When you think of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, your thoughts may go to the cinematic depictions of rich meals and abundant ale consumed by royals and nobles of the time. Meanwhile, their peasant counterparts were obliged to consume a diet of cereals and vegetables and were required to give their overlords the prize slices of meat as a sort of exploitative rent. This, however, may not be the case. Dr. Sam Leggett, a bioarchaeologist, and Dr. Tom Lambert, a historian, have published a pair of papers in the journal Anglo-Saxon England that might change how we think about medieval royalty and society.
Leggett studied the chemical traces of meals retained in the bones of 2,023 persons buried in England between the 5th and 11th centuries in the famous “you are what you eat” study. Following that, social status indicators such as the amount of burial items, grave orientation, and corpse position were cross-referenced with the data. There was no link discovered between social position and high protein diets, suggesting that Anglo-Saxon monarchs may not have been the meat-eaters we always assumed, according to medieval literature and historical research.
So, where did this presumption originate? In the form of food lists, there is abundance of written material from this time period. During the reign of Ruler Ine of Wessex (c. 688-726) — the first West Saxon king to create a code of laws – one such list was prepared. Lambert and Leggett calculated that the food on this list provided 1.24 million calories, with animal protein accounting for more than half of those calories. It was projected that each of the estimated 300 visitors would have devoured around 4,140 calories of beef, mutton, salmon, eel, and chicken, as well as honey, cheese, and ale.
This list was akin to other southern English food lists, and they all followed the same pattern: a large amount of meat, a reasonable amount of bread, and a substantial (but not excessive) amount of ale. Vegetables were not mentioned in these lists, although it is not impossible that they were not provided. The researchers likened these feasts to modern-day barbecues, in which people cook a lot of meat and generally have a lot of leftovers, and they emphasized that they were most likely a one-time splurge.
“The size and proportions of these food lists clearly imply that they were intended for special occasions like as big feasts, rather than regular food supplies for royal families.” As historians have thought, these were not guidelines for ordinary elite meals,” Lambert stated in a statement. “Isotopic data reveals that diets in this time were far more uniform across social categories than we’ve been encouraged to assume,” says the author. “We should envisage a wide spectrum of individuals putting modest amounts of meat and cheese on bread, or eating pottages of leeks and whole grains with a little meat thrown in,” Leggett said.
The sumptuous feasts are considered to have been outdoor gatherings in which whole oxen were roasted – as demonstrated by pits discovered in East Anglia – and attended by a vast number of people, including ordinary farmers. Previously, it was thought that the kingdom’s free peasants contributed a feorm, or food-rent, to the Anglo-Saxon nobility. Lambert, on the other hand, has researched the word feorm in a variety of contexts and believes that it relates to a single feast rather than an old tax.
“We’re talking about monarchs attending large barbeques held by free peasants, individuals who had their own farms and occasionally employed slaves to work on them.” It’s comparable to a current presidential campaign meal in the United States. “This was an important type of political participation,” Lambert remarked. Food taxes have long been a fundamental component of hypotheses regarding the origins of English kingship and early land-based governance. In fact, they are still a topic of discussion in present disputes over the treatment of English peasants. This new study might throw that into chaos by shedding insight on our forefathers’ daily life.