Who Ate All the Pigs in Medieval Denmark?


It’s fair to assume that Valdemar the Conqueror, while ruling over Denmark in the early 1200s, ate like a king. But, what was the diet like for the peasants below him? The answer depends on where in Denmark the peasants called home.

Radford University anthropology professor Cassady Yoder researched the diets of peasants of medieval Denmark and found a significant difference in the foods consumed by those living in rural areas as opposed to city-dwelling peasants. Yoder’s research was published in the September issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

As part of her research, Yoder examined the diet of Dane peasants in Ribe, Denmark’s largest city during medieval times, the mid-sized city of Viborg and the population buried at a rural Cistercian monastery. Yoder found significant regional variation among the different sites. She says the city dwellers in Ribe and Viborg ate more protein rich foods such as meat from cows, pigs and fish.

The rural population from the monastery ate more plant foods such as cereal grains and less meat. She reports that the rural population had a larger variety of foods to choose from than the urban peasants.

Yoder collected 154 human bone samples for stable isotope analysis, which is often used in paleodietary reconstruction. “I examined the ratio of the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in each bone sample. This type of stable isotope analysis is based on the premise that you are what you eat – the isotopic signature in your bones comes from the foods you eat,” the professor explained. “The nitrogen signature reflects the trophic level – that’s the level on the food chain – of the food consumed, such as plants, terrestrial animals, marine animals and fish. The carbon signature reflects the photosynthetic pathway of the plant foods consumed or in some areas of the world between marine and terrestrial food sources.”

The article, “Diet in medieval Denmark: a regional and temporal comparison,” by Cassady Yoder, appears in the Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 37, Issue 9, September 2010.

Source: Radford University

Sharan Newman