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.

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

Living with the Anglo-Saxons (5)

What about Anglo-Saxon food and drink?

Earlier in 2021 I was delighted to be asked to speak to the Leeds Symposium on Food, Drink and Health, which develops learning on these aspects of historical research. My session was, of course (!) on the Anglo-Saxon period. The following is based on some of the research I outlined in the session …

There was a rich mead hall culture in Anglo-Saxon times; the mead hall was where the community feasts were held and was a focal point in the village or settlement. ‘Mead’ was the common alcoholic drink made from honey, widely drunk, and especially at communal meals, thus the hall was named after it.

Literary evidence from the 7th or 8th century heroic poem Beowulf (the dating isn’t clear) indicates the riches of the hall and its decoration: ‘tapestries worked in gold glittered on the walls’, ‘eofor-līc scionon ofer hlēor-bergan: gehroden golde’ (‘boar-crests glittered above the helmets adorned with gold’), ‘māđm-æht’ (‘precious treasures’), ‘bēag-gyfa’ (the treasure-giver, or lord/leader/chieftain/king). The feasting and drinking is emphasised in the poem and many Anglo-Saxon words emphasise the importance of mead: ‘medo-ful’ (the mead cup), ‘medo-benc’ (the mead benc), ‘medu-drēam’ (revelry in mead-drinking and feasting).

There would be entertainment during the meal: a scōp would be employed, the poet/musician who entertained with ‘harp and voice’ (not a harp as we know it), and the poetry and story-telling would celebrate both traditional Christian and pagan heroic deeds and values. These narrative poems would honour and glorify the community and unify the society.

The mead hall was the centre of the pre-Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Saxon village community. It was important as the Witan council, the decision-making meeting, was usually held in the mead hall and often before a feast. Wooden trestle tables were used for eating and could be dismantled or set up easily and quickly for council meetings. It was the focus of village life, eating and drinking together consolidated the stability of the community.

Feasts in the mead hall would be frequent in Anglo-Saxon times, and feast days for the whole community were usually held according to the journey of the moon: commemorating the full moon, new moon, winter solstice, summer solstice, etc.

But the general feasts were not necessarily for everyone in the village. There was a strict hierarchy. The serfs would serve at tables and they and the cooks would eat separately, but they still ate similarly to the thegns, ealdormen and ladies. The ceorls (lower class free men) might be included at table if they held a particular office. But the gebūrs (not in serfdom but keeper of ‘rented’ allotment of land) would not usually be included. The serfs, never.

There would be a ‘high table’ with the cūning/cyning (king/leader), ealdormen and high thegns. At right angles down the hall were the trestle tables for the other nobles. They would be used mainly at noon and evening for communal eating; evening meals in winter were by the light of flaming ‘torches’ in sconces on the wall and hanging cressets filled with oil. There would usually be a huge firepit in the middle of hall. 

Whether in the mead hall or in their own houses, most Anglo-Saxons would use wooden bowls, platters and spoons. Everyone had their own knife (a seax or small version of a seax), worn in a leather pouch hanging from their belt at their waist. The wealthier people would have drinking horns for mead and perhaps even glass goblets for wine.

Although there is evidence that the Anglo-Saxons imported dates, figs, raisins and almonds, these would be for the wealthy. But berries and nuts from the hedgerows were plentiful for all. There is also evidence that agriculture changed from primarily arable to grazing land and there would be livestock for meat: eg chicken, cattle, pigs, sheep, ducks. There was often settlement provision and also individual families kept animals for food within their own living quarters: usually pigs and hens, often a cow. So dairy was accessible: milk, butter, cheese, eggs.

Settlements were usually sited near to rivers, for transport rather than drinking as the water was often contaminated (thus beer and ale were popular as well as mead) and fish would be caught, using simple nets, traps and line: trout, salmon, eels, perch, pike and even cockles, scallops and oysters.

On arable land and on the little patches of land next to individual houses, Anglo-Saxons would grow vegetables for the table: leeks (used for health remedies too), beans, peas, turnips, onions. Geburs might rent a patch of land for vegetables.

Arable farming produced spelt, wheat (for bread), rye, barley (for ale), oats (for bread, porridge, cakes). Ancient recipes indicate that bread could be made with ground wheat (flour) and water only, no salt (too precious!) or oil or yeast. Salt was extremely precious because it was the main source of food preservation and often used to mask the bad taste of rotting meat. Herbs were also used for this purpose as well as to flavour and tenderise, for marinades, etc.

