A Sixteenth-Century Meal Plan

Like many cities throughout medieval Germany, Hamburg had a Spital. These charitable religious foundations were initially intended to provide shelter or permanent homes to the indigent and sick, but they tended to turn into a kind of retirement home. Though some beds were usually reserved for the indigent, many people would purchase a berth, usually known as a prebend (praebenda), with a gift of cash or land to the Spital and take it up as age rendered them infirm to receive food, shelter, and clothing in a religious institution for the rest of their lives. Most Spitäler catered to the urban middle classes, people who could afford a valuable gift, but not so rich that caring for elderly infirm at home would be feasible for the next generation.

Images of the Spital after Gaedechens’ 1889 article courtesy of wikimedia commons

The Heilig-Geist-Spital in Hamburg was of this type. First attested in 1227, the foundation actually continues to function as a retirement home to this day, though the original buildings have long been destroyed and the institution follows modern procedures now. The longevity of this body led to an unusually large amount of documents surviving, though much of this trove was destroyed in the 1943 bombing raids. Fortunately, a large part of the evidence was first recorded in the kind of extensive, obsessively detailed study 19th-century German historians were famous for. F.C. Gaedechens wrote Geschichte des Hospitals zum Heiligen Geist in Hamburg in the Zeitschrift des Vereins für Hamburgische Geschichte, vol. 8 (1889) and it is now freely accessible in digital form. Among enormous amounts of data on the administration, architecture, financing, and political history of the Spital, he includes the full details of its meal plan. That is what I want to look at mainly here.

The Speiseordnung of 1547

Unfortunately, there is little written evidence of the food served at the Spital in the first centuries of its existence. The first surviving rules were written down after it had passed from the custody of the Franciscan friars into that of the Protestant church establishment after Reformation. This transition seems to have been largely amicable, with several friars staying on in ecclesiastical positions in the new Lutheran world, but the new administrative structures required records of a system that beforehand ran in a much more haphazard fashion. It is thus likely, though not certain, the Speiseordnung of 1547, reiterated in 1573, consists largely of what was established standard. This is what it stipulated:


Midday meal:

First course: cabbage between Whitsun and Christmas, otherwise beans or peas

Second course: porridge of milk and wheat bread

Third course: grapenbraden of ox, mutton, lamb, or pork depending on the season

Evening meal: uncooked bacon or ox tripe or pork or mutton sausages, two eggs each, and oatmeal porridge with milk


Midday meal: millet, oatmeal or buckwheat porridge with butter

Evening meal: green cheese or fresh milk cheese and oatmeal porridge


As Sunday


Midday meal: oatmeal porridge and dried fisch (rotschär or klippfisch) with butter, but fresh fish is they can be had

Evening meal: cheese and oatmeal porridge


As Sunday


Midday meal: oatmeal porridge with salt fish (rothschär, salzfisch or schollen) with butter and one salt herring each, as well as one Pfennigweggen (fine wheat loaf worth one penny).

(Footnote: Household records show salt herrings were smoked in quantity, so kippers may have been served after Lent)

Evening meal: none


Midday meal: oatmeal porridge or rice and butter

Evening meal: oatmeal porridge and cheese

In addition to regular meals, there was a bread issue. One rye bread loaf of 2 lbs (or a bread allowance of 8 Pfennige if baking was not possible) was given to each inmate daily. It is likely, though not recorded, that butter was also issued or provided at meals.

Holiday Meals and Bequests

While these were the regular meals served every week, by and large, there were interruptions to the schedule. For one thing, it is likely that seasonal variation was greater than admitted to here. A later Speiseordnung makes allowances for Stint (whitebait), strawberries, and other seasonal foods. Very likely that was common practice much earlier, unrecorded because it was a matter of course.

Holidays provided the second occasion to interrupt the schedule. The Spital was a Christian institution and though it no longer observed strict fasts or Catholic Saints’ Days, it was bound up in a deep tradition and the high holidays structured its year. The meals served on those occasions are recorded:

On the main holiday of Easter, Christmas and Whitsun, the Spital served two kinds of grapenbraden at midday, one „white“, the other willbratt (cooked in sour vinegar or saffron sauce) with cabbage or peas.

The Christmas evening meal consisted of Sulte (probably an aspic) and Sunday porridge with milk.

The Easter Sunday evening meal was porridge with two eggs or one sausage per person

On the second holiday – Boxing Day, Easter or Whit Monday – the regular meal schedule was followed, but for the evening meal, the kitchen made the porridge with 18 lbs of rice and 2 Mark worth of milk.

On the Saturday before Sexagesima and on Carnival (i.e. Shrove Tuesday), the inmates received hetewegghe (a rich, white breadroll) with milk.

Despite the absence of a formal obligation on Lutherans, the Spital observed Lenten fast after a fashion and marked its beginning with festivities for Carnival. On Shrove Sunday, the weekend before Carnival, regular food was served, but on Shrove Monday, the inmates had grapenbraden along with their porridge, Of Shrove Tuesday, the midday meal consisted of cabbage or peas porridge and either willbrat or schmoorfleisch, two other dishes made with fresh meat. In the evening, every inmate received a mettwurst (a sausage made with sheer muscle meat) half an ell in length, or one and a half quarter ells if it was thick. This was served along with sweet (i.e. fresh) milk and Stuten, a soft, enriched white bread.

