The Anglo-Saxon Table

We can fill volumes with what we don’t know about what people ate in the Anglo-Saxon period. Forget about recipe books; we have to wait until Richard II’s reign for the first cookbook. Of course the Romans were way ahead of the game, and Apicius wrote several volumes about soups and sauces and the art of cookery. The oldest surviving manuscripts date back to the eighth and ninth centuries, though I suspect they were probably hidden away in some dusty monastery.

We must remember that the Norman Conquest marked a substantial change in customs, habits, and even access to provisions. By access, I mean the forest laws, imposed by William the Conqueror to protect his hunting animals and vegetation that supported those animals. This had to have come as quite a shock to the natives, who were not used to being prohibited from catching their own game.

The Anglo-Saxon aristocrats hunted, of course, and even practiced falconry. King Edward the Confessor was said to have loved the hunt and indulged himself at every opportunity. So we know that wild birds found their way to the table (often roasted), as well as boar, deer, and fox. As far as domestic meat goes, the pig was the only farm animal that was used exclusively for food; they bore large litters and grew fast, and it is believed they were slaughtered as needed rather than certain times of year. Beef was mostly only eaten by the wealthy, and herds consisted mostly of cows for the milk. They were usually slaughtered in November and salted or smoked to last the winter; their hides were tanned for leather goods. Goats were kept for milk, chickens for eggs, and sheep for wool. These animals were usually slaughtered only when they were old or unproductive, or possibly for holiday meals. So the average Saxon was more likely to have a vegetarian diet, with rare exceptions.

Fruits were a big part of every diet; pears, apples, plums, cherries and berries were plentiful in season and were also used in cooking. Honey was used for sweetener, and all these items could be made into alcoholic beverages. As for vegetables, peas and beans were widely used, as well as mushrooms, onions, garlic, turnips, cabbage, parsnips, and even carrots (not orange—they were white or purple). These ingredients were often brewed in stews and pottages. In fact, I would say the pottage was the primary food for many Anglo-Saxons, along with bread made from grains such as barley, oats, and rye and mixed with ground beans and peas. Wheat bread was reserved for the upper classes. In the medieval period they called the grains corn, which was not to be confused with maize, an American “modern” crop.

Steward pouring drinks, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f. 4v, British Library

Fish was an important staple on the Anglo-Saxon table, especially on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, feast days, Lent and most of Advent. Inland folk would have to purchase salted, pickled, or smoked fish which could last for months. Shell fish was very popular, like oysters, cockles, eel, crab, and lobster.

The Anglo-Saxon feast would have seemed quite boring to later medievalists. All the food was served at once on wooden platters. Guests were expected to bring their own knives, spoons, wooden bowls, and drinking vessels. The roasted meats would be placed on platters before the guests, and stews would be spooned into their bowls. Cheeses, breads, and fruits would be served in bowls or platters. The local bard would provide songs and story-telling—an important part of the feast. Meanwhile, mead and ale would be consumed in great quantities, and cider in the autumn. Most everything was dependent on the season, and autumn provided the greatest abundance of choices.

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