Food and Drink
Fruit and Vegetables
When we visit the shops in England today, we are presented with a wealth of fruit and vegetables from all corners of the planet from which to choose. For people in this country in the tenth and eleventh century this could not happen. They had only such foods as could be cultivated seasonally or found wild. Exotic foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, pineapples - fruits and vegetables of the New World, were unknown here. Mediterranean fruits, such as lemons and oranges were, as far as we know, not imported, although we have documentary proof for the importation of such things as figs and grapes.
We know that they grew wheat, rye, oats and barley. Wheat for bread, barley for brewing and oats for animal fodder and porridge. Along with these crops grew various weeds of cultivation - some of them poisonous. The harvesting methods made it difficult to separate the cereal from the weed, and many illnesses must have been caused in this way.
It is known that they had carrots, but these were not the large, orange coloured vegetables that we are used to today. They were much closer to their wild ancestors - purplish red and small. 'Welsh carrots'; or parsnips were also available. Cabbages were also of a wild variety, with smaller tougher leaves. They cultivated legumes such as peas and beans. Various 'wild'; roots were probably collected, such as burdock and rape. Onions and leeks were cultivated as flavourings and wild garlic may have been used.
One way in which the people made up for the poor quality of these vegetables would have been to flavour them with native and imported herbs and spices. In Aelfric's Colloquy, the merchant speaks of importing spices, and in the Leechbooks, some imported spices are mentioned. Among them may have been ginger, cinnamon, cloves mace and pepper. We have no way of knowing how these spices were used , as the earliest recipe book only dates from the 14th century. Home grown herbs would have included coriander, dill, thyme, opium poppy and summer savoury.
Many fruits were eaten and seeds from excavations tell us that they also had small apples (crab apples) plums, cherries and sloes. A large deposit of apple pips, from a pit in Gloucester probably points to the making of cider. These would have been sweetened with honey. Sugar was virtually unknown in the West of Europe, and at this period was used only as a medicine, as a laxative and for bladder disorders, for the kidneys and for eye disorders. It does not. however, appear in any Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks.
Honey was used to make a sweet alcoholic drink called mead, which was usually flavoured with some form of herb such as meadowsweet (O.E. meduwyrt - meaning mead plant). However, even today it is still not clear whether the mead they knew was no more than honey beer that we may encounter occasionally today. The confusion here lies with the fact that they refer to 'frothing horns of mead', and mead as we make it does not have a head to it. Barley was used to make beer which may have been flavoured with wild hops. Whether these were wild or cultivated is not known, but the Graveney boat, a 10th Century clinker built inshore trading boat may have been carrying a cargo which included hops up the Thames Estuary.
Wine was drunk, but this was generally imported although fruit wines may have been home-produced. There are also written references to 'apple-wine', probably a form of cider. Many fruit juices including apple, pear and plum were drunk as were herbal 'teas' and infusions. Whilst acorns are plentiful most years, they can only be eaten with sufficient preparation. There is no mention in the Anglo-Saxon record of them ever being used as a food stuff - with the closest instances of Oak 'products' being the leaves as a remedy in the Ormont fragment and the bark as an astringent in Bald's Leechbook. There may have been many instances where a needs must approach may have occurred which was not normal practice when food was in short supply. Evidence of such practices has been observed at sites where grain was used for bread production, but the bulk inclusion of random grass seeds suggests that the flour was being padded out - either to make it stretch further because there was actually little wheat, or simply because someone was being ripped off.
Spirits and fortified wines were not known although the apple wine may have had quite a high alcohol content.
We know about the fish that were eaten in the period from bones which have been found during archaeological excavations. Some bones have been found whilst digging was being carried out, but most need soil samples to be washed through fine meshed sieves back in the laboratory. Some bones come from toilet pits and appear to have been chewed up before being swallowed. It has been possible to discover what kinds of fish were eaten by comparing the bones with those of fish today.
Evidence shows a variety of fish were eaten - herring, salmon and eel as well as some which are not eaten much today such as pike, perch and roach. They seem to have also eaten flounder, whiting, plaice, cod and brown trout too. Shellfish, especially oysters, mussels and cockles, seem to have formed part of many peoples diets. Fish was eaten fresh, but was also preserved for less plentiful times of year. This was done by salting, pickling, smoking and drying.
How were fish caught? In Ælfric's Colloquy the fisherman explains his craft: Master: How do you catch the Fish?