Lent began with Ash Wednesday. Following it, Saturday and Sunday followed the regular pattern, but on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, oatmeal porridge and boiled or fried herring, rothschär or salt fish was served at midday. Each inmate also received one salt herring. There was no evening meal on those days

On Tuesdays and Thursdays in Lent, the midday meal was millet or oatmeal porridge with butter and the evening meal porridge and cheese.

On ‘silent Friday’ (Good Friday), the Spital served Handbojnen (possibly a kind of fritter looking like beans) in the morning and gave each inmate one pound of figs and warm beer porridge with oil.

Unlike the other holidays, Easter was also marked by a specific bread issue. On Easter Sunday, everyone received one loaf of wheat bread weighing 2 ½ lbs.

On Easter Monday, the issue was Schönroggen bread, again at 2 ½ lbs.

On the following day, inmates received one round loaf of fine wheat or rye bread weighing 1 ½ lbs.

On Ascension day, everyone received dry (i.e. roasted, not boiled) meat, for which purpose 30 pieces were specifically bought.

Communion was taken communally four times a year. On those days, both the poor and the prebendaries received egg soup in addition to their regular rations.

In addition, there is one interesting annual tradition that the hospital established within its walls and continues to honour to this day. Before the Reformation, it was common for wealthy people and religious fraternities to establish regular, usually annual feasts or distribution of food, drink, clothing, or free baths to the poor. These were often to specific groups, set up through testaments and administered by religious institutions, and they constituted a regular feature of the year. During the Reformation, these bequests were folded into the general parish welfare system the church was now expected to provide. We have no records of them continuing.

Within the Spital, however, two new bequests for its inmates were established after the Reformation and continue to be distributed today. The first was set up by the administrator of the Spital (Hofemester) Bruno Degener in 1550. His will stipulated that two meals were to be given to the poor, prebendaries, and staff in his memory. The administrators of the municipal Oberalten committee in charge of welfare and the pastor of the parish church were invited to join the master at his table. In theory, this invitation still stands, though the Spital has long moved out of the old city’s limits.

On Michaelmas (29 September), schmoorfleisch or, if preferred, willbratt of oxmeat prepared with good vinegar, enough spices, and 12 lbs raisins were served in addition to the regular meal of the day. In addition, one tun of beer was brought in for all to share, and each inmate and staff member received two small loaves of fine bread (Blaffertwecken).

On Annunciation Day (25 March, Marien in der Fasten), they were served salmon or sturgeon, fresh or boiled, or pike. If no fish could be had, schmoorfleisch or willbratt as for Michaelmas would be subvstituted. Again, they were given one tun of beer to share and two Blaffertwecken each.

On both those occasions, 18 lbs rice and two Marks worth of milk would be cooked into porridge for the evening meal.

The second bequest is less well attested, but amply documented in practice. It was made by the otherwise unknown Dorothea Rathlau or Maria Rathlow (this is the same person – wide variation in names is not uncommon in Early Modern sources). It was most likely made after 1550, but before 1576 and added to the meal on Annunciation day a dish of veal soup with bread, veal, and dumplings of flour and green herbs (the dumplings were made with raisins after 1760). A further issue of beer and white bread in the evening was also provided.

Beer was brewed on site and provided as needed, with no specific rules for quantities, but a repeated admonition not to overindulge. Each inmate received four sacks of coal annually to heat their room and was permitted to take hot embers from the main fireplaces twice daily.

To put this into its proper context, we need to understand the people who ate these meals. Unfortunately, we do not know how many prebendaries or poor the Heilig-Geist-Spital housed at the time these ordinances were written down. The number of poor inmates was significantly expanded to 114 in the early 17th century, so it was clearly lower then. Prebends sold for significant sums, but were still affordable to the middle classes. Thus, the food must have met the expectations of the craftsmen and small traders of the city, and this matches what we know about the diet of the urban populations of sixteenth-century Germany. If anything, the standards in Hamburg were less generous than in other institutions that served meat daily. The comparison to the standards of real wealth is made evident when we consider that the committee of the administrators – civic dignitaries all – holding court day in the village of Barmbek on the Feast of St. James (25 July) every year, this body of two councillors, two procurators, and 16 parish representatives received 32 chickens and 6 lambs which the peasants were required to provide as part of their rent. This is a different level of consumption altogether.

Thoughts on Dishes Served

The mainstay of the diet was grain, served in the shape of bread and porridge. The bread is interesting in the gradations provided: Plain rye bread, probably the kind referred to in other sources as spisebrod, was issued daily. This was the daily bread of most people and subject to price controls and official regulation. Since the Spital stipulated loaves of a given weight, they had to be baked specifically. Bread baked for the market had a fixed cost per loaf and varied in weight on a sliding scale determined by grain prices.

