Meal times for Anglo-Saxons were often communal affairs, with all the members of a village eating at the table of their lord’s hall. The food was usually cooked over the long open fire-pit in the middle of the hall, then shared out between everyone. The best cuts of meat, the juiciest vegetables and the finest loaves would go to the lord, then to his warriors and other important members of the household and so on until they filtered down to the slaves at the bottom.
This did not characterize all medieval meals though, especially for the peasants who represented the poorest and most numerous section of society in the middle ages. Their diet was dependent on locally available crops and bad harvests could mean long periods of hunger. War and disease broke out periodically in Anglo-Saxon England and could affect the production of food, with the peasants once again being the first to suffer in such crises.
Pigs were plentiful and the only animal the Anglo-Saxons used solely for eating. They produce large groups of offspring who mature quickly so were the most efficient form of meat production.
They also ate beef, chicken, mutton and goat. Beef was usually reserved for the richer tables and many herds of cattle were looked after for as long as they gave milk, a very useful resource. Goats were also preserved for their milk production, chickens for their eggs and sheep for their wool. These animals were usually only slaughtered when they became lame, unproductive or for special occasions like the Yule feast. The poor could live their whole lives without meat, although chicken and pork is what they would get, if they got hold of any meat at all.
Game was also eaten; deer, wild boar and wild birds were relatively common in the Anglo-Saxon period. Richer Anglo-Saxons and their household warriors sometimes hunted for sport when there was no real fighting to be done and would feast on the animals they caught.
Fish was consumed by many, particularly those who lived by the sea. Shellfish too, like oysters, cockles, lobster and crab were eaten. Fish were a valuable commodity as they could be smoked or salted to be stored for winter when other food was scarce.
Salt was mined in Worcestershire and was used for preserving food and for flavouring blander dishes like stew. Vegetables including, onions, garlic, cabbage, turnips, beetroot, parsnips, carrots (which were white at the time), peas and beans formed the basis of many poorer Anglo-Saxons’ diets. Vegetables were also used to flavour meals. Herbs were used for medicinal purposes rather than for flavouring, this practice was adopted later on.
Fruit was relatively plentiful, cherries, berries, apples and plums were eaten by many and often made into alcohol. They were used to flavour meals too as sugar was not available. The only other sweet food available was honey and artificial bee hives were a common site in many towns and villages. This was also made into alcohol, a drink called mead, favoured by many and often consumed with dinner.
Just as wheat is for us today, barley was the staple grain for the Anglo-Saxons. They ground it to make bread and fermented it to brew ale. It was also used to make one of the most common dishes of the time, pottage (A thick stew of barley grains boiled with vegetables), or ‘briw’ in Anglo-Saxon, this was a staple of the peasant diet.
Ale in different variations was the drink of choice for most of the population. Water in many places, particularly river water, was often polluted as rivers were used for waste disposal by most. Therefore ale was drunk by adults and children as their main source of hydration. Children were given weak, diluted ale and if they lived in the right place, spring water. However ale was still more readily available.
The chance that this food would be available, particularly in the richer and safer kingdoms like Wessex, was good. However, this was a period of continual warfare and the winter months were harsh especially for those not under the protection of a lord. At this time, if a harvest failed or a marauding army burnt the crops and stole the livestock, people would die.