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How Did the Norman Conquest Change English Cuisine?

After the invasion of 1066, pork and possibly chicken spiked in popularity

“For the elite, the nobility, everything did change radically—the administration of the country, legal frameworks, the organization of the landscape,” says study co-author Richard Madgwick. “But at a lower level, people adapted to the new normal rapidly.” (Photo by Tim Graham / Getty Images)
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When William the Conqueror’s Norman army invaded England in 1066, the country’s elites found their world changed overnight. But while the new king’s land reforms—namely, instituting feudalism and redistributing tracts owned by prominent Anglo-Saxons to Norman allies—are well documented, historians are still working to understand how the Norman Conquest impacted the everyday lives of England’s lower class.

Now, a new study suggests routines remained much the same for these individuals—albeit with a few notable dietary tweaks. Prior to 1066, the country’s most commonly served meats were beef, lamb, mutton and goat, reports Steven Morris for the Guardian; after the invasion, pork and perhaps chicken spiked in popularity.

In England, the year 1066 is “seen as a grand transition after which nothing was the same again,” study co-author Richard Madgwick, an osteoarchaeologist at Cardiff University in Wales, tells the Guardian. “For the elite, the nobility, everything did change radically—the administration of the country, legal frameworks, the organization of the landscape. But at a lower level, people adapted to the new normal rapidly.”

The findings, published this week in the journal PLOS One, center on samples taken from the remains of 248 people and 60 animals (including pigs, cattle, sheep and goats), as well as microscopic traces of fat left on 41 shards of pottery. Dated to between the 10th and 13th centuries, these bones and organic residue were collected at archaeological sites across Oxford.

To deduce the foods these medieval humans and animals ate, the researchers analyzed ratios of stable isotopes found in their bones and teeth. The team also leveraged knowledge of how the human skeleton responds to physiological stress such as starvation and malnutrition.

Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of William the Conqueror's invasion of England. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Stable isotope analysis of 36 sets of human remains showed that the typical medieval English diet of cabbage, grain, beef and mutton remained largely unchanged by the Norman Conquest, reports Kiona N. Smith for Ars Technica. Researchers found no signs of rickets, scurvy or anemia—diseases caused by nutrient deficiencies that can warp the skeleton. But layers of tooth enamel dated to the childhoods of people who grew up around the time of the invasion revealed periods of food shortages.

“There is certainly evidence that people experienced periods where food was scarce,” says lead author Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, in a statement. “But following this, an intensification in farming meant people generally had a more steady food supply and consistent diet. Aside from pork becoming a more popular food choice, eating habits and cooking methods remained unchanged to a large extent.”

The revelation that pork became a larger part of Britons’ diets post-1066 stems from traces of fat found on the pottery fragments. Residue extracted from the pottery suggests the use of dairy fats in cooking declined following the regime change—and that the telltale fatty acids associated with pork became more common, according to Ars Technica.

Analysis of pig bones also allowed the researchers to peer into these animals’ diets, which grew richer in protein and more consistent over time. Based on the findings, the study’s authors suggest that pork farming intensified under Norman rule. Per the Guardian, humans likely fed livestock food scraps instead of letting them forage around the countryside.

As Madgwick says in the statement, the team relied on an “innovative and diverse suite of methods” to “tell the story of how the Conquest affected diet and health in the non-elite, a somewhat marginalized group until now.”

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