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In a story I'm working on, a character suddenly finds himself transported back to the late Middle Ages. This is completely unexpected, so he doesn't have time to prepare.

It occurred to me that a lot of people nowadays (me included) have food allergies. So, I wonder: How would somebody allergic to milk and wheat survive in the late Medieval?

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    $\begingroup$ Milk is a modern habit.. a late medieval adult won't depend on it.. and it's possible to survive without wheats, humans did that until about 20,000 years ago. There's a informative article on smithsonian about that, ref smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/… $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Apr 16 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ depending on what they are allergic to in milk they may be able to eat medieval cheese just fine, also there are several source animals for milk at the time, so what kind of milk they are allergic to could also apply. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 16 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ note that allergies were super uncommon before modern times. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Apr 16 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ @trish I've always wondered whether that's really because of civilization bringing new problems, or whether most kids with allergies just didn't live past 2. $\endgroup$
    – DRF
    Apr 16 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ @DRF The lactose intolerence map of Europe may interest you. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 16 at 15:38

7 Answers 7

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Judging from the answers to the question, What was the typical peasant's diet like in Europe during the High Middle Ages?, asked on the SE History site, the person might do reasonably well provided they did not end up in a predominantly wheat-growing region.

Grains such as barley, oats, rye and wheat formed a large portion of the diets of peasants. These were usually eaten as porridge. If one had enough of the other grains, it might be possible to avoid wheat. Peas, bean and tubers were also a significant part of the diet.

As for milk, it was usually turned into cheese, so your character could easily avoid cheese. It seems a lot of cheese then was made from sheep's milk instead of cow's milk. If your character can tolerate sheep's milk, there would be no problem.

Also see:

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    $\begingroup$ A little more problematic if you have Celiac disease, since that takes out barley and rye as well, but that isn't exactly an allergy. +1 $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Apr 16 at 3:55
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus: Unfortunately, most wheat allergies turn out to be Celiac disease in disguise, but true wheat allergies do exist. Don't ask me how I know this. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Apr 17 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ In medieval times, when crops failed, peasants reverted to eating acorns. I see no reason your character can't eat that. A claim to prefer it would be laughed at but might be accommodated. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Apr 17 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding goats and oats: A more rugged environment would be better for your character. Historically sheep and oats were the staple foods in Scotland and Ireland. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 20 at 14:43
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Pose as a religious ascetic.

Wheat was high quality grain in those days. Declare you have taken a vow to eat only barley, oats, etc.

Milk is harder, but perhaps you can work it in as a penance for a specific sin.

Location will be important.

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If someone was allergic to the point of going anaphylaxis upon ingesting milk then they're probably going to die soon after their first exposure. If consuming milk just resulted in GI distress they they'd quickly learn to avoid drinking it. If they're lucky enough to still be able to eat cheese then there's very little to worry about.

There were very few places in the world where milk was a critical part of the diet. In Europe Peasants and serfs wouldn't have the resources to keep a pair of cows. Cows also only produce milk for a small part of the year.

Compared to just eating grain milk is a very expensive commodity. Modern dairy farmers have to feed a cow 1 pound of grain for every 3 pounds of milk produced (there's 8.6 pounds of milk in a gallon), that's on top of what they need to feed the cow to keep it alive (more than 20 lbs of fodder per day). A gallon of milk has about 1600 calories, compared to the roughly 1500 calories in a pound of wheat.

If you happen to be wealthy enough to afford cows you'd also be wealthy enough to have alternative food options besides milk available to you.


Avoiding wheat would be more difficult. Most peasants in Europe would grow a mix of wheat and barley to reduce the likelihood of a total crop failure (and starvation). If as above consuming wheat is not immediately fatal, it should still be possible to identify wheat as the cause, and subsist only off barley. However unlike milk which would be a sometimes food, isolating a pillar of the diet as the cause of GI issues might be more difficult.

