Food in Anglo-Saxon England

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Sally Crawford has a whole chapter on food in her book Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. It’s full of fascinating facts about food in early medieval England.

You won’t be surprised to learn that their diet was seasonal. Most types of food were only available for a short period and had to be preserved with salt or dried.

Although there were over 50 years of serious famine between the fifth and eleventh centuries, the land was generally abundant. The Anglo-Saxons farmed crops, raised and hunted animals, made use of woodlands and fished in rivers. Because the climate was milder and damper than in the 20th century there were even vineyards in the far south.

It seems that the Anglo-Saxons farmed less intensively than the Romano-British. However, their arrival did not mean that a great deal of cultivated land returned to wilderness. Evidence suggests that they maintained land that had already been farmed and that they also carefully managed woodland.

Grains

Bread was a staple food. Fascinatingly, Sally Crawford tells us the origin of the words “Lord” and “Lady.” She writes (on page 101):

“the production of a loaf (Old English hlaf) was singled out as the most important attribute of the male and female leaders of a community; the modern English ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ derive from the Old English hlaford and hlafdig.”

There were flour mills but women and slaves also ground grain at home on mill stones. I was fascinated to read that wealthy people in York imported an expensive stone from Germany, Niedermendig lava, because it produced a finer flour than stones made from local mill stones.

The Anglo-Saxons grew a variety of grains. Crawford tells us that at an early settlement in West Stow in Suffolk there is evidence for spelt, wheat, rye, barley and oats. Spelt was grown in Roman times and it seems they stopped growing it in West Stow in the middle Anglo-Saxon period. It looks as if oats grew wild and were not deliberately cultivated.

Foreign foods

As we all know, the Anglo-Saxons kept up international trade networks. This meant that wealthier people had access to foreign spices, herbs, wines, oils, fruits and nuts.

Trade routes were sometimes interrupted but at points in the early medieval period the Anglo-Saxons had access to trade routes stretching from the Baltic sea to the Indian ocean.

Crawford tells us that in his will Bede (a monk and highly respected scholar living in northern England) left sugar, pepper, liquorice, ginger, galingale, cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, aniseed and lavender!

Bede himself never travelled far, but gifting exotic spices was a common habit among church men and women who travelled to Rome and other sites. I assume that Bede’s collection is a reflection of the esteem with which he was held in the church community.

I could talk all day about the stories that Sally Crawford shares in this very accessible survey of life in Anglo-Saxon England. But sadly I have food needs of my own to attend to, so off I go.

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