Medieval culinary glossary: rost, the roast and roasting iron

Image: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, folio 83v. Detail showing two large birds being roasted on a spit, which is turned by a man who is sitting; another man uses a ladle to baste the birds. Full page image. Licence.

After a longer pause than anticipated due to family matters – my apologies – I’ve returned with extracts from my encyclopaedic glossary of ingredients, culinary eqipment, and culinary terms found in Fourme of Cury, the cookery treatise of Richard II.

To make up for the absence of glossary extracts, I have this time provided three, and they are closely related ones: ‘rost’; ‘roast, the’; and ‘roasting iron’.

Following the extracts, there is a reading of Cormarye, one of the recipes from Fourme of Cury which uses the cooking method of roasting. In due course I will be producing a video for my Premium Content subscribers which will take a closer look at this and other roasting recipes in their manuscript context. So I’ll be showing my lovely supporters how to read the script of the John Rylands Library version of Fourme of Cury.

Also, below, you can find a link to catch up with my recent video that shows me making a modern adaptation of Cormarye – without using a spit!

My first extract today is the first I have given in this series from the ‘Cookery terminology’ section of the glossary. In this section, the Middle English word (as it appears in the text of Fourme of Cury) is followed by the modern English translation, whereas the other two extracts, not from this section, have the modern English followed by the Middle English.

rost roast. Primarily meaning to cook on a spit before a fire, though cooking on a ‘rost yrne’ (see roasting iron in the ‘Equipment’ section of the glossary) is a method of roasting fish on a roasting iron over embers or charcoal; this method appears in the recipe for Pykes in brasey (ch. 4, no. 105). The recipe for Potews (ch. 7, no. 175), a forcemeat shaped like a plant pot and spit-roasted, includes the direction ‘to make little points of good pastry, fry them or roast them well in fat’, these points of pastry subsequently being stuck into the forcemeat to form the ‘ears’, or handles, of the pot. The use of ‘roast’ here perhaps suggests frying the pastry in fat within a pan set upon a roasting iron.

An excellent (if not the best) detailed description of the equipment for and method of medieval spit-roasting is provided by Brears (pp. 303-8). Here is my brief summary of that information:

Spit-roasting was a relatively elite method of cooking meat, requiring extensive labour for constant turning of the spit for even roasting. There are no inventories from cottage households – even of those of relatively well-off peasants – which list the necessary equipment; and, moreover, roasting is often associated with great kitchens with very large hearths. Spits were of various sizes, from huge to small, and made of either wood or metal (for more information, see spit in the ‘Equipment’ section of the glossary). Meat was always roasted in front of the fire, not over it. The fat from roasting was collected to baste the meat as it cooked, thus keeping it moist. Shallow utensils, stone vessels sunk into the hearth, or cooking pots were all used for this purpose, with several examples of such surviving in the archaeological record (Brears, pp. 308-9 provides drawings of them).

In Fourme of Cury, capons, pork, geese, lamb, kid, lampreys, cranes, herons, peacocks, partridges, meat balls and other variously shaped forcemeat creations, Cocagrys (half a cockerel and half a suckling pig stuffed and sown together), stuffed pig’s maws, and fruits and nuts are either directed to be roasted using a spit, or it can be inferred that they are spit-roasted. For the roasting of fruit and nuts, we must understand that these were evidently first attached, using a needle, to a long thread before being wrapped around the spit; for more on this, see my commentary for Hastletes of fruyt (ch. 9, no. 185).

Roasting is often not the only method of cooking meat in a recipe, since frequently something is parboiled then roasted, or part-roasted then simmered in liquid as a kind of stew.

London, British Library, Stowe MS 17, folio 176 recto. Book of Hours, Use of Maastricht (‘The Maastricht Hours’); origin, Netherlands, S. (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century.

This detail shows a monkey turning a wooden spit, roasting a large bird, under which lies a dripping tray. The latter detail indicates, despite the awkward perspective, that the bird is being roasted before, not above, the fire. Since it would not make sense to sit the dripping tray on the fire, but to the front of it, it follows that the bird would also be roasted in front of it, so that its fat could be collected in the dripping tray. Moreover, as Brears (p. 306) explains, ‘No sane person would wish to burn good joints, or coat them in soot and ash thrown up by driping fat.’

roast, the þe rost. Used specifically in Fourme of Cury to describe spit-roasted pork loins in the recipe Cormarye (ch. 2, no. 52); but more generally a ‘roast’ in Middle English alludes to various spit-roasted meats, including beef and, we are informed by Chaucer, swan. Of the Canterbury Tales monk we are told, ‘A fat swan loved he best of any roost’ (Chaucer, General Prologue, line 206).

roasting iron rost yrne. Used for roasting pike in the dish Pykes in brasey (ch. 4, no. 105). Roasting irons, also known as gridirons, ‘were horizontal frames of parallel bars, supported a few inches above beds of glowing embers or charcoal on three or four short legs’ and were mostly made of iron, though ‘the finest were of highly conductive and non-rusting silver’ (Brears, p. 319). Three silver gridirons are recorded in the inventory of Richard II’s treasures (Stratford, p. 190, R504; p. 205, R658; and p. 218, R805). Roasting irons were used where foods were not sufficiently bulky or strong enough ‘to withstand piercing with the spit, and to take the strain of continuous rotation’, so were ideal for cooking fish, though the likes of eels and lampreys were suitable for the spit method (Brears, p. 319).

Manuscript images of roasting irons

Left, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 5, folio 164v, showing a man (bottom right) playing a gridiron/roasting iron with a pair of tongs; right, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 6, folio 188r, showing a man playing a gridiron/roasting iton with a flesh hook. Licence for both.

Cormarye: reading and modern recipe

Image: Manchester, John Rylands Library, English MS 7, folio 31 recto, by permission of the University of Manchester. The image is a screenshot from the Rylands website. The recipe is for Cormarye, marinated and roasted pork loins.

Here’s my reading of the recipe for Cormarye from the John Rylands Library copy of Fourme of Cury (image above).

And here is my YouTube video for my modern adaptation of the dish, served with another Fourme of Cury dish, Benes Yfryed. Click on ‘Watch on YouTube’ (bottom left) for best viewing.

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Cited works

Peter Brears, Cooking & Dining in Medieval England (Prospect Books, 2012).

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, in The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Jenny Stratford, Richard II and the English Royal Treasure (The Boydell Press, 2012)


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Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

2 thoughts on “Medieval culinary glossary: rost, the roast and roasting iron

  1. With all that hot fat dripping around near open fires you can understand why so many fires started in kitchens. Even if the meat wasn’t roasted above the fire, the collected fat could easily have been knocked into the flames.


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