Wherein medieval copper pots make you fashionable down to your bones.
One of the things I find most interesting among archaeological and paleontological discoveries is when researchers can determine, frequently by examining bone specimens, the general diet of a local people group. For example, a recent find indicates some Neanderthals ate mushrooms, nuts and even mosses and bark to supplement their Paleo diet. Of course, limited findings in one region doesn’t necessarily indicate widespread practices: future paleontologists examining my bones might erroneously conclude 21st-century Americans lived on a diet heavy in peanut butter-filled cookies.
Bone research can tell us not only what food people ate, but even the ways in which that food was prepared and stored. A 2020 study of medieval people in southern Denmark and northern Germany found that, while rural people in the region used common tableware such as clay vessels and wooden utensils, wealthier people in more urbanized areas equipped their homes with the trendiest kitchen gadget: copper cookware.
Bangin’ on the Pots and Pans
Copper is a great material for cookware because it is particularly effective at conducting heat: in fact, copper is still used for heat exchangers in modern HVAC units and hot water tanks. The beauty of copper vessels was also so admired that Martin Dichtl, a 17th-century German painter, even made a successful career painting still lifes with copper and pewter tableware warmly gleaming in the soft light.
At the same time, the expense of mining copper and fashioning it into items for purchase was great enough that only the wealthy could afford pots and pans made from the metal. Researcher Kaare Lund Rasmussen therefore says, “A copper pot in a country kitchen may have been so unusual that the owner would tell everybody about it and maybe even write it down.” In other words, while people in Ribe might have taken copper for granted, a person in the countryside might have reacted to a new copper pot like a modern person jumping on Instagram to show off her new bluetooth-controlled air fryer.
But how did these wealthy Europeans get measurable traces of this copper into their systems? It wasn’t like they had a leader speculating they could defeat the Black Death by injecting slivers of metal into their bloodstream (we needed a 21st-century plague for something similar to that scenario). The answer, quite simply, is that traces of copper got into food through the process of cooking. Birgitte Svennevig notes, “One possibility is that the copper pots were scraped by metal knives, releasing copper particles, and that these particles were ingested with the food. Or maybe copper was dissolved and mixed with food, if the pot was used for storing or cooking acidic foods.”
This cookware, like most other items that weren’t created at home, would have been purchased from members of the local guild. Perhaps the hoity-toity medieval Dane could have spent the afternoon at the 14th-century equivalent of Williams-Sonoma asking, “Do you have one of those pots in copper, but less copper-colored?”
Image: Copper pots and lids in the kitchen of the castle of Beaumesnil (Eure, France) (Source).