Anglo-Saxon Life: Food, Farming and Feasting

What Did Anglo-Saxons Eat?

Typical Anglo-Saxon meal showing porridge, potatoes, and vegetables
Typical Anglo-Saxon meal (Flickr.com)

The Saxon diet included many of the foods familiar to us today. They grew and ate primarily cereal crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and rye. Their fruit diet consisted of plums, cherries, crabapples, and blackthorn. They also grew vegetables like small purple carrots, parsnips, wild cabbages, onions.

Except perhaps for grapes and figs, exotic foods were not imported and were virtually unknown to the Saxons, who only ate what they could grow in due season, forage from the land, or preserve through drying or pickling. In times of bad harvests, Saxon children would gather acorns to make bread, or collect bird eggs to introduce some variety into the family’s otherwise monotonous diet.

 

Meat and Fish

Standard Anglo-Saxon meals usually consisted of cereals made into porridge accompanied by some dairy food. Fresh animal meat, being a luxury, was added sparingly to meals for flavor. It was also reserved for special occasions, usually enjoyed only by the society’s wealthy class or when peasants were invited to share a feast in the Lord’s hall.

The Saxons, however, were by no means vegetarians; They greatly enjoyed meat and would eat as much as they could afford. The amount of meat a family would consume was in direct proportion to their wealth.

Meat was more common in the hunting seasons of summer and fall when fresh game was plentiful. However, beef, lamb, and pork were reserved for winter months when game meat was scarce. When slaughtering animals, the Anglo-Saxons may have added flour and herbs to the collected blood in order to make a kind of black pudding.

Almost all animals slaughtered were used for multiple purposes. Cattle provided milk, beef, hide, leather and sinew (and when they were too old, glue). Their horns also provided many uses; from drinking vessels to fastenings. The bones from bulls were used for knife handles, needles, hair and clothing pins, and belt ends. Sheep provided both wool and meat; Goats were raised for both milk and meat.

Deer provided meat, skins, and antlers. Wild boar were hunted for their meat and tusks. In addition to cooking, animal fat was also used in the making of tallow for lamps and for a conditioning and waterproofing wax, called dubbin.

The only exception to this rule of multi-purpose animals, seem to be the pig, which was raised strictly for its meat. Because they had a tendency to produce large litters, pigs played an important role in their food supply. The piglets would mature quickly and could be prepared for slaughtered at any time of the year the farmer needed them.

At any given time, sheep and goats accounted for approximately half of the Anglo-Saxons’ livestock. The fact that they could be raised on land that was unsuited for pigs and cattle makes them ideal farm animals. As pig populations decreased gradually, however, sheep, goat, and cattle herds were enlarged. Cows could produce as much as ten times the meat that sheep or goats could produce.

Fish was also a frequent feature of the Anglo-Saxon diet. According to Ælfric’s Colloquy, a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon text, the culture enjoyed freshwater fish in the form of trout, turbot, minnow, pike, lamprey, and eel. They also occasionally complimented their diet with delicacies from the sea consisting of salmon, flounder, herring, sturgeon, oysters, crab, lobster, and even porpoise.

Anglo-Saxon cooking
Meat on a rotary spit over a fire (Flickr.com)

Smoking, salting, and drying were methods of preserving both meat and fish, which were seasoned with spices and herbs to mask any unpleasant taste created by the preservation process.

In addition to animal meat and fish, they also ate assorted wild fowl, such as ducks, geese, grouse, herons, and plover. They also caught hares but rabbits did not exist in the land until after the Norman Conquest.

 

Dairy and Sweets

Butter and cheese were made from the milk of sheep and goats. They also enjoyed chicken, duck, and goose eggs.

At this time in Western Europe, cane sugar was almost unknown. It would have been used strictly for medicinal purposes, such as disorders of the kidneys, bladders, or eyes; or as a laxative. The only sweetener available at this time was honey.

