The Norman Conquest Didn’t Kill the English Appetite
A team of researchers have established that Norman dietary influences in England after the Norman Conquest were less profound than previously imagined. This was a huge surprise given the perceived impact of Norman culture on Anglo-Saxon England. However, researchers did find some evidence that elite status Norman dietary influences on local English people resulted in changes in the kinds of meats they ate.
A team of researchers from British universities decided to examine the archaeological evidence to determine Norman dietary influences on people in England after the 1066 Norman Conquest. They wrote in PLOS ONE that the Norman Conquest’s ‘effect on the everyday lives of the English population remains poorly understood’. By examining what English people ate, researchers believed they could learn a lot about how the Normans changed the lives of ordinary English people.
The Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD and The New Norman England
The research team used a range of bio-archaeological techniques to study human and animal bones recovered from sites across Oxford, along with fragments of ceramics used for cooking. Staple isotope analysis was undertaken on a sample of 248 individuals who lived from the 10 th to 12 th century AD. Samples were taken from 12 sites in Oxford which was selected for the study because of the quality of the remains and their reliable dating evidence.
Location of major events during the Norman conquest of England in 1066. (Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia / CC BY 3.0)
The Norman Conquest of England was probably the single most important event in British history. William the Conqueror was the Duke of Normandy and he was crowned King of England after his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This meant that the British Isles after the Norman Conquest were more influenced by France than Scandinavia. Norman influences led to changes in the English language, and many other social, political and cultural changes.
How the British Copied The Ways of The Norman Conquerors
The Guardian reports that ‘Before 1066, beef, lamb, mutton and goat were among the meats most likely to be served in England.’ The evidence found in Oxford suggests that this was also the case after the Battle of Hastings. One of the study leaders, Elizabeth Craig-Atkins of the University of Sheffield, told The Daily Mail that ‘Despite the huge political and economic changes that were happening, our analysis suggests the Conquest may have only had a limited impact on most people's diets.’ However, the study did reveal that chicken may have become more popular and that pork became very popular due to Norman dietary influences.
A 14th-century butcher shop. A large pig is being bled in preparation for slaughter. A whole pig carcass and cuts are hanging from a rack and various cuts are being prepared for a customer. (Public Domain)
It is well known that the Normans loved their pork, and it appears that they passed this on to the Anglo-Saxons whom they conquered. The results, based on the samples unearthed in Oxford, showed that both members of the English elite and the common people began cooking and eating pork after the Conquest. In PLOS ONE, the researchers wrote ‘that Anglo-Norman fashions could be adopted across the social spectrum.’ The study results showed that pork and chicken would have been roasted or cooked in a stew.
Food Shortages in England After The Norman Conquest
In general, according to the study, English people continued to eat a lot of dairy products and vegetables and that cabbage remained as popular as ever. Overall, dairy products became somewhat more popular. The diet of English people was not varied but relatively nutritious and, in the words of Ars Technica, the ‘study suggests that after 1066, English food was as terrible but filling as before.’
Eureka Alert states that ‘The team found that there wasn't a huge difference between the health of the individuals, who were alive at different points before and after the Conquest.’ The transition to Norman rule was brutal and there were many rebellions. For example, the aftermath of the Battle of Stamford Bridge resulted in an Anglo-Saxon attack on Bristol in 1068. As a result, some people may have experienced food insecurity and hunger in the early years of William the Conqueror’s reign. Ars Technica reports that the researchers found ‘evidence for that in the teeth of people who had been young children during the transition to Norman rule.’
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- The Dramatic History of the Normans: A Tale of Medieval Conquest
King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king, receiving the news of the Norman invasion. (Public Domain)
Intensification of British Farming After the Norman Conquest
However, while there was some evidence of food insecurity in the diet of people, in general, their diet and health were not adversely impacted by the invasion of the Normans who were after all originally Norsemen from Scandinavia. According to Eureka Alerts, the team found that ‘evidence of bone conditions related to poor diets - such as rickets and scurvy- were rare.’ While there were generally short-term disruptions to the local food supply, for example in bad winters, overall people had a nutritious diet and had enough food to sustain themselves.
The team also examined the bones of 60 animals unearthed in Oxford. Based on these examinations they found that ‘the diets of pigs became more consistent and richer in animal protein — both signs that pig farming was intensifying under Norman rule’ reports the Daily Mail. This is a sign of increased farming specialization and commercialization. It is believed that pigs in stalls in the towns were fed scraps of food, rather than having to forage in the countryside outside the town’s walls. Craig-Atkins is quoted by the Daily Mail as saying that ‘an intensification in farming meant people generally had a more steady food supply and consistent diet.’
This Oxford research study shows that the Norman dietary impact on English people’s lives may not have been dramatic or immediate. Despite the revolutionary political changes, people lived in much the same way as they had before the Norman invasion.
It appears that the Normans changed English society gradually. The study is important because it reveals how bio-archaeological techniques can be used to understand the diets of past societies and their food supplies.
Top image: Norman dietary influences in England after the Battle of Hastings (pictured here) and the Norman Conquest. Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96) / Public domain
By Ed Whelan