I'm a Dairy Educator and want to learn about milking and cows in Medieval Times. I suspect that cows had calves only in spring, like most livestock. Am I correct?

Would Medieval people drink the milk or just make cheese and / or butter?

Who would drink it if they did? Peasants? Children? The sick?

2 Answers 2


All highlighting is mine

Concerning calving in the middle ages,

Cows...would calve in the early spring. Calves would nurse for about a month and then be separated from their mothers and fed by hand until they learned to graze on their own. Ideally, the calves would be weaned just as the pastures began showing some good growth, but in a cold spring the farmer would just have to hope he had enough hay stored up.

E. Griffiths & M. Overton in Farming to Halves also state that calving was in spring. Peter R. Coss, in Thirteenth Century England IV, says that

the medieval cow was not generally added to breeding stock until she had reached her fourth year, probably because the animals were undernourished and slow-growing.

On the consumption of milk, Melitta Weiss Adamson in Food in Medieval Times says

In the Middle Ages, infants were fed the breast milk of mothers and wet nurses, and animal milk after they were weaned. Cow's milk was the most common milk.

The Wikipedia article on Medieval Cuisine adds,

Plain fresh milk was not consumed by adults except the poor or sick, and was usually reserved for the very young or elderly.

Peasants were more likely to drink milk than wealthy adults and it had other uses too:

milk was used for a lot of cooking, even on days when fasting prohibited to consumption of animal meats and fats. Milk was seen to have medicinal properties too, and many physicians recommended it for ailments. However, it was advised to not drink milk and alcohol together, as the combination may cause a belly ache and diarrhea.

Milk, of course, is perishable so

Before refrigeration and pasteurization, the most common methods of extending the shelf-life of this highly perishable foodstuff was to turn it into butter or cheese.

You may also be interested in this article Lactose Intolerance in the Middle Ages (it was at a similar level to today).

  • 4
    Cattle have a 9 month gestation period so would need to be bulled during the summer months to calve during spring.
    – germcd
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 9:10
  • 3
    Quite right, I should have seen that. I'll edit the post as I found another source which confirms calving was usually in spring. Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 9:31
  • Fresh butter was perishable up until the 1900's, when washed and fermented butter was better understood. Before then it was 'off' in a couple of days: the handling made it less stable even than fresh milk.
    – david
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 8:30
  • @david That would depend on the temperature it could be kept at (a problem in summer but perhaps not for extended periods in winter). Fat and salt content also determine how long butter lasts without refrigeration. Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 15:42
  • Most of Europe did not have fresh winter butter. Winter feeding depended on good hay-making and storage, which was a late and restricted development. Poorly washed butter contains proteins which go off, it's not the fat content which is relevant. I don't know about the availability of stored salted butter: London just didn't have butter in Winter.
    – david
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 21:04

London historian John Stow, writing about the good old days of his childhood (1530s) recalled being sent to buy milk from a farm just outside the City:

at the which farm I myself in my youth have fetched many a halfpenny worth of milk, and never had less than three ale pints for a halfpenny in the summer, nor less than one ale quart for a halfpenny in the winter, always hot from the kine, as the same was milked and strained.

His family were not well-off, just ordinary City-dwellers, so it suggests milk was not a great luxury. Even without refrigeration, milk would keep for a few days in cold weather. In the summer it would need to be used immediately of course.

  • 8
    1530s are not really Middle Ages.
    – user28434
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 14:45

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