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  • Writer's pictureAn Oxford Historian

What did rich Anglo-Saxons eat?

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Food is a universal, but frequently invisible to the historian. What and how did people of the past eat? Do these questions vary by 'class', gender, age etc. In the first of these Deep-Dives into smaller topics of early medieval history, we've going to approach this broadly by looking at the food consumption of the later Anglo-Saxon elite. Underlying so simple a question is a complex mix of symbolism, pageantry and social change.

What is clear is that by the later 10th century, the world had changed (Flemming 2001, 2). For one, we have the emergence of the first meaningful, large-scale aristocracy - the 'thegns' - holding smaller-scale areas of land (Gardiner 2017, 88/ Audoy and Chapman 2009, 28). Alongside this seems to run a new concern for maintaining that status: ‘social classes were becoming more permeable', and as a result status had to be fought for (Gardiner 2017, 94). Equally, the continued development of a widescale monetary economy made the purchasing of status items more practical (Fleming 2001, 16-9). We have, then a desire to reinforce an image of status, and a new ability to do so.

We see multiple archaeological and textual manifestations of this anxiety through ostentatious consumption and display. Geþyncðo's obsession with the boundaries between class seem to point towards a preoccupation with making the distinction clear, especially through physical things (Gardiner 2017, 94). Think of examples today - sports cars, designer clothes and fancy mansions. Certainly, for the Anglo-Saxons, striking buildings and impressive costumes are evident (and I intend to look at another day in a following post), but it is diet that interests me here.

What was eaten and how it was eaten is a hard question for historians. Textual sources do sometimes focus on food, but bring with them the usual critical questions. Occasionally we get pictorial sources (the feast scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, for example). However, it is zooarchaeological evidence, primarily bones, that help flesh out a larger picture (no pun intended).

Remarkably, a relatively standardised footprint seems to emerge at thegnly sites, illustrating that ‘food in this period was coming to be an extremely effective social marker’(Fleming 2001, 4). First, and perhaps most obviously, thegnly sites show much larger consumption of meat. 28,135 bone fragments are found at the elite site at Bishopstone (although, of course, questions of partial survival make comparing raw numbers questionable) (Poole 2010, 142). Consumption seems to have been more wasteful too - at Flixborough (Lincolnshire), cattle bones are less frequently split (to extract the marrow) from the late 10thC onwards (Dobney et al. 2007a, 103).

When theoretically understanding food consumption, however, Gautier suggests we need to identify unique elite food cultures in qualitative not simple quantitative terms - did thegns eat different things, rather than simply more (Gautier 2012, 385)?

Interestingly, thegnly sites seem to show a strong consumption of fish, as the evidence at Bishopstone makes clear (Reynolds 2010, 163). Wildfowl seem also to have been eaten extensively - Portchester (Hampshire) shows bone evidence for over 20 different species (Poole 2010, 142). Finally, Syke's analysis suggests that in the long-run from the 5th to the 11thC, game animal consumption doubles at elite sites and more than halves at rural sites (Sykes 2010, 184).

Thegns also seem have eaten more visually spectacular food. Whale-bones are found at Bishopstone* (Poole 2010, 151-2), and bottle-nosed dolphin bones dramatically increase at Flixborough (Dobney et al 2007b, 90). To present this food must have been an act of theatre, and the social act of feasting, bringing together a community to show off your wealth and generosity, is a phenomenon well-know to modern readers through dinner parties (Loveluck 2007, 156).

Equally, to obtain this food must have been an equally impressive act. Aelfric's Colloquy, for example, stresses the danger of hunting whales (Dobney et al 2007b, 93). Thegns appear to have been actively involved in hunting for both deer and wildfowl (through hawking), continuing a long-standing connection between hunting and male prowess. This theatre is truly unique - overlap in diet with ecclesiastical (fish) and urban sites (wildfowl) is evident, but this pomp and symbolism is tied to a thegnly identity.

What we seem to be left with, picking through the archaeological record and matching it alongside textual sources, is a carefully manipulated and widely understood set of culinary symbols. Status seems to have been reinforced by what was eaten and how it was eaten, and that this was widely accepted at the time seems clear.

*given the Frank's Casket, it's not impossible that these were for craft purposes

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Bibliography (and further reading)

Audouy, M. and Chapman, A. (2009) Raunds: The Origin and Growth of a Midland Village. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Dobney, K. et al. (2007a) Patterns of Disposal and Processing. In K. Dobney et al. Farmers, Monks and Aristocrats: The Environmental Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon Flixborough: 70-115. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Dobney, K. et al. (2007b) The Agricultural Economy and Resource Procurement. In C. Loveluck Rural Settlement, Lifestyles and Social Change in the Later First Millennium AD: Anglo-Saxon Flixborough in its Wider Context: 87-98. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Fleming, R. (2001) The New Wealth, the New Rich and the New Political Style in Late Anglo- Saxon England. In J. Gillingham (ed.) Anglo-Norman Studies XXIII. Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2000: 1-22. Woodbridge, The Boydell Press.

Gardiner, M. (2017) Manorial Farmsteads and the Expression of Lordship Before and After the Norman Conquest. In D. Hadley and C. Dyers (eds.) The Archaeology of the Eleventh Century: Continuities and Transformations: 88-103. Abingdon, Routledge.

Gautier, A. (2012) Cooking and Cuisine in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon England 41.1: 373-406.

Loveluck, C. (2007) Changing Lifestyles, Interpretation of Settlement Character and Wider Perspective. In C. Loveluck Rural Settlement, Lifestyles and Social Change in the Later First Millennium AD: Anglo-Saxon Flixborough in its Wider Context: 44-63. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Poole, K. (2010) Mammal and Bird Remains. In G. Thomas The Later Anglo-Saxon Settlement at Bishopstone: A Downland Manor in the Making: 142-56. York, Council for British Archaeology.

Reynolds, R. (2010) Fish Remains. In G. Thomas The Later Anglo-Saxon Settlement at Bishopstone: A Downland Manor in the Making: 157-63. York, Council for British Archaeology.

Sykes, N. J. (2004) The Dynamics of Status Symbols: Wildfowl Exploitation in England AD410-1550. The Archaeological Journal 161.1: 82-105.

Sykes, N. J. (2006) From Cu and Sceap to Beffe and Motton. In C. M Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldon (eds.) Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition: 56-71. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Sykes, N. J. (2007) The Norman Conquest: A Zooarchaeological Perspective. Oxford, Archaeopress.

Sykes, N. J. (2010) Deer, Land, Knives and Halls: Social Change in Early Medieval England. Antiquaries Journal 90.1: 175-93.


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