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What was English food like 1000 years ago?

2017-February-21

What was English food like 1000 years ago? by Stephen Tempest

Answer by Stephen Tempest:

Quite a lot is known about what kinds of food were eaten in England a thousand years ago. However, the details of how the food was prepared and cooked are much less clear. There are few or no surviving recipes or cooking instructions.

It should be noted that food was much more seasonal than modern people are accustomed to. There was no refrigeration, no greenhouses, no large-scale imports. Milk was usually only available in spring; vegetables in summer, meat in winter. Grain, because it can be kept without spoiling year-round, was by far the most important source of nutrition.


The main component of the Anglo-Saxon diet, for those who could afford it, was bread. Poorer people might eat grain in the form of gruel instead, since grinding the grain to flour and baking it into bread both required expensive capital equipment that they might be unable to afford.

Wheat was the preferred grain used to make flour; barley was considered second-best and rye and oats were rarely used. Most villages grew several types of grain each year, in case a blight destroyed one of the crops. In bad years dried beans or peas might also be ground up to make flour.

Loaves were usually round and flat, and quite coarse and heavy by modern standards. Grain was ground to flour in watermills, which were a relatively recent innovation in late Anglo-Saxon England, but one which spread rapidly — there were over 5,000 of them in the country by 1086, pretty much one for every substantial village.

Bread could be eaten with butter or cheese, or dipped into a vegetable broth to soften it.


Vegetables were also a staple item of the diet: often simmered in a pot along with grain as a thickening agent to make a broth. Beans, peas, onions, leeks, celery, radish, carrots, parsnips, shallots, lettuce and cabbage were all grown in vegetable gardens. The Anglo-Saxons did not have potatoes or tomatoes, which came from the Americas in the 16th century. They also did not have spinach, cauliflower, runner beans or brussels sprouts, which were all introduced to England later.

Flavourings and seasonings included garlic, mint, parsley, dill, chervil, coriander, cumin, bay leaf and poppy.

Imported spices were also used, but not in the quantities that would be known in later centuries. The most prized possession of the monk and historian Bede was a small bag of pepper, presumably brought overland to England all the way from Pavia in Italy, and before that by a Venetian galley from Egypt or Syria, and before that by a merchant caravan or Arab trading ship all the way from the Indies. It had probably passed through many different hands before ending up in Jarrow in Northumbria.

Fruit was also an important part of the diet judging from the number of fruit pips found by archaeologists in middens and refuse heaps. Apples, pears, plums, figs, quinces, peaches and mulberries were all grown. So were various types of nuts.


Meat was eaten fairly often, but still seems to have been regarded as something of a treat for special occasions. Roast beef, from cows, was the most expensive and high-status meat. Pork, ham and bacon from pigs came second. Mutton from sheep was disliked, and considered food fit for slaves and thralls to eat while their betters dined on beef.

In an era before refrigeration, bacon and ham were preserved by hanging them in the rafters of the house to be smoked. Pigs were allowed to roam free in the forests outside the village, feeding on the naturally-occurring nuts and forage there, and most were rounded up and slaughtered for meat as winter approached.

Hunting also provided some food, mostly for the wealthy: deer, boar and hare were hunted or snared for their meat. Wild birds might also be caught using nets or hawks.

Poultry was also eaten, but was regarded as something of a luxury: chickens were kept primarily for their eggs, not meat. Hens, ducks, geese and even pigeons might be kept.

Fresh-water fish formed a significant part of the diet in some places. Wooden weirs were built across rivers to trap the fish. Pike, minnows and trout were caught, as were eels and lampreys. Sea fish were also caught by men going out in small rowing boats, though this was less common: herring, salmon and sturgeon. Some people hunted whales or dolphins. Shellfish, crabs and lobsters were also trapped or gathered.


Beer and ale were the most common drinks: low in alcohol content, and with a short shelf-life. Hops were not yet in use to flavour beer or prolong its life. Beer often had to be strained through a sieve before drinking!

Wine was more rare: grapes could be grown in Anglo-Saxon England, but only in sheltered southern locations. (The Domesday Book counted 38 vineyards in England, mostly small.) Like the beer, wine had to be drunk fairly quickly after its making; this was before the era of glass bottles and corks.

The alcoholic beverage of choice for those able to afford it was mead, made from fermented honeycombs. It was very sweet, but more importantly very high in alcohol content compared to the other drinks available. Kings and the heroes of legend were depicted as drinking mead in their great feasts.

There was no tea and no coffee.

There was no sugar either. Honey was used as a sweetener, but it was very expensive, to the degree that it was sometimes used in lieu of currency. Most honey was probably used to make mead.


As for cooking methods, as mentioned before not much is known beyond the basics.

Most cooking was done over open wood fires, and large joints of meat were probably spit-roasted. The Bayeux Tapestry shows meat being prepared both as a large roast being turned on a spit, and smaller pieces of meat, possibly rabbit, on individual skewers.

For smaller pieces of meat, grain and vegetables, a cooking pot was used. The pot might be metal or clay, and was either put directly on the fire or heated stones from the fireplace might be dropped into the pot. The Anglo-Saxon word briw, meaning 'broth' or 'stew', was used to describe meals prepared in this way. It seems that for poor people this was the standard diet; a broth, mostly of mixed vegetables (beans, peas, root vegetables), with bread dipped in it.

Ovens for baking bread were expensive, and only the wealthy had one. Poor people seem to have baked bread in a covered pan or under an upturned pot placed on a heated stone.


Famine was an ever-present danger in Anglo-Saxon England. Skeletal analysis shows widespread malnutrition among large segments of the population, while more serious crop failures could cause widespread death. However, the diet was healthy in other respects; the same skeletons show little evidence of tooth decay or deficiency of vitamins C (scurvy) or D (rickets).

What was English food like 1000 years ago?

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