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.

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