Food as Status before the Norman Conquest
A (mercifully) short post today, looking at the remarkably consistent use of food to express power by the elite before the Norman Conquest.
Food is a universal - in all time periods, people have to eat. What we eat, and how we eat it, tells us a lot about how we see ourselves and, more importantly, how we want other people to see us. If you were to host a dinner party for your friends, would you cook a special dish to show off? Would you buy some expensive wine you can’t really afford in order to give the impression you were doing better than you were? Would you put out the ‘good cutlery’
Despite it’s value to the historian, food is often invisible. Sometimes we have written sources about food habits; occasionally we have illustrations. Our best shot at understanding diet is through archaeology. Zooarchaeology, which studies the remains of animals, allows us to begin to put together a picture of what people actually ate.
In this article, we’re going to approach these broad questions about historical food by looking at the consumption patterns of the later pre-Conquest elite. Underlying simple questions of diet is a complex mix of symbolism, pageantry, and social change.
Photo Source: https://oakden.co.uk/food-in-the-anglo-saxon-period/2/
It is clear that, by the later 10th century, England had changed (Flemming 2001, 2). We see the emergence of the first meaningful, large-scale aristocracy in post-Roman Britain – the ‘thegns’ – holding smaller-scale areas of land (Gardiner 2017, 88/ Audoy and Chapman 2009, 28). Alongside this seems to run a new concern for maintaining that status: ‘social classes were becoming more permeable’. (Gardiner 2017, 94). With uncertainty and flexibility comes anxiety, and there appears to have been a corresponding concern to fight over that status, and make it clear to the observer. Equally, the continued development of a widescale monetary economy made the purchasing of status items more practical (Fleming 2001, 16-9). The result is a picture of a class of individuals with a desire to reinforce an image of status, and a new ability to do so.
We see multiple archaeological and textual manifestations of this anxiety through ostentatious consumption and display. Geþyncðo’s obsession with the boundaries between class seems to point towards a preoccupation with making the distinction clear, especially through physical things (Gardiner 2017, 94). There certainly appears to have been a strikingly consistent model of buildings used to show off status (the loft conversion of the day…?). I intend to look at these in a future newsletter, but today the focus is on diet.
If we are to gain enough evidence to meaningfully explore trends in consumption, we must turn to zooarchaeological evidence, primarily animal bones. Remarkably, a relatively standardised footprint of food consumption seems to emerge at sites owned by thegns, illustrating that ‘food in this period was coming to be an extremely effective social marker’ (Fleming 2001, 4).
First, and perhaps most obviously, thegnly sites show much larger consumption of meat. 28,135 bone fragments are found at the elite site at Bishopstone (although, of course, questions of partial survival make comparing raw numbers questionable) (Poole 2010, 142). Consumption seems to have been more wasteful too – at Flixborough (Lincolnshire), cattle bones are less frequently split (to extract the marrow) from the late 10thC onwards (Dobney et al. 2007a, 103).
When theoretically understanding food consumption, however, Gautier suggests we need to identify unique elite food cultures in qualitative not simple quantitative terms – did thegns eat different things, rather than simply more (Gautier 2012, 385)?
Interestingly, thegnly sites seem to show a strong consumption of fish, as the evidence at Bishopstone makes clear (Reynolds 2010, 163). Wildfowl seem also to have been eaten extensively – Portchester (Hampshire) shows bone evidence for over 20 different species (Poole 2010, 142). Finally, Syke’s analysis suggests that in the long-run from the 5th to the 11thC, game animal consumption doubles at elite sites and more than halves at rural sites (Sykes 2010, 184).
Thegns also seem to have eaten more visually spectacular food. Whale-bones are found at Bishopstone* (Poole 2010, 151-2), and bottle-nosed dolphin bones dramatically increase at Flixborough (Dobney et al. 2007b, 90). To present this food must have been an act of theatre, and the social act of feasting, bringing together a community to show off your wealth and generosity, is a phenomenon well-know to modern readers through dinner parties (Loveluck 2007, 156).
Equally, to obtain this food must have been an equally impressive act. Aelfric’s Colloquy, for example, stresses the danger of hunting whales (Dobney et al 2007b, 93). Thegns appear to have been actively involved in hunting for both deer and wildfowl (through hawking), continuing a long-standing connection between hunting and male prowess. This theatre is truly unique – overlap in diet with ecclesiastical (fish) and urban sites (wildfowl) is evident, but this pomp and symbolism is tied to a thegnly identity.
What we seem to be left with, picking through the archaeological record and matching it alongside textual sources, is a carefully manipulated and widely understood set of culinary symbols. Status seems to have been reinforced by what was eaten and how it was eaten, and food used as a widely-understood chance to show of your wealth and social importance.
*given the Frank’s Casket, it’s not impossible that these were for craft purposes
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Bibliography (and further reading)
Audouy, M. and Chapman, A. (2009) Raunds: The Origin and Growth of a Midland Village. Oxford, Oxbow Books.
Dobney, K. et al. (2007a) Patterns of Disposal and Processing. In K. Dobney et al. Farmers, Monks and Aristocrats: The Environmental Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon Flixborough: 70-115. Oxford, Oxbow Books.
Dobney, K. et al. (2007b) The Agricultural Economy and Resource Procurement. In C. Loveluck Rural Settlement, Lifestyles and Social Change in the Later First Millennium AD: Anglo-Saxon Flixborough in its Wider Context: 87-98. Oxford, Oxbow Books.
Fleming, R. (2001) The New Wealth, the New Rich and the New Political Style in Late Anglo- Saxon England. In J. Gillingham (ed.) Anglo-Norman Studies XXIII. Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2000: 1-22. Woodbridge, The Boydell Press.
Gardiner, M. (2017) Manorial Farmsteads and the Expression of Lordship Before and After the Norman Conquest. In D. Hadley and C. Dyers (eds.) The Archaeology of the Eleventh Century: Continuities and Transformations: 88-103. Abingdon, Routledge.
Gautier, A. (2012) Cooking and Cuisine in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon England 41.1: 373-406.
Loveluck, C. (2007) Changing Lifestyles, Interpretation of Settlement Character and Wider Perspective. In C. Loveluck Rural Settlement, Lifestyles and Social Change in the Later First Millennium AD: Anglo-Saxon Flixborough in its Wider Context: 44-63. Oxford, Oxbow Books.
Poole, K. (2010) Mammal and Bird Remains. In G. Thomas The Later Anglo-Saxon Settlement at Bishopstone: A Downland Manor in the Making: 142-56. York, Council for British Archaeology.
Reynolds, R. (2010) Fish Remains. In G. Thomas The Later Anglo-Saxon Settlement at Bishopstone: A Downland Manor in the Making: 157-63. York, Council for British Archaeology.
Sykes, N. J. (2004) The Dynamics of Status Symbols: Wildfowl Exploitation in England AD410-1550. The Archaeological Journal 161.1: 82-105.
Sykes, N. J. (2006) From Cu and Sceap to Beffe and Motton. In C. M Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldon (eds.) Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition: 56-71. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Sykes, N. J. (2007) The Norman Conquest: A Zooarchaeological Perspective. Oxford, Archaeopress.
Sykes, N. J. (2010) Deer, Land, Knives and Halls: Social Change in Early Medieval England. Antiquaries Journal 90.1: 175-93.