There was no sugar, so honey was widely used to sweeten food and drinks (hence honeyed mead). Honeyed bread was a delicacy!

NB further reading:

Ann Hagen (2010) Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink: production, processing and consumption (Anglo-Saxon Books)

Debby Banham (2004) Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England (The History Press)

In the next blog, I’ll be looking at how healthy/unhealthy the Anglo-Saxon diet seems to be …

You might like to read more about those times, a fascinating period of English history, in my novel A Shape on the Air. It’s an Anglo-Saxon time-slip mystery available on Amazon at

http//:myBook.to/ASOTA

Afternoon Tea Week!

It’s Afternoon Tea Week this week and I’m sharing a couple of recipes from my book The Old Rectory: escape to a country kitchen, soon to be re-released by Endeavour Press (a week on Friday, 25th August). Wait for 25th as it’ll be available on Amazon and cheaper, in ebook and paperback!

The book has received many 5* reviews including “enchantingly told”, ” delightful”, ” a most engaging read”.

Cream Tea Scones

makes 10–12

A staple of the traditional English cream tea.

You’ll need:

50 g. (2 oz.) butter

25 g. (1 oz.) caster sugar

5tbsp milk

1 egg

225 g. (9 oz.) self raising flour

1 tsp. baking powder

Pinch salt

A little beaten egg or milk to glaze

Strawberry jam and double whipped cream (or Cornish clotted cream) to sandwich the scones, and a little icing sugar to dust the tops.

 Preheat the oven to 220ºC, 425ºF/gas mark 7. Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Place all the ingredients into a bowl and mix to form a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured board and roll out to about 1 cm. (0.5 in.) thickness. Cut into rounds with a 5-cm. (2-in.) cutter and place the scones on a greased baking sheet. Brush lightly with milk or a lightly beaten egg. Bake in the oven for about 12–15 minutes. Cool on a wire cooling tray. Split each scone and spread with a layer of good fruity strawberry jam, topped with a dollop of whipped double cream, then place the other half on the top and dust with sieved icing sugar.

 

Lemon Iced Buns

makes 8

 You’ll need:

250 g. (9 oz.) strong white flour, sifted

250 g. (9 oz.) plain flour, sifted

7 g. (0.25 oz.) fast-action dried yeast

2 tsp. fine sea salt

50 g. (2 oz.) caster sugar

125 ml. (4 fl. oz.) warmed milk

125 g. (4 fl. oz.) warmed water

1 egg, beaten

50 g. (2 oz.) butter, cut into cubes

Zest of 1 lemon

Vegetable oil for greasing

For the icing:

50 g. (2 oz.) icing sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

 Preheat the oven to 220ºC, 425ºF/gas mark 7. Sift the flours and salt into a bowl. Add the water, milk, yeast, sugar, and lemon zest and mix with a fork until combined. Add the beaten egg and butter and continue to mix until the mixture is a sticky dough. Put the dough on a lightly floured board and knead for 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and stretches like elastic. Lightly oil a bowl with some of the vegetable oil. Turn the dough into the bowl and carefully turn until it is entirely coated with oil. Cover with oiled cling film and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour. The dough should have doubled in size. Lightly grease two baking trays. Knock the dough back to its original size and then turn onto a floured board again. Divide the dough into 8 pieces and shape into fingers or rounds. Place on the greased baking sheets, ensuring plenty of space. Cover with a tea towel and leave to prove for 30 minutes. Bake in the oven for about 20–25 minutes, until well risen and golden brown. Remove the buns from the oven and leave to cool on a wire cooling rack.

The icing for the top: Made by simply combining the icing sugar and fresh lemon juice until smooth. When the buns are cool, spread icing over each bun and set aside until hardened. You can decorate with a little lemon zest for that extra oomph.

Sweet and sticky, with a little zestiness from the lemon, these buns are a favourite for afternoon tea.

http://Author.to/JuliaIbbotsonauthor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Old-Rectory-Escape-Country-Kitchen/dp/1909593753/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1502726298&sr=1-4&keywords=julia+ibbotson

New Year, New Me – and keep it up, Julia – after January

Here I come, 2016! Have you made your resolutions? And are you still keeping them in the second week of January? So many of us (me included. most years) start to give up by the middle of January and have completely forgotten what they were by the end of the month. My main resolution this year is to keep my other resolutions ALL YEAR …

I love food, I love cooking: hot comfort food when it’s cold outside. But then I hate to get a fat tum!

P1010494P1010146OK, so eat but then you need exercise.When it’s rainy, snowy and miserable in January and February,  I don’t feel like going out for a walk, getting soaked and cold. I want to sit by the fire, reading and eating.  So there’s a clear front runner for my resolutions. but will I keep to them?

