eastern Europe. The consumption of meat during Sundays was at often ten times superior than during week days and almost twice superior for Christmas day than any other day of the year. This clearly shows that a significant amount of Carpentras population was not eating meat regularly (not more than once a week) and that the average 26kg must have been very unequally distributed (1448).

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