On holidays and special occasions, the Spital served Schönroggen, a fine rye bread that often had a characteristic shape with three round sides and one developed into a point. These loaves were typically sized to be individual portions, though the record here suggests they were again baked larger and to a specific weight for the needs of the Spital.

Wheat bread was more special still, reserved for Sunday suppers and high holidays. Wheat did not grow well in Northern Germany, and though Hamburg imported large quantities of it from Bohemia and Saxony for its famous beer, it was always more expensive than local rye. The loaves for holiday issue are again identified by weight and thus likely specifically baked for the occasion, but the issues of Pfennigwecken and Blaffertwecken indicates they were bought in. These were small wheat loaves worth respectively one Pfennig and one Blaffert, small denominations that bought breadrolls of varying weight depending on the current grain price. The hetewegghe are actually first attested in the context of the Heilig-Geist-Spital. These most likely were a kind of enriched breadrolls served with milk or cream, ancestors of today’s Heißwecken and semla.

Porridge, too, comes in gradations, the finest being made with rice or wheat bread and milk. Rice, of course, had to be imported and enjoyed special status among the porridge grains. Bread porridge, too, was more common than recipe collections suggest because it required no recipe. The simplest kind was made by soaking bread in water or beer and most likely served the inmates of the Spital for a meal whenever they were individually hungry. This is what is meant by the Warmbier of many sources. Other porridges are made with millet, oats, and buckwheat. These were more common fare, cooked according to the occasion with water, broth, or milk, which was a particular extravagance. Regular porridge was often served with butter, as familiar an accompaniment as bread. We know from various recipes that making porridge was understood to involve a degree of skill and knowledge, with varieties in its preparation affecting flavour and consistency. People likely were able to tell good porridge from bad. It was not the tasteless gruel of workhouse myth, but a proper and appreciated meal.

Vegetables are attested rarely, and almost never spoken about much. Cabbage, beans, and peas represented unexciting fare, most likely sourced from the gardens the Spital ran just outside the city walls. Vegetable dishes did not enjoy high status in Germany then. Horticulture as a pursuit of the leisure class had only begun to come in from Italy, and most gardens were limited to basic foods. However, it is likely that a wider variety than this was brought in seasonally and cooked with the food or served alongside it. This would not be recorded because people did not consider it of great significance. Onions, garlic, apples, pears, parsley, carrots, turnips or radishes would come in from the gardens and be eaten together with the food that mattered.

The food that mattered above all was animal protein: meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Milk is mainly recorded as an ingredient in porridge, cheese and butter stipulated on numerous days. Much of the meat served likely was preserved. We know that the Spital, like wealthy urban householders, bought entire oxen and hogs in winter and had them slaughtered and salted for the coming year.

Fresh meat was a rarer treat. Grapenbraden was made with fresh meat cut into pieces and slowly stewed in a large three-legged metal cooking pot, the eponymous grapen. This was a feast day dish that people of relatively modest means enjoyed and it is often stipulated at the feasts artisans hold in their guilds. Having it every Sunday was, if not extravagant, then certainly indicative of stable finances. Meanwhile, the rarer Schmoorfleisch and Willbrat were more refined dishes. The first is unclear, but may mean meat cooked in larger pieces and sliced like a roast. Willbrat literally means venison, but here clearly refers to a preparation methods, not actual game meat. We have numerous such recipes, usually involving seasoned sauces. The vinegar, spices, and raisins listed in the bequest of Bruno Degener fit this type well.

Sausages are stipulated more rarely, but the Mettwurst mentioned for Easter represented a treat. At the time, this did not yet mean a type of charcuterie, as it does today, but any sausages made with sheer muscle meat as opposed to organ meat, blood, and fillers. The equivalent South German term was Bratwurst. The sausages served for Sunday supper more likely were of the latter kind.

Fish, too, plays a significant role. This is not surprising in a port city like Hamburg, situated at the crossing of trade routes carrying dried cod from Norway and Iceland, salt herring from Skanör, and dried soles from the Baltic. The lion’s share of the fish served was of this preserved kind, dried cod (Rotschär or Klippfisch), soles, and salt herring, the latter possibly smoked. Fresh fish was served more rarely, and always with the reservation that it may not be available. The festive serving of sturgeon, salmon, or pike bequeathed by Bruno Degener represented real luxury.

While we should not assume that spices or dried fruit were only served on the occasions they are specified – figs for Easter, raisins and spices with the Degener bequest – it is clear that these things, though they appear commonplace in our recipe sources, were unusual in the lives of most people.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the beer for daily consumption would not have been very strong. As Hausbier, brewed for domestic consumption, it did not have to meet the quality standards of commercial brewing. Hamburg beer of export quality – Seebier – was made with a very high proportion of malt to water and would have been a rather alcoholic, substantial, and probably very sweet drink. Even the less intense variety approved for sale within the region was stronger and richer that homebrew. That explains the appeal of the tun of beer bought for the bequest meals – this was commercial brew, possibly even Seebier, which people had for special occasions. That inmates appreciated alcoholic drink is evidenced by the fact that the ordinances of 1636 forbid them from buying either beer or liquor outside the house.

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