New research challenges beliefs about medieval festivals

New research into food consumption in England during the pre-Viking Middle Ages challenges long-held assumptions about gluttony and carnivorous habits. The pair of complementary articles published in the journal Anglo-Saxon England explores the eating behavior of nobles and peasants using both textual references and chemical analysis of 2,023 skeletons of individuals from the same period.

“There are long-standing assumptions in archeology and history regarding elite diets in early medieval England,” the researchers said, “namely that higher-status individuals had richer diets. meatier and therefore higher in protein than the lower classes, and that this was particularly true for men compared to women.

Banquet given in Paris in 1378 by Charles V of France (centre, blue) for Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor (left) and his son Wenceslas, King of the Romans. Artwork by Jean Fouquet, 1455-1460 [Wikimedia Commons, public domain]

The trope is reliably repeated in popular film imagery, since the most recent The iron Throne to the famous representations of the Matter of Brittany such as the films The green knight (2021), Excalibur (1981), and the musical Camelot (1967). This assumption is also re-manifested in countless Renaissance festivals and medieval re-enactment events with ubiquitous turkey legs and royal feasts. But the permanent feast of the nobility and a great class difference in food consumption at this time seems to be a myth.

The first part of the research was to decipher existing food lists that survived the reign of King Ine of Wessex (c. 688-726). It is believed that the kings of this period received shape, or alimentary rent, of the free peasants of their kingdoms. One of these relics asks local farmers to provide ten vats of honey, 300 rolls, 42 buckets of beer, two oxen (or 10 sheep), 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, a bucket of butter, 100 eels and 5 Salmon.

Bioarchaeologist Sam Leggett and his historian co-researcher Tom Lambert calculated the total caloric value of such a meal. They write, “each guest would have received 4,140 kcal from 712 g of meat (beef, mutton and poultry), an additional 300 g of fish (salmon and eel), plus cheese, honey and beer”. They found 10 other oddly similar food lists, and the researchers noted that no vegetables were listed but some were likely present.

Lambert commented, “These were not plans for everyday elite regimes as historians have assumed.”

Shape, however, is a complicated term and generally considered an operating system to support royal households. Current research suggests something quite different.

The feasts would probably have been outdoor events with huge pits roasting the meats. “We see kings going to massive barbecues hosted by free peasants,” Lambert said, “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 United States. It was a crucial form of political engagement.

During these events, notes Rhys Blakely in the Times, “the nobility rubs shoulders with the peasantry”.

Regarding the amount and type of food, Leggett says, “I haven’t found any evidence that people regularly eat that much animal protein. If they were, we would find isotopic evidence of excess protein and signs of diseases like bone gout. But we just can’t find that.

There is no specific documentary evidence for this hypothesis, but the chemical signatures left in the skeletons suggest a more modest diet consisting mainly of cereals with small amounts of meat or cheese as part of daily consumption. “We should imagine a wide range of people topping bread with small amounts of meat and cheese, or eating leek and whole grain soups with some meat,” Leggett explains in their statement.

Leggett and Lambert noted in the post that more research should examine their findings. Their conclusions are based on a limited sample with specific challenges around chronology and whose skeletons are reliably those of the elite or peasant classes. But even changes in customs, classes and burial practices do not confuse the findings regarding social status and diet.

Changes in funerary and burial practices were important because they changed after the Roman period and because of new religious observances.

Researchers have noted that other beliefs about medieval food consumption seem accurate. “Particularly,” they say, “that women and young children were more likely to be hardest hit by food shortages, and there appears to be a social precedent for being served at parties and occasions. special, but the assumption of a meat-and-booze-heavy elite diet is still ubiquitous.

The research added that their dataset begins to fill in the gaps about everyday food consumption in medieval England while challenging long-held assumptions that there was an “institutionalised expropriation of the poor to feed the powerful”.

They also found in their research that people with the highest biological markers of meat consumption appeared to be Scandinavian newcomers to the area or people who were “observing religious dietary restrictions.” The increase in fish consumption, for example, may have been due to the Christianization of the region and the timing of Christian festivals.

About Timothy Cheatham

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