Fisherman: I board my boat and cast my net into the river; and throw in a hook and bait and baskets; and whatever I catch I take.
Master: What if the fish are unclean?
Fisherman: I throw the unclean ones away, and take the clean ones for food.
Master: Where do you sell your fish?
Fisherman: In the city.
Master: Who buys them?
Fisherman: The citizens. I can't catch as many as I can sell.
Master: Which fish do you catch?
Fisherman: Eels and pike, minnows and turbot, trout and lampreys and whatever swims in the water. Small fish.
Master: Why don't you fish in the sea?
Fisherman: Sometimes I do, but rarely, because it is a lot of rowing for me to the sea.
Master: What do you catch in the sea?
Fisherman: Herrings and salmon, porpoises and sturgeon, oysters and crabs, mussels, winkles, cockles, plaice and flounders and lobsters, and many similar things.
Master: Would you like to catch a whale?
Fisherman: Not me!
Fisherman: Because it is a risky business catching a whale. It's safer for me to go on the river with my boat, than to go hunting whales with many boats.
Master: Why so?
Fisherman: Because I prefer to catch a fish that I can kill, rather than a fish that can sink or kill not only me but also my companions with a single blow.
Master: Nevertheless, many catch whales and escape danger, and make great profit by it.
Fisherman: You are right, but I dare not because of my timid spirit.
It seems that river fish were caught in nets, hunted with fish-spears or even caught in wicker traps. Large sea fish were caught in nets which floated below the surface of the sea and others were caught with hooks and lines. Whales and dolphins were also hunted for their meat, as well as other useful products such as whalebone and fat. Interestingly enough, as porpoise were considered to be a fish, they were acceptable fare during Lent.
Most meat eaten by the Saxons came from animals which had more than one use. Sheep were kept for their wool and meat, cows for their milk, sinews and hides. The horn was used for fastenings, drinking vessels and had many other uses. The hide of a bull was as valuable for its leather as the meat. Even the bone was used for belt ends, needles, knife handles, pins for hair and clothing and even for ice skates! Goats were kept for their milk and meat. Only pigs seem to have been raised purely for their meat. It is not clear whether horses were killed for meat or kept purely as riding animals and beasts of burden. The act of eating horse meat became very much frowned upon, and was regarded as a pagan thing to do, so much so that laws were passed to prevent the habit. Although during times of famine, as occurs today, almost anything is game.
Pigs were important for food because they produce large litters, which would quickly mature and be ready for slaughter. However, the numbers of pigs kept gradually decreases throughout the Saxon period. Remains of pigs of all sizes have been found suggesting they were killed as and when they were needed, rather than at set times of the year.
Cows produce ten times more meat than sheep or goats and beef production grew increasingly important as pig numbers decreased. Most adult cattle were female, suggesting dairying was also important.
Sheep and goats always accounted for about 50% of the livestock and are ideal animals, as they can be grazed on land that is unsuitable for cattle and pigs, and they are a multipurpose animal. The sheep were generally similar to the Soay breed, but were larger although a sheep similar to a small Romney Marsh sheep was also kept. A high proportion were killed when young and a large number of these were female. Most adult sheep were wethers (castrated rams) raised mainly for wool. The goats were probably similar to feral goats. The exact proportion of sheep to goats is unknown since it is not easy to distinguish between sheep and goats from skeletal evidence.
Hens, of course, provided eggs as well as meat for the pot, as did ducks and geese. Their hollow bones were used for musical pipes. Various wild birds were eaten too, such as ducks, plover, grouse, herons and geese. Hares were also caught (there were no rabbits until after the Norman Conquest). Deer were hunted for meat, skins and antler. Wild boar would also be hunted for their meat, with their tusks being an important prize for the hunter.
Most meals would have been some form of stew, soup or pottage cooked in a cauldron over the central hearth of the house. Bread, baked in a clay oven or on a griddle, would also be a daily foodstuff. Flour could be ground at a water mill although more usually it would be done in the home using a hand quern. Wealthier people would have been able to afford an imported rotary quern from the Rhineland. When the flour is freshly querned from recently cut grain, little yeast is necessary to be added to the dough as there is a reasonable yeast content in fresh grain.
Most of the time, especially amongst the poor, meat would only be used in small quantities to give extra flavour. This did not mean that Saxons were vegetarians, in fact they would eat as much meat as they could afford to. The wealthier a person was, the more often meat would figure in their diets.
