By Gerald P. Dyson
Chapter from his Master’s Thesis: Not by bread alone: lay fasting in England, 900-1066, University of York, 2010
Introduction: Food and the significance thereof are important in any culture at any time, which is why the avoidance of food for religious reasons is pertinent. Additionally, food was a “primary economic and religious concern” throughout the Middle Ages in a way that it is not currently in many parts of the world. Anglo-Saxon culture was no different in this respect than other cultures of the past. In a study of fasting, feasting (as the antithesis of fasting) and its religious and social implications are indispensible. We cannot understand the social interpretation of fasting if we do not understand what it meant to eat a normal diet or what it meant to be feasting in celebration.The implications of eating, including eating certain foods, can inform our knowledge of fasting through avenues unexplored when studying fasting alone
It is somewhat difficult to piece together what Anglo-Saxons actually ate on a daily basis.Written sources from this period are little interested in specific foods or drinks (or at least not their consumption in and of itself), though some information can be gathered from a handful of texts. Archaeology is probably the best source of information on the Anglo-Saxon diet. The remains of food preparation and meals are often meagre, but archaeological excavation has still made some of the largest contributions to our knowledge of early English dietary habits. The undigested remains of food in faecal matter and animal bones are good sources for diet; significant evidence for late Anglo-Saxon food has found at sites like Coppergate in York, Springfield Lyons in Essex, select sites in the London area, and others. These are the obvious routes to information on diet, but, as Banham notes, there are other peripheral sources of information about food, such as places names, linguistics, and visual art.
In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the most common crops grown in Anglo-Saxon England were wheat and barley. Wheat was typically used for making bread, and while barley can be and was made into bread, the protective hull makes it difficult and time-consuming. Barley was also required for brewing, and the majority of Anglo-Saxons would have partaken in products from breweries, including children. Archaeologists at Anglo-Saxon Wraysbury, Berkshire, found evidence of very similar crops to those mentioned above. Bread wheat, two types of barley, and oats were found in the field at the site, the wheat and barley being planted together, so if the wheat failed, the hardier barley would survive to safeguard the population from starvation. Regional variation, all of which cannot be taken into account here, should also be considered. Wheat grows best in the lowland soil of England, and there may well have been a trend emphasizing grains other than wheat in regions in northern and western England. These crops were the staples of the Anglo-Saxon diet.