The average Anglo-Saxon family consumed about a ½-pound of honey per day and could collect about 100 pounds of honey a year from a healthy beehive. Although popular, dessert treats such as almond and honey cakes were not the stuff of everyday meals. According to existing records, cheesecake and gingerbread were on their list of sweets the Anglo-Saxons enjoyed, but not until much later in their history.

 

Drink

Mead (also called metheglin) may be the oldest alcoholic beverage known to mankind. A beer-like drink made with fermented honey and herbs, mead was more popular and drunk more frequently than water or wine. This was due to frequent water pollution as well as the fact that grapevines did not flourish in the early days of Anglo-Saxon agriculture.

Although it is possible that some fruit-wines were produced in the home, wine was generally imported. A type of cider called, “apple-wine,” which may have had a much higher alcohol content, was known to exist, although spirits and fortified (or distilled) wines were unknown. Herbal infusions and teas were drunk. Apples, pears, and plums were also consumed in juice form.

 

Anglo-Saxon Cooking Methods

Meals were primarily cooked over the house’s central hearth in a cauldron. Bread was a staple of their meals and was baked on a griddle or in a clay or turf oven. In the early period of Anglo-Saxon culture, flour would be ground at home using a hand stone, called a quern. Later, with the advent of water mills, this process was made much easier.

Guests using skewers at an Anglo-Saxon feast
Guests using skewers at an Anglo-Saxon feast (Flickr.com)

Cooking methods also included barbecuing, grilling on a spiral or hanging griddle, or frying on a griddle or in a frying pan. Large rotary spits with implements similar to kebab skewers were used for roasting. Food could also be baked over hot coals, often wrapped in leaves and covered in clay.

Wooden and earthen plates were used occasionally for food. People generally ate out of clay or wooden bowls, using only a spoon and a knife. Although forks would not come into use until much later in the medieval period, Scandinavian artifacts have been found in the form of pointed sticks made of bone or wood which may have acted like primitive forks for picking up pieces of meat and vegetables.

Drinking vessels were abundant, fashioned in a variety of styles and made from an array of different materials. The most common were cups and mugs made of wood or pottery. Ornately decorated drinking horns were also common, and many have survived to this day. Cone-shaped vessels made of glass were rare and eventually gave way to glass vessels shaped like our modern-day beakers.

Stronger drinks were usually drunk out of smaller wooden cups. Ælfrics Colloquy also mentions drinking vessels made of leather. Both hot and cold drinks were poured from clay pitchers and jugs, as well as from wooden ladles and tubs, or from bottles made of wood, clay, or leather. Archaeological evidence suggests that Anglo-Saxon drinking vessels were made without handles.

 

Feasting in the Great Mead-Hall

Cruck-framed Barn in Harmondsworth
Cruck-framed hall, Harmondsworth Village (image Flickr.com)

The great mead-halls of the Anglo-Saxons were built with timber frames and thatched roofs. The halls had long, rectangular floor plans designed to accommodate hundreds of hungry and thirsty guests. There were usually no more than two entrances to the main hall. Large hangings lined the windowless walls and guests were kept warm by a large central hearth. The Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, tells how King Hrothgar and his men feasted at Heorot, the king’s mead-hall and enjoyed the finest mead in all the land.

A feast in a mead-hall was one of the great highlights of Saxon life. Mead, ale, and wine were served in ample measure. The air was smokey from the meat burning on the central fire. Records from the court of Charles the Great (Charlemagne), King of the Franks, Lombards, and Holy Roman Emperor during the early Middle Ages, describe four-course feasts, not including the roast, which was carried in on spits by hunters. It is also believed that later in the period, their banquets had up to twelve courses.

Several courses consisted of meat and fish, while some were strictly vegetable. Large cauldrons found at various archaeological sites suggest these cauldrons were predominantly used for brewing beer, as opposed to cooking meals. This demonstrates the elevated position of beverages such as mead in Anglo-Saxon culture. Usually, the wife of the banquet’s host (or, if the host was a woman, her daughter) would serve drinks to the guests of honor.