 If you’re anything like me, you know It’s a lot easier if you choose carefully: ones that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. In other words, the good old SMART targets. Anything unrealistic or dependent on chance or fate or someone else, are not going to be achievable.

 “Lose weight” is a no-go. But “lose one stone in weight by July by means of diet and exercise” leads on to three other targets:
(1) use the Mediterranean diet/ reduce my portions by a third/ cut out bread as much as possible
(2) go to the gym three times a week/ take classes in yoga, aqua aerobics, Pilates/ swim 10 lengths all three visits
(3) weigh myself once a week and keep records of weight/body fat/measurements.
I could add “walk in the countryside once a week” or “use my exercise bike/power plate”, or whatever.

 Nobody is saying it will be easy (if it was, there wouldn’t be much point in doing it) but if it’s something that’s possible without changing your whole lifestyle, then it’s do-able. At my gym you have to book classes and if you don’t go, there are (apparently) dire consequences! Aaargh!  I don’t know what, but I daren’t find out! I’m trusted to be responsible and I’m accountable.

I need a reward for all my efforts, apart. of course, from being fitter and healthier. My “new me” is going to be so fit and healthy and slim by July that I will reward myself with a new dress.

I have a couple of others, with regard to choir and writing.

Choir is generalised, but re-join the local community choir and join Rock Choir – those are specific and do-able …I’ve checked my diary and the locations. OK.

Anything BIG like “publish a new book” is vague, generalised, and unspecific. But “complete the second draft of my WIP manuscript by the end of March” hits all the buttons of SMART.

So, there I go! I’m determined. What about you?

 

 

What! No Prosecco? Summer dieting and all that stuff …

JuliadeopgardIt’s June already and I haven’t posted for ages! Mainly because I’ve been embroiled in loads of writing, writerly events – work-related stuff and a lot of travelling, parties and receptions, and a bit of illness too. But I am now the proud member of a London club and the proud possessor of an Oyster card, although I did get jammed in the pincer-like claws of the underground barriers, bags on one side, myself and my pull-along case on the other, totally immovably stuck. Well, it’s  a long story… At least I didn’t fall down the escalator this time. And the odd thing was that nobody, not a single person, took any notice. It’s not as if I’m so fat it was inevitable that I get trapped in the gates. I’m not fat at all, in fact.

But all these parties and receptions made me think: I must get summer-ready. I seem to have focused my life on eating and drinking for some time now, and the evidence is there on my tum for all to see. So … a large leaf to turn over, in the shape of a diet and lots of exercise. I’m trying the 5:2 again but also reducing on the 5 day bit: drastically reducing the bread (ahh, I love French and artisan bread!) and potatoes (I love roast potatoes!), and wine (can’t resist Prosecco and cava; champagne if poss!). Absolutely no cake or biscuits. Got to keep it down to around 1500 calories tops. It’s going to be tough.

On my two “fasting days”, which apparently don’t actually have to be an actual fast, as in, no food at all, but simply (haha!) keeping down to 500 calories and low fat, I’ve got it worked out:

On rising, interval training on my exercise bike for 20 minutes. Apparently it’s more effective on an empty stomach and then to have carbs afterwards.

Breakfast: small bowl of porridge oats, green tea. Lots of green tea and water all day.

Lunch: 2 dark rye ryvita with a scrape of lowest fat cream cheese/or low cal low fat soup, banana, satsuma

Walk and yoga, swim, or exercise bike if rainy and stormy

Dinner: small salad, one slice of fat-less cold meat (chicken), absolutely no dressing/mayo/coleslaw other than a dribble of low cal/low fat French dressing, strawberries/blueberries/pineapple.

30 mins on exercise bike again.

There is a science base to all this, but I can’t go into it – I must be getting back on my bike …

And, hopefully, after a big family wedding that’s coming up shortly (down south!), things will settle down a little.

So I must then focus on my manuscript for the review from the Romantic Novelists’ Association. The novel is called A Shape on the Air and it is a time-slip, parallel universe story where our heroine, after a traumatic revelation, finds herself in a parallel life in the early middle ages with equally difficult life – issues. How will it all resolve itself? Well, I’m wondering that myself …

Thrilled to bits about my contract with Endeavour Press for the ebook of Drumbeats, and the publication of the sequel Walking in the Rain. Coming next week, in time for Midsummer’s Day the following week, a blog on dreams, and the launch day of a lovely funny new novel.