A cherished memory of mine was a dinner I had at Elizabeth I's Hatfield House in England, complete with minstrels, costumed servants, and an authentic menu. Ribald humor, a jester scampering about and toying with the guests, and a congenial group of strangers all sitting together experiencing a historical dining experience.
It's fascinating to read about what people in different periods ate. When my Antonius Trilogy novels were coming out, I did a blog piece on preferences of ancient Romans--some of which were NOT to my personal taste at all, including dormice, ostrich tongues, and roasted peacock. Today's guest is a phenomenal historian when it comes to the Middle Ages, and one of her favorite periods is the Anglo-Saxon age.
I'd like to welcome Mercedes Rochelle back to my Journal again to tell us all about The Anglo-Saxon Table!
Read ON, everybody!
The Anglo-Saxon Table by Mercedes Rochelle
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.
Portion of Bayeux Tapestry showing a feast.
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.
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. Shellfish 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.
All About the Books
They showed so much promise. What happened to the Godwines? How did they lose their grip? Who was this Godwine anyway, first Earl of Wessex and known as the Kingmaker? Was he an unscrupulous schemer, using King and Witan to gain power? Or was he the greatest of all Saxon Earls, protector of the English against the hated Normans? The answer depends on who you ask.
He was befriended by the Danes, raised up by Canute the Great, given an Earldom and a wife from the highest Danish ranks. He sired nine children, among them four Earls, a Queen and a future King. Along with his power came a struggle to keep his enemies at bay, and Godwine's best efforts were brought down by the misdeeds of his eldest son Swegn.
Although he became father-in-law to a reluctant Edward the Confessor, his fortunes dwindled as the Normans gained prominence at court. Driven into exile, Godwine regathered his forces and came back even stronger, only to discover that his second son Harold was destined to surpass him in renown and glory.
All About Mercedes Rochelle
Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. She believes that good Historical Fiction, or Faction as it’s coming to be known, is an excellent way to introduce the subject to curious readers. She also writes a blog: HistoricalBritainBlog.com to explore the history behind the story.
Born in St. Louis, MO, she received by BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended!
Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
Connect with Mercedes
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