Along with free-flowing food and drink, minstrels played lively music, stories were told, and the guests entertained themselves with riddles and games. Some riddles, for which Saxons had a passion, have survived to this day. One example poses, “My nose is downward: I go on my belly and dig into the ground, moving as directed by the gray enemy of the forest and my master and protector, who walks stooping at my tail.” A plow is the answer to this puzzle; the ox being the “gray enemy of the forest.“

Anglo-Saxon literature describes being banned from a mead-hall as one of the great miseries of that culture, as it expressed a breaking of a bond between a man and his Lord. Such a bond was vital, harkening back to a time when warriors depended upon their thane to be well armed and well fed, in exchange for their willingness to die for him in battle.

This bond took on a different form as village life became more settled. The churls, or free peasants, gave service by working in their fields and surrendering a share of their crops to their chief. They were rewarded in return with occasional privileged access to the mead-hall and were given small plots of land.

 

Saxon Farming and Food

The Saxons introduced a large wheeled plow with an iron plowshare in order to farm the land. This innovation allowed them to cut into the otherwise unworkable soil. The plow was so massive it required six or eight oxen to draw it and was difficult to turn at the end of each furrow. Their method of strip-farming, which reduced the number of turns necessary, arose from this plowing challenge. The English furlong (220 yards) derives its name from this method. The plow would be driven down strips of land a “furrow long”; i.e., the distance an ox team could pull the plow without resting.

Anglo-Saxon Plowmen
Anglo-Saxon Plowmen (Wikimedia Commons)

Owned by individual peasants, the strips were laid out in two or three large, open fields. To replenish its fertility, every year, one of these fields would be allowed to lie fallow. Villagers shared some of their pastures for grazing and would access the forests for timber and fuel. There was still a feeling of fear and mystery among the Saxons with regard to the forests, as these provided hiding places for wolves and outlaws. Hunting wolves was popular among the Saxons, and wolves did not finally become extinct in England until Tudor times.

 

Who Were the Saxons?

For over 600 years the Anglo-Saxon culture stamped its identity into the country they inhabited. Even now the realm of England owes its name to the Angles. The English village, many of which date back to the time of the Saxons, is another example of a profoundly important legacy left by Saxon farmers, whose secluded farmsteads eventually grew into communal settlements.

Many locations names in England are of Anglo-Saxon origin. Places ending in –hurst, –den, –ley, and –field, for example, all denote open spaces in the woods where the invaders cleared vast tracts of Britain’s ancient forest. The -ham ending indicates an enclosure or settlement.

Villages, whose boundaries were defined by fences and ditches, were constructed of timber, wattle, and thatch. Saxon lords, called thanes, lived in large halls, while free peasants, called churls dwelt in smaller halls. The poorest of this society, including slaves, lived in the most meager of huts.

 

How Were Anglo-Saxon Buildings Constructed?

Anglo Saxon Village in Suffolk, England
Anglo Saxon Village in Suffolk, England (Flickr.com)

Unlike those of the Celts, Saxon buildings were usually rectangular. Some homes were built with sunken foundations to allow for wood flooring, while some had rafters built with curved timbers (called cruck-framed) underneath A-shaped frames which supported the roof.  Halls with two stories emerged in the later period, while water mills for grinding meal became more widespread.

Most villagers raised fruits and vegetables in their own small garden while keeping livestock in assorted pens and barns near their home. As village trades developed, workshops for woodworkers, cobblers, weavers, and metalworkers were becoming common.  The church, which served as a meeting hall as well as a place of worship, became a focus for village life after the society converted to Christianity. Saxon churches were moderately simple in their construction, and when not built from timber, were fashioned from stones reclaimed from Roman ruins.

 

Are They “Saxons” or “Anglo-Saxons”?

The terms are sometimes used interchangeably. The Saxons were tribes of people who hailed from a continental European region called, Saxony, which equates roughly to certain regions of modern Germany. Around the 5th century AD, these tribes invaded and conquered the British Isles. Sometime after their settlement, they and their descendants came to be known as “Anglo-Saxons,” derived from the Anglia Peninsula in the Germanic region.  This term was given to them by the native Britons and was not commonly used by the invaders themselves.

 


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