The vegetables used in cooking would have been those that were in season at the time, although some may have been preserved by drying or pickling. Similarly, meat would have been used more in summer and autumn when domestic animals were killed and game was more readily available, although pigs, sheep and cattle were killed during the winter to provide fresh meat and save too much depletion of winter fodder. When the animals, especially pigs, were killed the blood was probably collected to make a form of black pudding. This is made by stirring the blood until it is cool to stop it congealing and then adding flour and herbs. The animal fat was used both for cooking and to make tallow for lamps and dubbin. Meat was preserved by salting and smoking and some may have been dried. No doubt herbs and spices were used to disguise the unpleasant taste that these may have had. Fish as was said earlier could be preserved by salting, smoking, pickling or simply drying.
Milk would have been used to make butter and cheese, especially sheep's and goat's milk. Eggs from chickens, ducks and geese would also have been eaten although the fowl of the period would not have laid as often as their modern counterparts.
One of the most important foodstuffs was honey as this was the only sweetener available. A good hive could produce about 100lbs of honey in a year. (A family of 6 would require about 1/2lb honey per day.) Sweet foods like honey and almond cakes were popular, but usually not an everyday foodstuff. There is some suggestion that gingerbread and cheeseckes may have been fare on the Anglo-Saxon table, but the only references that still exist imply that these are introductions that occur later in our history. Sugar, whilst used in North Africa, was not much used in Europe. If it ever found it's way to Britain, it makes one wonder what it may have looked like by the time it reached our damp shores.......
Other methods of cooking used included; frying in a frying pan or griddle (similar to a chestnut roaster), baking in a clay or turf oven, grilling on a spiral griddle, hanging griddle or on a 'barbecue' (similar to that shown on the Bayeux Tapestry). Spit roasting was done on a large rotary spit or using small skewers like a kebab skewer or food could even be baked in the embers of a fire usually wrapped in leaves and clay. By and large though, food was almost always boiled in a cauldron or baked in the embers of a fire usually wrapped in leaves and clay, as it was a more economic way of providing well cooked nutritious meals.
Specific evidence for banquets and feasts comes from the court of Charlemagne where he is described as being served 'in four courses only, exclusive of the roast, which hunters brought in on spits'.
As to whether Charlemagne was being deliberately restrained is unknown. Some experts believe that later in the period, banquets and religious feasts held by the nobility (and sometimes the lower ranks too), would have as many as ten or twelve courses/dishes, although each course was fairly small. Fish and meat would make up several of the courses, although some courses would be purely vegetable. Much alcoholic drink was also served at banquets. There is some suggestion that the finds of large cauldrons from a variety of sites were almost always used for brewing beer, and not for cooking porridge etc; indicating the status of such beverages in their society. An honoured guest would be served drink by the banquet giver's wife and/or daughter or the banquet host if they happened to be a woman.
Food was eaten from wooden or clay bowls using only a knife and spoon (forks do not seem to have been used for eating until much later in the medieval period). There are however Scandinavian finds of pointed 'food sticks' made of wood or bone which may have been used for picking up pieces of meat and larger vegetables. Wooden plates were used for some food although pottery ones are very rare. Drinking vessels were made from a variety of materials in a number of styles. The commonest would have been wooden or pottery cups and mugs. Horns (often highly decorated) were also used and conical glass vessels were used in the early period, but were rare, giving way to glass vessels shaped more like beakers that we have today. Small wooden cups were used for very strong drinks. Leather was also used for drinking vessels although there is little evidence of this other than a passage in Ælfrics Colloquy. There is no evidence for drinking vessels with handles ever being used. Drinks were served from pottery jugs and pitchers or from bottles made of wood, clay or leather. Wooden tubs and ladles were probably used for serving drinks, some of which were served hot.
- Viking Age England, Julian Richards, p94.
- S Pollington - 'Leechdom'.
- Eighth-Eleventh Century Economy and Environment in York in J Rackham Environment and Economy in A/S England. CBA Res Rep 89.
- Dangerous Tastes, the Story of Spices. Andrew Dalby.
- The GraveneyBoat: a tenth century find from Kent. V Fenwick ed Brit Archaeol Re Brit Ser 53 Oxford 1978.
- Eginhard 'Early Lives of Charlemagne' Ed A J Grant.
Original article by Ben Levick, 1992
Revised by Hazel Uzzell, 2001