It has long been assumed by historians that medieval English royals consumed a heavily meat-based diet. But a new bioarchaeological study proposes that, before the arrival of the Vikings, Anglo-Saxon diets were largely vegetarian with small amounts of meat and that there is no evidence to suggest that elites ate more meat than commoners.

The study, published in the journal Anglo-Saxon England , is augmented by a sister study published in the same issue which contends that peasants hosted sumptuous meat feasts for royals, and that these were occasional and voluntary. This forces a rethink on the belief that they had a regular food rent extracted from them, and has very wide implications for the study of power relations in medieval England, reports

West Stow Anglo-Saxon village. (Sam Leggit / University of Cambridge)

West Stow Anglo-Saxon village. (Sam Leggit / University of Cambridge )

Medieval English Diets Were Similar across Social Class

Bioarchaeologist Sam Leggett and historian Tom Lambert came together to work on the research after Dr Leggett made a presentation on the chemical signatures of diets found in the bones of 2,023 people buried in England from the 5th to the 11th centuries that intrigued Lambert. Her analysis of the isotopic findings was bolstered by evidence for social status such as grave goods, body position and grave orientation . She found no correlation between social status and high protein diets. This was at variance with many historical studies based on medieval texts that suggest Anglo-Saxon elites in fact consumed vast amounts of meat.

They started by examining the food and calorie content of a food list compiled during the reign of King Ine of Wessex (c. 688-726), reports the Daily Mail . They calculated that the list amounted to 1.24 million kcal of food, over half of which came from animal protein. Given that it also included 300 bread rolls, they estimated individual portions assuming one roll per guest. Each person would have been served 4,140 kcal of food in the form of 500 grams of mutton, 500 grams of beef, 500 grams of salmon, eel and poultry, as well as honey, cheese and ale.

Food list compiled during the reign of King Ine of Wessex, part of the Textus Roffensis. (Chapter of Rochester Cathedral /University of Cambridge)

Food list compiled during the reign of King Ine of Wessex, part of the Textus Roffensis. (Chapter of Rochester Cathedral / University of Cambridge )

Ten other food lists from southern England showed a similar pattern with a very substantial quantity of meat supplemented by a small amount of bread and reasonable quantities of ale. Although the lists mentioned no vegetables, the researchers conclude that some were probably served.

According to Lambert, the quantities suggest that these were provisions for lavish feasts not regular supplies to royal households. He states in a Cambridge University press release:

“The scale and proportions of these food lists strongly suggests that they were provisions for occasional grand feasts, and not general food supplies sustaining royal households on a daily basis. These were not blueprints for everyday elite diets as historians have assumed.”

Leggett adds:

“I’ve found no evidence of people eating anything like this much animal protein on a regular basis. If they were, we would find isotopic evidence of excess protein and signs of diseases like gout from the bones. But we’re just not finding that. The isotopic evidence suggests that diets in this period were much more similar across social groups than we’ve been led to believe. We should imagine a wide range of people livening up bread with small quantities of meat and cheese, or eating pottages of leeks and whole grains with a little meat thrown in.”

According to Leggett and Lambert, this largely cereal-based diet would have been applicable to royals as well, and the meat feasts would have constituted indulgences for them too.

Dr Sam Legget at work testing the chemical signatures found in bones from Anglo-Saxon England. (University of Cambridge)

Dr Sam Legget at work testing the chemical signatures found in bones from Anglo-Saxon England. ( University of Cambridge )

Voluntary Feasts and Not Mandatory Food Rent Marked Peasant-Royal Relations

Archaeological evidence has come from East Anglia of lavish outdoor banquets at which whole oxen were roasted in huge pits. It has been assumed that these were select dos for elites. “But these food lists show that even if you allow for huge appetites, 300 or more people must have attended. That means that a lot of ordinary farmers must have been there, and this has big political implications,” Lambert stated in the release.

A regular food-rent, known in old English as feorm is believed to have been paid to medieval English kings by the free peasants of their realms. These renders of food were thought to have largely sustained royal households with kings’ own lands playing only a supplementary role. However, Lambert’s study of the use of the word feorm in different contexts, including aristocratic wills, suggests that it refers to individual feasts and not an exploitative primitive tax.

So, according to Lambert, feorm jumps from being an extractive and impersonal tax which is received as a right by the king who is not required to show any respect to the provider, to a feast hosted for kings and lords who attended it in person.

“We’re looking at kings traveling to massive barbecues hosted by free peasants, people who owned their own farms and sometimes slaves to work on them. You could compare it to a modern presidential campaign dinner in the US. This was a crucial form of political engagement,” he states.

This has huge implications for the study of medieval political power dynamics and English political history in general. Food renders are a crucial aspect of theories about the beginnings of English kingship and land-based patronage politics. They are also central to debates on how England’s free peasantry became subjugated.

Suggesting a uniformity of diet across social groups and occasional, interactive feasting of royals by free peasants rather than a regular extortionary supply of food to sustain royal households, the twin studies by Leggett and Lambert present a startlingly original picture of medieval English political power relations.

Top image: A medieval cart of vegetables, now thought to be more representative of the Anglo-Saxon royal’s diet. Source: Dmytro Surkov /Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

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