The popular view of early medieval diets is that the elites enjoyed protein-rich, meat-heavy meals, while those of lower status had less nutritious options available to them. This image of dietary hierarchy is entrenched in the idea that Anglo-Saxon royals and their associates benefited from a tax-like system known as feorm (food-rent), through which free peasants were regularly required to supply their rulers with food.
Now, though, bioarchaeologist Sam Leggett from the University of Edinburgh and historian Tom Lambert from the University of Cambridge have cast doubt on these prevailing narratives in a two-part cross-disciplinary investigation published in the journal Anglo-Saxon England (https://doi.org/10.1017/S0263675122000072 and https://doi.org/10.1017/S0263675122000084). Combining stable-isotope analysis with documentary research, their findings suggest we should revise much of what we think we know about the science and social dynamics of food in early medieval England.
Stable-isotope analysis of bone collagen and tooth enamel is now a standard technique for gathering information about the diet and migratory behaviour of individuals in the archaeological record (see CA 118, 308, 335, 344, and 387). It operates on the principle that ‘you are what you eat and drink’ – in other words, chemical traces of the things you consume over the course of your life leave distinctive signatures in your teeth and bones. To find out more about early medieval diets, Sam drew on a large isotopic dataset published last year in the journal Ecology (Leggett et al., https://doi.org/10.1002/ecy.3349). Her research focused on carbon and nitrogen signatures preserved in the bone collagen of 2,023 people buried in England between the 5th and 11th centuries AD, but this analysis detected no correlation between high social status (as evidenced by grave goods or burial position, for example) and a high-protein diet.
This result surprised Tom, because early medieval texts contain references to the meat-based diets of high-status individuals – so, to investigate the contradiction, he and Sam studied several lists of ‘food-rent’ paid by peasants to kings and elite landowners between the late 7th and 10th centuries AD. These documents list quantities of meat, fish, dairy products, ale, honey, and bread, and they have traditionally been interpreted as evidence for the regular supply of such produce to royal and elite households – for whom feorm is often assumed to have been a primary source of food. In one list from the laws of King Ine of Wessex (r. 688-726), for example, the researchers estimated that the total calorie content of the supplies amounted to around 1.24 million kcal, with over half of these (55%) coming from animal protein. A similar pattern was observed in ten further lists from royal and ecclesiastical contexts in Gloucestershire, Kent, and Hertfordshire, all of which indicated the provision of a large amount of meat, a moderate amount of ale, and a small amount of bread.
The researchers therefore concluded that the written sources could not be interpreted as general indicators of ‘elite’ Anglo- Saxon diets. ‘I’ve found no evidence of people eating anything like this much animal protein on a regular basis. If they were, we would find isotopic evidence of excess protein and signs of diseases like gout from the bones. But we’re just not finding that,’ Sam said.
Tom added, ‘The scale and proportions of these food lists strongly suggest that they were provisions for occasional grand feasts, and not general food supplies sustaining royal households on a daily basis. These were not blueprints for everyday elite diets as historians have assumed.’
Tom has also studied the word feorm in its various documentary contexts, confirming that the term often referred to feasting. When interpreted as ‘food-rent’, feorm would have been an exploitative practice. Reimagined as a feast, however, the social dynamics of the situation, the researchers say, would have been different, with kings accepting hospitality from free peasants, who provided the food and dined with their superiors at the event. As Tom commented, ‘We’re looking at kings travelling to massive barbecues hosted by free peasants, people who owned their own farms and sometimes slaves to work on them. You could compare it to a modern presidential campaign dinner in the US. This was a crucial form of political engagement.’
The extravagance laid on at these feasts would have been out of the ordinary, even for medieval elites. As Sam commented, ‘The isotopic evidence suggests that diets in this period were much more similar across social groups than we’ve been led to believe. We should imagine a wide range of people livening up bread with small quantities of meat and cheese, or eating pottages of leeks and whole grains with a little meat thrown in.’
The researchers are awaiting the publication of isotopic data relating to royal burials, but as the pair note in their study: ‘Reimagined along the lines proposed here, royal household life has a surprisingly down-to-earth flavour.’