Anglo-Saxon Food

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Anglo-Saxon food a subject which has generally been neglected, is now illuminated by the two volumes (1992, 1995) from Ann Hagen on Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink. The first covered ‘Processing and Consumption’, the second ‘Production and Distribution’. The author approached the subject from a background of archaeology but harnessed to her purposes a wealth of literary evidence. Since, for many readers, the interest of her study, which she defines as extending from the beginning of the 5th century to about 1100, lies as much in her diligent and ingenious use of source material as in the substance of the information she gathered (which is in any case so extensive and disparate that it would be difficult to summarize), it seems best here to cite her own account of the sources.

The area covered is Anglo-Saxon England and the Celtic west of Britain, with occasional reference to continental sites.

Primary material is of two kinds: documentary and archaeological. Material in the vernacular was supplemented from Latin manuscripts. Writings on all kinds of subjects were used, from laws, chronicles and sermons, to poems and medical recipes. Surviving manuscripts have been preserved by chance, so there will always be lacunae in the documentary record. Moreover, this is very heavily weighted towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, with few Old English manuscripts surviving from before the tenth century. While place-names are often recorded for the first time after the Conquest, where Old English elements are involved it is reasonable to assume they were in use in the Anglo-Saxon period.…

Archaeological evidence is available for the whole period and is the main source of data for early Anglo-Saxon England, but, as with manuscripts, the recovery of evidence is a matter of chance.

Soils preserve material differentially, and recovery techniques themselves will bias a sample of animal or plant material. Different methods of quantifying the numbers of animals from an animal bone sample produce different results. Problems of interpretation (that the absence of fish bones may indicate not that few fish were eaten, but that many fish were eaten, bones and all, or that animal bones in graves may not represent foodstuffs) are dealt with in the text.

Chemical analysis and electron spin resonance techniques can add to our picture of what the Anglo-Saxons ate and how they cooked it. Human skeletal material provides information about diet not available from other sources. Excavated structures relate to the processing (mills, kitchens) and consumption (halls) of food.