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    $\begingroup$ Without knowing the language you wouldn't even be able to tell people what you can or cannot eat, and even if you could are they even going to listen to you when food isn't exactly abundant? Imagine some joker showing up who can't speak your language and has no money and only seems to be willing to accept your more expensive foods when food isn't abundant to begin with. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Apr 16 at 2:33
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    $\begingroup$ Don't judge older farming by American intensive farming methods. Animals are a great way to get nutrition from areas you can't plough. In the UK, cows and sheep mostly eat grass. Grain-fed cattle really isn't much of a thing here, and it only became a thing in the 20th century because the USA had so much excess grain production capacity. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Apr 16 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham You're right that animals can be used to extract resources from areas that you can't farm but the vast majority of people in the middle ages weren't herdsmen. So while I am using modern numbers the point still stands for the average peasant, and therefore the vast majority of the medieval population. Given that the average Roman household farm was 3-5 acres and the rule of thumb that you need 2 acres to graze a cow calf pair ,owning a cow doesn't make economic sense for the average subsistence farmer. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Apr 16 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ "Cows also only produce milk for a small part of the year." - citation needed. Here's a counter-citation unless 10 out of 14 months is small. $\endgroup$ Apr 17 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ Cows are not the only animal to provide milk. Sheep and goats are much easier to keep and take much less land to keep one. $\endgroup$
    – towr
    Apr 18 at 9:44
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Allergies themselves are not new at all, though it mostly depends on how SEVERE the allergies are. General consensus is that people with moderate allergies knew they couldn't tolerate certain foods and avoided them (such as knowing that "X-food turns my stomach / gives me rashes"), though anyone who had an anaphylactic reaction or just constantly got sick after eating would probably die if they couldn't find alternate foods fast enough.

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Hope that you're transported to somewhere in Europe/Asia, preferably the British Isles.

Do the best you can to survive on whatever meat you can lay your hands on, beet-vegetables and wine (not beer). Meanwhile travel north.

Find a village with goats/sheep in Scotland or a mountain-range in northern Europe.

Goat milk doesn't produce the same reactions as cow's, so fortunately in the Highland areas where goats and sheep are prevalent over cattle that shouldn't be a problem. Camelids such as the alpaca produce milk that's equally unlikely to produce a reaction. On the Russian Steppes, you'll also be able to enjoy milk-beer.

Ditto Oats. Oats are the preferred grain in areas requiring a more hardy breed of staple, they simply don't contain the troublesome gluten which kicks-off the cramps and unmentionable symptoms that wheat is famous for.

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  • $\begingroup$ Europe is no good. Hope that you're transported to the Americas or Australia. SE Asia would be a backup choice. $\endgroup$ Apr 18 at 18:02
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Most probably wouldn't, but...

Depending on region of course, but wheat and milk were one of the most popular food products. Avoid them like fire, consume fruit, vegetables and meat, also other kinds of milk should be fine (goat for example) and CHEESE, it's a good source of fat and most kinds of hard, aged cheese have only small amounts of lactose left, they're harmful only in the most severe cases of allergy.

Take into consideration that meat was expensive in middle ages, and poaching could get you killed (if i remember correctly peasants could only hunt small game like squirrels), same as stealing, you could be considered an outlaw and killed without trial.

TL;DR

Eat vegetables, fruit and cheese, try not to poach. Hope i helped.

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    $\begingroup$ Milk allergy is separate from lactose intolerance. One is an allergy to proteins, the other is lacking an enzyme to break down lactose. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Apr 16 at 3:59
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    $\begingroup$ In most cases it mattered more where you were hunting that that you were hunting. Many commoners were allowed to hunt, but all the good hunting grounds were owned; so, it was rarely worth while. Instead most meat came from fishing since most peasants had some fishable water source on thier allotted lands. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 19 at 21:41
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Depends on where in the middle ages.

The Greek diet used grains, but was also heavy in legumes, vegetables such as artichokes, peas, and olives, and meats such as goat, fish, and fowls.

Rice was available in Byzantium and Spain.

The Spanish used so many nuts and garbanzo beans in their diet that during the age of sail, scurvy was known among Spanish sailors as "The Dutch Disease" as the Spanish sailors rarely got it. Of course, they had no idea why.

Avoiding grains and milk in the south may be a bit expensive, but should be possible. The hardest part may be getting enough protein, as it was for everyone at the time.

Pick a country where you want this story and do a deep dive into their available food. It will add to your character's adventure.

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