Living with the Anglo-Saxons (6): what about the healthiness of the diet?

In the last blog, I looked at what we know about food and drink in the Anglo-Saxon period. In many ways it might seem to us today that the Anglo-Saxon diet was healthy: no sugar, no fast foods, no ready meals, no additives, no processed foods – all the things dietitians and nutritionists are concerned about these days. So we tend to make assumptions based on our 21st century perspectives of a ‘healthy diet’ or ‘unhealthy foods’. We don’t have the Anglo-Saxon perspective on this!

The paucity of skeletal evidence from bio-archaeological or osteo-archaeological findings make it difficult to assess disease and chronic illnesses of the period. Our assumptions might be that there was lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, cancers because the diet consisted for many people of fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, fresh meat and fish (although the latter two were more prevalent in the diet of the higher status Anglo-Saxons). And we might assume that this would lead to an increase in dental health, average height, increased recovery rate from infections. But without documentary or widespread archaeological evidence it’s hard to make generalisations.

We do know that there would have been a reliance on seasonal fresh produce because preservation was hard, which could be a problem if the harvest was affected by climate or major weather systems and this would be a vulnerability for Anglo-Saxon settlements. For example, there is evidence of a major volcanic eruption in the mid-530s which caused significant climate change, cold, darkness, ruined harvests. The resulting famine, hunger and starvation, would result in increased disease and deaths. We also know that there was a significant pandemic of bubonic plague in 541-2. Although this may not have been caused by diet it would certainly have ramifications on food production and availability.

The lack of food preservation techniques would exacerbate this vulnerability. There were few means to preserve perishable foodstuffs, apart from drying, smoking, and salting. Salt became such a precious commodity that some might be paid in salt, and social status was marked by how near or far you sat from the salt at feasts (‘above or below the salt’ was a common expression, being ‘below the salt’ indicating lower status). Foods such as fish and meat would be encased in salt for preservation, but it was also used to mask the taste of bad food.

Rotten perishable food was a significant health risk, but it was arguably not entirely widely recognised in this period. We think that it tended to be thought that it was the taste of bad food that was the problem, rather than the bacteria in rotting food. So, as a result, the Anglo-Saxons were keen to disguise the taste of bad food with salt, herbs and marinades. There would have been a significant risk of illness from food poisoning, from meat from cattle that were carriers of disease, and a weakening of strength when physical activity was paramount for the life of the community.

What about Anglo-Saxon medicine? Bald’s Leechbook (9th century) available in the British Library, and other documents, provide some interesting evidence of the way illness and disease was treated in this period. For example, various treatments were advised for wounds, throat infections, skin conditions and some for more serious diseases. Herbs were used for infusions, ointments, salves and poultices (eg an eye salve from garlic), and recipes are given for problems such as nettles for muscular pain. Eating animal liver is cited as a ‘cure for the plague’. The Leechbook suggests a concoction of leek, garlic, wine and bullock’s gall, which was reported in 2015 as a potion that could potentially kill methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)!

A final thought: there is emerging evidence from Anglo-Saxon sites in Cambridgeshire and Kent from the analysis of human skeletal remains for carbon and nitrogen isotopes that suggest diverse diets based on wealth and social status. For example, some studies suggest that higher status, wealthier Anglo-Saxons ate more meat and fish, and lower status people ate more vegetables, and possibly were, in some case, largely vegetarian. This is an ongoing analysis, but it would be interesting to know whether this related to the level of health. 

PS Would you like to know more about life in the Anglo-Saxon period? My novel A Shape on the Air is set in 499 AD as Angle and Saxon tribes began to settle in Britain, although of course this happened over the course of several centuries.

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Living with the Anglo-Saxons (4)

What would an Anglo-Saxon village look like?

The Anglo-Saxon village or settlement consisted of wooden thatched huts, ceorls’ houses, and larger timber halls for the thegns, usually single storey and all grouped around a central mead hall and large chieftain’s hall. In many cases, these could be combined into one large ‘long hall’. The mead hall served as the venue for feasting with huge celebratory banquets, although generally restricted to the wealthy thegns and ealdormen, and as a place for meetings, sometimes referred to as ‘moot halls’ , the moot being the council meeting or gathering where the higher rungs of society met to discuss the settlement’s important matters of defence, judgement and punishment, tythes or food provisions. A large mead hall might contain rooms for the family of the chieftain (or cūning). As the period progressed halls became bigger and more splendidly furbished to signal the chieftain’s power and status. Recent archaeological work has uncovered huge halls for such purposes.

Even the early Anglo-Saxon villages would be fortified against raiders and would have a band of warriors ready to fight for their society’s protection and security. There would be stables for horses, granaries for storing precious grain, and along the dirt roads would be clusters of tradesmen’s workshops often with wooden shelves or counters outside, displaying their wares: the wood-worker, the metal-worker, the communal bakery, the baker, the weaver, the pottery kiln, and so on. When coinage was scarce, trade was often through exchange or barter of goods or services.

Thatched single-room huts of wattle and daub or wood comprised much of the settlement and these were often flanked by small plots allowed for vegetable growing for the family’s own use (the precursor of our gardens) and middens for human sewage – which proved invaluable for manure to fertilise the vegetable plot!

