I find that one of the most fascinating aspects of history is the food that was prepared and enjoyed in the old days. Crumbling stones and bits of metalwork only tell part of the story—flavors and feasts go much deeper into the heart and soul of a culture. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 4th century marked a turning point in English history, finally breaking the hold of the Romans over their province of Britannia, and this is also when the early English men and women began to discover their own unique cuisine.
The Jutes, Saxons, and Angles (later lumped together under the generic heading of “Anglo-Saxons”) found Britain’s fields to be green, pleasant, and ripe for the taking. These were “barbarians,” rough mercenaries and farmers who must have alarmed the Romanized Britons with their uncouth habits. But the fancy egg “fishes” and sweet toasts of the Roman days were no match for the hearty Germanic fare that the Anglo-Saxons brought with them.
|By User:Hel-hama [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons|
Though the post-Roman period in Britain is referred to as the “Dark Ages,” you’d be wrong if you thought that these people were a bunch of uncivilized cave-dwellers. Here are some interesting facts about the Anglo-Saxons and their culture:
- The Four Kingdoms: The early Anglo-Saxon tribes eventually consolidated into four main kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. Wessex was the only kingdom that survived the savage Viking invasions, and in 927 their leader, Æthelstan, became the very first King of the English.
- Art: As the recent discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard proves, the Anglo-Saxons were impressive craftsmen. They were able to turn gold and silver into amazing works of art that were also put to practical use. Their armor, brooches, rings, swords, rivets, pins, panels, and plaques were all beautifully decorated in intricate designs.
- Table Manners: Though the popular image of Dark Age British feasting might involve a lot of bone cracking and mead slurping, feasts were actually important community events that followed a pretty strict code of conduct. You can find out more about Anglo-Saxon feasts from The British History Podcast.
- Old English: The Anglo-Saxons spoke Old English, which was heavily influenced by their German roots. This period saw the transition from ancient Celtic runes to a more modern Latin script, and played a heavy role in the development of the language you and I speak today.
- Faith and Food: When Saint Augustine came to Britain in 597, he brought with him a tidal wave of faith that swept the nation, and this affected the way everyone ate. For one thing, a popular idea of the time was that eating red meat engendered lust, and so “fish days” took up two-thirds of the year. Rich and poor alike were forced to give up rich fleshmeat and live on the produce of the sea.
|By Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England
(Anglo-Saxon skillet from the Isle of Wight) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
More often than not, though, food was determined by necessity. Pottage, for example, is the ultimate Anglo-Saxon food, eaten by both the upper and lower classes. Basically a one-dish meal that was cooked in a cauldron over the fire, pottage probably served as a catchall for odds and ends of food. A variety of “potherbs” (the old word for vegetable) would form the base of the pottage, and various cereal grains added bulk. The nobility would probably cook all of this in meaty stock and throw in some tender beef or mutton, but a peasant was lucky if he or she had a bone or scrap of meat to add flavor. Pottage went on to be a staple food of the poor for centuries, and you can still eat its descendants—pease pudding for example—in modern Great Britain.
For my ambitious college project I decided to cook up my own batch of pottage. Though the Anglo-Saxons might have cooked their pottage outdoors over an open fire, I chose to fix mine in a pot on the range (shameless anachronism, I know). The “recipe” for this dish is incredibly lax, so I used a wide variety of vegetables in varying quantities, plus a handful of fresh herbs to add flavor and a few tablespoons of oatmeal as a thickener. I cooked it all in broth left over from boiling corned beef. This is such a flexible recipe, you can make it taste however you wish by using the wide variety of ingredients available to the Anglo-Saxons.
- 1-2 quarts beef stock or water
- Several pounds of vegetables: parsnips, turnips, radishes, onions, garlic, leeks, cabbages
- One or two fresh herbs: marjoram, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme
- A few tablespoons of cereal grain: medium-cut oatmeal, rye, barley
- Various seasonings: salt, pepper, butter, honey, vinegar
- Wash and peel your vegetables.
- Chop the vegetables and herbs.
- Put them all into a pot filled stock/water.
- Bring the soup to a boil.
- Turn down the heat and simmer until all vegetables are cooked.
- Add enough oats to thicken; keep simmering until cooked.
- Season to taste.
Spencer, Colin. British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.