It is commonly believed that winter during that age was a period of starvation, with very limited means of procuring food.

If the above is true, what did the commoners (peasants, serfs, etc) have to eat during spring? I think the crops would take months to harvest, there would still be some ice thawing.

Would they hunt? Was there a crop / fruit / vegetable that grew during winter that could be consumed in spring?

How much food was available? Was the "winter famine" over right after winter, or how much time did it take for the food supply / distribution to spread out?

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    Consider Mardi gras & fat Tuesday. And there wouldn't be much ice in Southern Europe.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 17:48
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    What region of Europe are you referring to? Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 22:39
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    If you check a list of vegetables by month, you'll see the ones available exactly when you want. "Spring" and "Europe" are too imprecise, but they would have cabbages, carrots, onions, garlic, turnips, chards, chickpeas (there is a reason all these are the ingredients of a winter stew), lentils, cured meat, dried fish, etc. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 7:15
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    No, during winter people had enough to eat. They had stocked enough for that. The problem was that during spring the supplies slowly ran out. That's one of the reasons for lent fasting. It wasn't just religious.
    – Jos
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 7:27
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    @user32121: Correction: they are the very same holiday. Fat Tuesday is nothing more than the English translation of the French Mardi Gras. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 22:45

3 Answers 3


Salting, brining, smoking and fermenting were all common methods of Medieval food preservation used in autumn in preparation for the lean winter months. Note that in Northern Europe it would still be possible to fish through much of the winter, allowing for cod and herring to comprise much of the diet, particularly for coastal regions.

Many foods additionally keep well in even moderately cold temperatures, provided they are kept from freezing in a root cellar. In addition to the European root vegetables (carrots, turnip, beets, onions and others) the wide variety of European cheeses are already being developed by the monasteries and other large estates and keep well in cool conditions.

In terms of availability - whatever had been preserved the previous autumn by the household would be available.


In addition to preserving, there were various techniques to start the growing season very early.

Some vegetables can be planted very early and harvested within a month or two. Radishes are particularly fast growing. Also beets, onions, rutabaga, carrots, turnips, peas, rhubarb, spinach, asparagus, and leeks. They can be planted earlier if covered with insulation such as straw to protect against frost.

Some, such as carrots and turnips, are biennial plants. In the first year the leaves can be eaten, and in the second year the root can be dug up and eaten. Others, such as asparagus, are perennial and the shoots can be eaten very early.

Other root vegetables can simply be left in the ground, possibly with straw to insulate against freezing, and dug up over winter as needed.

Dried grain would be stored to feed the livestock, as well as feed people with bread and porridge.

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    Hm. Asparagus seems to demonstrate why the Q needs more specific boundaries set up, just like this A. Sources to tie all these correct in principle with current climates to specific regions and times during MA might convince me otherwise. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 21:56
  • @LangLangC What does asparagus demonstrate?
    – Schwern
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 22:15
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    "Asparagus appears to have been hardly noticed in England until 1538, and in Germany until 1542". That is IMO an indication that the more northern parts of Europe did not have that much access to this veg in 500, especially not peasants. Southern Spain is much different from Middle Finland or North-Russia. Food production and trade varied quite a bit from region to region and time to time. For upper classes asparagus might have been served sometimes around Hammerfest, peasants in the Alps or Moravia might not have been able to identify the form except for innuendo like comments. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 22:24
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    @LangLangC Yes, the list will vary by region. Substitute in some other perennial or biennial, turnips for example. I take the "hardly noticed" with a grain of salt, I believe that means "hardly noticed in cuisine" rather than "hardly noticed by the peasantry", but I can't be sure.
    – Schwern
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 23:01

People have already mentioned various winter-crops and food preservation; winter was indeed a harsh time of year for many preindustrial Europeans, but unless their food stores got damaged or stolen, most self-respecting farmers knew perfectly well how to ration their food.

In a pinch, they could buy or barter from neighbors if they were short of something. Communal help was definitely a thing back then.

EDIT: This article is very long, but Medievalists is a pretty solid resource, and there's a lot of detail in what peasants would generally eat and how they'd preserve meat.

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    Well, as long as there wasn't a general problem. After a poor harvest, EVERYONE would be short of food. And then people starved.
    – Mary
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 2:36
  • Yeah, but the OP was concerned that everyone was starving in winter every single year, which runs on the Victorian assumption/exaggeration that that medieval people were 1) too stupid to ration their food for the next few months, or 2) lived in endless misery.
    – Jamie L.
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 3:26

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