Gradually the Anglo-Saxons moved away from their pagan heritage and by the 6th century were embracing Christianity, partly through missionaries from Rome or Celtic lands, and simple timber churches could be found in settlements, often adopting pagan sites such as burial mounds, sacred wells or standing stones as their locations.

By the later period, the 9th  to the 10th centuries, we might expect to see the wide development of village churches, still often timber built which didn’t survive the ages, but which later developed in size, architecture, building materials and adornments as the period continued. Many village churches of today bear evidence of their Saxon and Celtic origins, perhaps where they were built in stone (rare) or reveal a Saxon cross in the churchyard.

NEXT TIME: Anglo-Saxon diet and health …

For more about Anglo-Saxon life, my Anglo-Saxon/present day time-slip with mystery and a touch of romance can be found at:

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Living with the Anglo-Saxons (3)

What would an Anglo-Saxon ceorl’s house look like?

The image above gives you some idea, but the early Anglo-Saxons would not have a hearth and chimney like this! Nor would their walls be of stone – they would be wooden, which is why so little from that time has survived.

A ceorl’s house was basic with few adornments, unlike the homes of the wealthy higher classes, and would have looked to us more like large huts or barns. Indeed the animals would share the room with the family. Ceorls were ‘freed-men’ and often were in charge of a portion of fields or livestock. The family’s own animals, bred for food or milk, were housed at one end of the house for winter shelter: a goat, a cow, a sheep.

The house would measure around 10 metres by 5 metres with wooden floors which could be covered with fragrant herbs. The walls were of upright planks of wood slotted together or of wattle and daub. There were window openings, but no glass, and a central hearth for cooking. There was no chimney and often no hole for the smoke to escape, so the living quarters would have been very smoky and unpleasant especially in winter when the animals joined the family indoors. The roof would be thatched and blackened by the smoke. Bedding would be perhaps a large bag stuffed with straw or wool if the family had sheep to shear.

The family’s table would be a trestle arrangement that could be easily taken down and stored between meals. Food would need to be hung high in the roof, away from predators. They would eat whatever they could acquire from their animals, mainly chicken, pork, beef and lamb, their small plot of land for vegetables, and the hedgerows for berries. Their diet would be fresh as there were few ways of storing: salt was precious for preserving meat, for instance, and ice-houses only for the wealthy. They would drink ale rather than water which was often contaminated. Wine was rare in a ceorl’s house but frequently drunk in the chieftain’s hall. Bread made from spelt, rye or oats, could be baked in communal basic ovens. There was little sugar in their diet and skeletal remains show good dental health. For a sweetener they used honey from their own or communal hives, and this is one of the main ingredients of the favoured alcoholic drink of mead.

Water for washing and cooking could be collected in pots from the stream or village well, if they were lucky enough to have one accessible. The ceorl’s home would have a small plot of land outside the building for vegetables for the family’s use, and nearby a ‘midden’ or primitive toilet area, the contents of which would be used for manure on the vegetable plot.  

For more, you may like to read my novel A Shape on the Air, an Anglo-Saxon mystery time-slip, set in the present day and 499 AD grounded in detail on domestic life of the time, available at

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Living with the Anglo-Saxons (2)

What did the early Anglo Saxons wear?

Certainly not animal skins wrapped around their torsos, the popular image of ancient Britons, nor togas left over from the Roman occupation of Britain! From the 5th to the 7th century clothing was perhaps surprisingly well refined and often richly dyed and decorated, especially for the higher classes of society. Of course, it depended on your social class, and the lower classes wore simpler garb of rougher cloth (working class serfs, peasants and even geburs who kept small parcels of land, and ceorls who were freedmen). But even so, the garb was not unlike our clothes today. For the higher ceorls and the thegns and their ladies, clothes were highly decorated and accessorised by brooches of gold and jewels.

Upper class ladies often wore several layers, as heating even in the richest houses was rudimentary: a chemise or shift in linen or wool, then on top of this,  a long sleeved full-length under-dress, or kirtle, again of linen or wool or maybe a soft cotton fabric from lime tree fibres. On top was an over-gown dyed with more expensive dyes such as deep reds, purples and blues and lavishly trimmed with braid or fur. It would be fixed around the waist with a leather belt from which hung a pouch for keys and other valuables, a cross between a modern-day pocket and a purse or bag. On top would be an embroidered mantle or cloak fixed with a gold brooch at the shoulder, often jewelled or metalworked. Later in the period, kirtles would be fashioned with gores lined with silk or brocade to match the over-gown or trim.

Ladies’ hair would be twisted and bound or braided. Unmarried girls wore their hair more loosely. Headwear for ladies was a head rail often decorated with silver-work or jewels which fixed the veil beneath. Later, ladies tended to wear a type of wimple and veil reminiscent of nuns or a coif or crespine.

What of the men? As you might expect, theirs were simpler than the ladies. Men of lower class would wear simple tunics, often rough-spun with hose beneath, with higher class thegns and above sporting woollen or linen undergarments and woollen hose beneath their tunics topped with heavy fur-lined cloaks, fixed with gold brooches. Heavy leather belts held daggers and knives not just for fighting but for cutting food in the mead hall feasts.

For more about Anglo-Saxon life, why not read my novel, A Shape on th Air, a time-slip from the present day to 499 AD

http://myBook.to/ASOTA