Horses for Courses? Religious Change and Dietary Shifts in Anglo-Saxon England
By Kristopher Poole
Oxford Journal of Archaeology (forthcoming)
Abstract: The evidence for horse consumption in Anglo-Saxon England is examined with regards to the spread of Christianity from the late 6th century onwards. It is argued that the negative attitudes of Church leaders to hippophagy relate largely to the perceived links of this practice with pagan beliefs and were closely allied to attempts at establishing greater religious orthodoxy. In considering the effects of such attitudes, previous studies have made little attempt to relate textual sources to the physical remnants of such activities; horse bones themselves. By combining these sources, this paper suggests that horses were likely eaten by at least some people before, during and after the Conversion period, but that Christianity may have had some effect on these practices. However, the impact varied according to social identity and perhaps also regions of the country.
Introduction: Humans are unusual in relation to many other animals because they only eat a very small proportion of the potentially edible foods available to them. Potential factors behind food taboos are varied, including avoidance of disease, economic reasons and religious changes. The spread of Christianity across England over the course of the Anglo-Saxon period brought new worldviews, ways of acting and dietary habits. The latter are evident in the fast days imposed on the wider populace by the Church, creating times when certain fare, such as the flesh of quadrupeds, was prohibited. Some foodstuffs were forbidden regardless of the time of year, with horseflesh being commonly cited. Negativety towards hippophagy seems to have been at least partly related to the central role of horses in Anglo-Saxon life and their perceived links with pagan beliefs. The spread of Christianity throughout the country involved a complex process of rejection and acculturation between varying perspectives. Some aspects of paganism survived through incorporation into Christian ideologies, whilst attempts were made to eradicate others. Starting with a brief overview of the dynamics of conversion, this paper next considers food taboos, including factors behind the aversion of Church leaders to horesflesh consumption. Attention will then turn to the bone evidence from settlements and cemeteries to examine how commonly hippophagy occured and the contexts where this took place.