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

Is it time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’?

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The ‘Dark Ages’: barbaric, primitive, brutal, murderous? People illiterate, uncivilised. Tribes of Angles and Saxons marauding, hacking their way across Britain and cruelly wiping out the native Britons and Celts, slaying all in their path? Dark dangerous days after the Romans left; everything crumbled, decayed, ruined?

In the first of my Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, one thread in Viv’s narrative is the notion that the ‘dark ages’ tend to be misconstrued as primitive, that the ‘dark ages’ are only dark because we know little about them from the relative paucity of surviving evidence and artefacts. As a specialist in early medieval language, literature and history, I am excited by the idea that this historical period wasn’t primitive and barbaric, but in fact refined with a rich culture from its Roman, Briton and Celtic heritage – and indeed from rich foreign trade. Gold, jewelry, embroideries, tapestry wall hangings, crafted utensils, glass: the feasting halls of the chieftains would have glowed with wealth.

Let’s look at the more recent discoveries about the world of late fifth century Britain, for example the site near Lyminge in Kent, where an early feasting hall has been unearthed and evidence revealed of a good and settled domestic life. The Romans left us with not only an engineering and building heritage but also a cultural one. I am also intrigued by the exploration of the bronze age settlement at Must Farm in the fens, dating from long before the setting of my story, yet revealing a sophistication of crafts, utensils, clothing, domesticity and foreign trade all of which I am convinced would have become a surviving part of the British psyche. Both Lyminge and Must Farm discoveries are mentioned in my story.

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon on Pexels.com

So, archaeological evidence is at last beginning to emerge and we have new and exciting tools to discover more. Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than a period of decline and sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t any bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, and between local chieftains for power supremacy, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Angles and Saxons by the native Britons and Celts.

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with Romans who remained after the Roman troop withdrawals, and a similar intermingling between Britons and the immigrant Angles and Saxons.

This view of gradual change and evolution from immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies and her emerging view is that the ‘dark ages’ were not so dark, barbaric and brutal as we had previously imagined.

West Stowe Anglo Saxon village

So perhaps it’s time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’ title. So what can we call this post-Roman pre-Anglo-Saxon period instead? Some academics use ‘early medieval’. Oosthuizen uses the term ‘late antique’ for the period 400-600AD (with ‘early medieval’ for 600-850AD). What do you think?

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

NaNoWriMo begins

deopgard A Shape on the Air, a fantasy time-slip story of two women separated by 1500 years. Can they help each other to survive?

Goodness, I can’t believe it’s a year since the last NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month each November when authors are in hibernation furiously tapping out manuscripts on their laptops in solitary confinement. This year I decided to be organised and to have everything planned out beforehand so that I can – hopefully – make the most of the drive to word count targets. So, I registered my novel title and elevator pitch. most importantly, I got  my writing buddies up there ready.

Most of October was supposed to be spent in prep. But, don’t you just know it, my schedule for preparation ie my planning, my timelines, my character profiles, etc, etc, kind of became academic when I sprained and broke my ankle. Yes, coming out of my gym! OK, I know – gyms are dangerous places. I was trying to get fit for all this writing.

Undeterred, I rigged up my laptop on my lap … not easy … but isn’t that what they’re supposed to be for? Prep was going very slowly until this week. The last week in October, just before NaNo starts, and I’m panicking. But d’ you know what? My ankle well and truly ibuprofen-gelled and strapped up, now I can sit for short stretches at my computer and write, in between sitting on the sofa, foot propped up, planning with the old-fashioned pen and paper.

So, I’m more or less there. Ready to complete my masterpiece – or at least my manuscript in four weeks. Wish me luck … I’ll let you know how I get on.