‘DARK AGES’: FOOD & HEALTH

The scarcity of written sources means that for information about what people ate and drank between the 5th and 11th centuries, as well as for evidence of disease and life expectancy, we must rely mostly on archaeology.

Gathering in the harvest, from a calendar of about 1030

Gathering in the harvest, from a calendar of about 1030
© British Library Board/Bridgeman Art Library

HEROIC AND DOMESTIC

Apart from the archaeological evidence, we can also derive information from the heroic poems of the British and the Anglo-Saxons, which portray epic feasting and drinking. The gold-mounted horn drinking vessels found in princely burials at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk) and Taplow (Buckinghamshire) bear them out. Other more prosaic documents like law codes provide some further clues.

What people ate depended greatly on where they lived. Upland people had a very different diet from that of seaside dwellers – who, as at Lindisfarne, Northumberland, might eat beached whales or hunted seals. In remote villages the diet would have been more monotonous than in towns, where commercial networks brought a wider range of produce.

Spouted jug from Portchester Castle

A Saxon spouted jug discovered during excavations at Portchester Castle, Hampshire. The jug would have been used to serve ale, then the most common drink.

STAPLES AND TREATS

Cereals – wheat, barley, oats and rye – and pulses such as beans and peas were staple foodstuffs. Cereals were generally coarse-ground into gritty bread flour. Thus many excavated skeletons have severely worn teeth.

Fruits like apples, plums and berries were eaten in season, together with nuts. So were vegetables – mainly root crops like onions, turnips and carrots. Herbs, including coriander and dill, provided flavouring, with honey used as a sweetener.

Widespread finds of butchered bones show that beef was much the most popular meat, constituting up to 75% of the meat diet on some excavated sites. Pork is likely to have been the meat eaten most commonly by ordinary people. It made up 20% of the meat diet at Saxon Portchester, Hampshire.

MEAT, FISH AND DRINK

Sheep were bred mainly for wool and milk – the latter was also the principal product of goats. Poultry were valued for meat as well as eggs, which were for most people the key source of protein. Wild birds were eaten too.

People living inland also ate seafood. The people of York ate seabirds brought in from the coast, and also caught freshwater fish. Sea fishermen caught porpoises and sturgeon as well as smaller prey. Shellfish like mussels and oysters were collected from the wild but also farmed.

Very weak ale was the everyday drink, consumed in large quantities because water was unsafe. But contrary to popular myth, mead – by from fermented honey-water – was rarely drunk, and then only by the elite.

Imported wine was also largely the preserve of the rich. Mediterranean wine was drunk at princely Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, and Rhineland wine later arrived in southern England in some quantity. Grapes were also grown for domestic wine production.

Family of skeletons discovered during excavations at St Peter's Church, Barton-upon-Humber

A group of skeletons from the 11th century, found in a large grave at St Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber. The grave contained five skeletons: two adult males and three adolescents. The cause of death is unknown, but the skeletons were interred in the grave simultaneously, suggesting a family tragedy.
© By kind permission of Warwick Rodwell

MAGIC AND MEDICINE

Skeletons from St Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber, and London excavations, show that English and Scandinavian men could be as tall as their 21st-century counterparts. The excavated women were a fraction taller and more strongly built than today.

They needed to be robust: surviving manuscripts of ‘leechdoms’ (cures) and ‘wortcunning’ (herbal lore) provide a varied picture of contemporary healthcare. Some healers claimed to derive their knowledge from mythical Classical figures. Others recommended pagan charms or ‘sympathetic magic’, like the use of the snake-like roots of bistort to cure adder stings.

But it wasn’t all mumbo-jumbo. A cure for styes from a 9th-century medical treatise, featuring onion, garlic, bull’s gall, wine and copper salts, contained effective antibiotic and anti-bacterial properties. And an 11th-century skull from Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village in North Yorkshire showed that a heavy blow to the head had been treated by cutting away part of the bone to relieve pressure on the brain. The patient lived for several years afterwards.

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