New Research Suggests England’s Early Medieval Rulers Had a Veggie-Based Diet

Two papers argue that these 5th- through 11th-century kings and queens mainly ate meat during special feasts thrown by their subjects

Drawing of an early medieval king eating and drinking at Tintagel Castle in England
Drawing of an early medieval king eating and drinking at Tintagel Castle in England Art by Ivan Lapper / Photo by English Heritage / Heritage Images / Getty Images

A new analysis of more than 2,000 skeletons buried in England between the 5th and 11th centuries suggests the country’s early medieval rulers weren’t exactly the carnivorous gluttons of popular lore.

As Rhys Blakely writes for the London Times, a pair of papers published in the journal Anglo-Saxon England argue that pre-Viking British lords mainly subsisted on a cereal- and vegetable-based diet, with large, meat-heavy feasts reserved for special occasions when “the nobility rubbed shoulders with the peasantry.” The findings indicate that early medieval England (also known by the ahistorical term “Anglo-Saxon”) was less socially stratified than previously thought.

The popular image of early medieval rulers tearing through legs of mutton has evidentiary backing: Per a statement, 11 surviving food lists from the era describe feasts’ contents as modest amounts of bread; enormous portions of beef, mutton, salmon, eel and poultry; and some cheese, honey and ale. Based on a list dated to the reign of Ine of Wessex (around 688 to 726), each guest would have eaten roughly 4,140 calories.

The researchers don’t dispute the existence of such calorie-rich, meat-laden meals. But they view these feasts as the exception, not the norm.

“Historians generally assume that medieval feasts were exclusively for elites,” says co-author Tom Lambert, a historian at the University of Cambridge, in the statement. “But these food lists show that even if you allow for huge appetites, 300 or more people must have attended. That means that a lot of ordinary farmers must have been there, and this has big political implications.”

Food list compiled during the reign of King Ine of Wessex
Food list compiled during the reign of King Ine of Wessex Chapter of Rochester Cathedral

If early medieval rulers consumed copious amounts of meat on a regular basis, that would likely be reflected in their remains. But an isotopic analysis of 2,023 skeletons from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds “found no evidence of people eating anything like this much animal protein,” says co-author Sam Leggett, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Edinburgh, in the statement. “If they were, we would find isotopic evidence of excess protein and signs of diseases like gout from the bones. But we’re just not finding that.”

The scholars don’t cite any direct documentary evidence supporting the claim that rulers stuck to a heavily vegetarian diet on non-feast days. The surviving food lists make few to no mention of vegetables, but as Zaron Burnett III notes for Mel magazine, this doesn’t mean they weren’t served, but rather that they were so ordinary they weren’t considered worth mentioning.

“We should imagine a wide range of people livening up bread with small quantities of meat and cheese, or eating pottages of leeks and whole grains with a little meat thrown in,” says Leggett in the statement.

One of the two newly published papers centers on the Old English word feorm, or food-rent. According to Samuel Webb of the Independent, the term has generally been defined as a tax paid by peasants in the form of crops and livestock that then served as the royal household’s main source of food. Lambert, however, drew on a range of sources, including aristocratic wills, to offer an alternative interpretation of feorm as a single feast thrown by a ruler’s subjects.

“We’re looking at kings traveling to massive barbecues hosted by free peasants, people who owned their own farms and sometimes slaves to work on them,” says Lambert in the statement. “You could compare it to a modern presidential campaign dinner in the [United States]. This was a crucial form of political engagement.”

Speaking with Nick McDermott of the Sun, Lambert describes the findings as surprising.

“The popular view has always been of a big social divide between the elites and the peasants,” he says. “But their diet was the same. It shows on normal days they were mostly eating bread and vegetable stew. And once in a while they would come together for a nice spread or a barbecue. So [it was] an early form of flexitarianism.”