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Pepper, pig and fewer bodily emissions – how the Norman Conquest changed England’s eating habits

More ale! Anglo-Saxons feasting, according to the Bayeux Tapesty. Wikimedia Commons

Pepper, pig and fewer bodily emissions – how the Norman Conquest changed England’s eating habits

When we think about the archaeology of the Norman conquest it is usually castles, battlefields and cathedrals that spring to mind. But what can archaeology tell us about the impact on everyday life?

Food is central to all of our lives and the foods that we eat and the dishes that we prepare are closely related to both our economy and culture. By studying how food consumption changes in the 11th century, therefore, we might be able to better understand the long-term implications of the conquest on everyday life.

Archaeological research undertaken by Naomi Sykes a decade ago provided the first clues that food culture may have been changed by the Norman Conquest. Through studying the animal bones discarded on pre and post-conquest sites, she observed an increase in the consumption of pig, chicken and wild animals. These changes were most pronounced on elite sites, such as castles, and suggest that the incoming Norman aristocracy brought new tastes with them, mirroring consumption at similar sites in Normandy.

‘Dinner’s on me!’ Duke William leads the charge. Shutterstock

These changes in meat consumption might be associated with the development of a distinctive Anglo-Norman elite culture as influences from England and France mixed, and studies of architecture suggest that ideas moved in both directions across the channel. The zone of Norman influence extended into Italy and the island of Sicily and it is these links that might be reflected in the consumption of condiments which were not prevalent in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly black pepper. Analysis by archaeobotanist Alexandra Livarda shows that these changes, like the changes in meat consumption, are most closely associated with towns, particularly large ports such as London, and elite sites.

The flavours of conquest

The archaeological evidence therefore suggests the emergence of an elite food culture in which different meats were being cooked and prepared with new flavourings. A 12th-century text, the Urbanus Magnus, provides some insights into how these foodstuffs were combined, suggesting specific flavour combinations such as serving fish with pepper, perhaps to elevate a humble foodstuff associated with pious fasting to a meal worthy of the elite table, and matching beef and pork with garlic and wildfowl with a cumin sauce.

Bayeux Tapestry: polite Norman dining. Wikimedia Commons

Urbanus Magnus is a didactic text which instructs on morals and manners in order to regulate how people should behave in the context of an elite household and the codification of these food pairings supports the idea of a new and emerging upper-class food culture.

It also provides information about behaviour during dining. It emphasises the need to respect social hierarchy and to exercise restraint in eating, gesture, speech and bodily emissions. It is tempting to contrast this behaviour with the bawdy behaviour that we might associate with an Anglo-Saxon culture, which was focused on drinking. It is a contrast well illustrated in two dining scenes on the Bayeux Tapestry: the Saxon court drinking from horns, while William the Conqueror’s sits at the table in a scene evoking depictions of the Last Supper. We must remember, however, that the tapestry is an artefact produced by victors who may have wished to cast their predecessors as uncultured and barbaric.

However, identifying a new elite food culture adds little to our understanding of the impact of the conquest on the everyday lives of the majority of the population. The animal bone evidence suggests that there was little change in the species consumed by everyday folk, with proportions of the main domesticated animals (cattle, sheep and pig) from ordinary domestic sites staying relatively stable. However, we don’t know whether the extent to which meat contributed to the diet increased or decreased with the conquest. The analysis of cooking pots from Southampton, a major port in the south of England, suggests that new ways of cooking, perhaps inspired by French influences in the town, developed among this cosmopolitan community. But we do not yet know if this was also the case at inland settlements.

Uncovering clues

In order to address some of these questions, our research team is using a range of scientific techniques to assess the impact of the conquest on ordinary households, focusing on the city of Oxford as a case study. Situated on the River Thames, and at the boundary between areas of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian influences, Oxford offers an example of a cultural melting pot where the influence of the conquest might be particularly visible.

Black pepper: a Norman favourite. Shutterstock

Our analysis focuses on two sources of evidence from before and after the conquest: human remains and pottery used for cooking. Analysis of the human remains will help us to understand the impact of the conquest on dietary health. Do we, for example, see an increase in diseases associated with malnutrition such as rickets or conditions associated with particular food groups, such as dental caries which are caused by consumption of carbohydrates, particularly sugars?

Stable isotope analysis, a way of studying the chemical composition of bone, allows us to explore the contribution of meat, fish and plant-based foodstuffs to diet. For the first time, we will be able to understand whether we are really seeing the continuity in diet suggested by the animal bone evidence.

Whereas bulk isotope analysis of bone typically allows us to view an average of diet over a period of years immediately prior to death, a new technique, incremental dental isotope analysis gives us a detailed profile from which short term changes in diet and also health can be identified. By taking multiple samples from teeth we can see how diet changed over the period of time in childhood and adolescence when the adult teeth were developing. This technique will be particularly powerful in both understanding what was eaten in early life. The bulk and incremental techniques, in combination, can tell us about nutrition throughout people’s lives.

There is little visible change in the types of pottery used in cooking before and after the conquest, but we can again turn to science to understand the foodstuffs cooked in them through the analysis of absorbed food residues. Not only can we see what types of food were consumed, but also how they were mixed together. This will allow us to understand, for the first time, the impact of conquest on the dishes prepared by the people of Anglo-Norman England.

A key question to be resolved is whether the conquest stimulated change or accelerated processes that were already taking place. We know, for example, that the consumption of cod increased dramatically around 1000AD, probably due to increasing urbanisation fuelling demand. Other processes, such as the dividing of the landscape into manors, once associated by some with the conquest, can also now conclusively be shown to have already begun in the Anglo-Saxon period.

It is only by resolving whether changes in diet and other areas of everyday life were a part of a similar longer term processes, or were sudden developments, that we can truly understand the implications of conquest for everyday life in England.