However, a new study examining the dietary signatures contained in the bones of more than 2,000 skeletons has challenged this assumption, finding that most Anglo-Saxons ate a diet high in grains and vegetables and low in animal protein, without no matter what your social status.
The archaeologists were able to obtain this information by analyzing the presence of different isotopes, or variants, of the elements carbon and nitrogen in bone collagen. Bones preserve an isotopic record of the different types of food that an individual consumed over time. The study primarily looked at ribs, which represent a 10-year period before a person’s death.
“Basically what I do is get bones out of skeletons, dissolve them in acid, make them soft, and determine what people ate,” said study author Sam Leggett, an early-career fellow in the School of History, Classics and Archeology at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
“You can say roughly how much animal protein, not just meat, but any kind of animal protein, eggs and dairy as well.”
Historians have long assumed that Anglo-Saxon elites ate far more meat than the peasantry they dominated because of documents detailing food tributes. known as “pheorm” in Old English.
These texts, some of the few written documents available from that time, list in great detail the food owed by peasants to royal and noble houses. These lists were thought to represent a typical elite diet.
One such food list compiled during the reign of King Ine of Wessex (AD 688-726) listed supplies amounting to 1.24 million kilocalories, more than half of which came from animals, including lamb, beef, salmon, eel, and poultry, as well as cheese, honey, and beer.
The researchers calculated that each member of the household would have received 4,140 kilocalories from the food, the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner and then some.
Rather than foods that royal houses regularly gathered and consumed, these lavish feasts were one-off events, study of isotopic data suggests.
“When we calculated how many calories (the food tributes contained) it was so high that even if they were having (these feasts) twice a month, that couldn’t give the signatures that I was seeing,” said Leggett, who completed the research while he was a PhD student at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
“That meant that most of what these people ate had to be primarily plant-based with a small amount of animal protein. There were some people who fell into the zone of a modern vegan,” she said, adding that most the people studied would have been equivalent in today’s terms to vegetarians, who eat eggs and dairy.
The study upends many assumptions about Anglo-Saxon society, which was thought to be highly hierarchical. The banquets could have been community-building events involving hundreds of people, the researchers suggest.
“That means a lot of ordinary farmers must have been there, and this has big political implications.”