Anglo-Saxons Loved Veggies
Rich and powerful Anglo-Saxons are often depicted as eating huge feasts full of savory meats. Turns out, they ate a largely vegetarian diet most of the time and the nobility ate no more meat than the rest of the population.
New research analyzed the isotopic record of the bones of over 2,000 skeletons. Sam Leggett, one of the study’s authors and an early career fellow at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland, explained: “Basically, what I do is I get bones from skeletons, dissolve them in acid, make them squishy and work out what people ate.”
The idea that Anglo-Saxons ate large feasts of mostly meat comes from “feorm,” or food tributes, long lists of foods that peasants owed to nobility, which are some of the only written records from the time.
Leggett stated, “When we calculated how many calories (the food tributes contained) it was so high that even if they were having (these feasts) twice a month that could not give the signatures I was seeing…. That meant the majority of what these people were eating had to be mostly plant based with a small amount of animal protein. There were some people who fell in the zone of a modern vegan,” with most people being the equivalent of today’s vegetarians, eating eggs and dairy.
The food tributes also lead historians to believe the feasts were for nobility only. However, with the new calorie calculations, the study’s authors concluded that over 300 people must have attended a feast, meaning ordinary people, including farmers, would have been invited.
As co-author Tom Lambert, a fellow and Director of Studies in History at Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge, stated, “this has big political implications” because “[w]e’re looking at kings travelling to massive barbecues hosted by free peasants, 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 US. This was a crucial form of political engagement.”
1. Should people be vegetarians? Why or why not? Should people be vegan? Why or why not?
2. Should institutions that serve food provide more vegetarian and vegan options? Consider schools, hospitals, and prisons, among others. Explain you answer(s).
3. What’s your favorite vegetable? Your favorite vegetarian or vegan dish? Why are these your favorites?
1. Sam Leggett and Tom Lambert, “Food and Power in Early Medieval England: A Lack of (Isotopic) Enrichment,” cambridge.org, Apr. 20, 2022
2. Tom Almeroth-Williams, “Anglo-Saxon BBQ,” cam.ac.uk, Apr. 21, 2022
3. Katie Hunt, “Medieval Feasts Looked Very Different from What Pop Culture Might Suggest, Study Says,” cnn.com, May 5, 2022