Saturday, July 21, 2012

Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England

by Richard Denning

Like all historical fiction writers I strive to be factually accurate. Amongst others facts I wanted to find out about was what folk ate at the time of my books. My novels are set in years around 600 AD.Today I am going to look at diet in that long ago age.

Fifteen centuries is a long time and the average diet of men and women can change a lot in that time. What then was typical food and drink consumed by our ancestors who lived in these islands around the 6th to 7th century and during the centuries following?

For the Anglo Saxons the main meal of day was lunch time, whereas the evening meal more often broth (Briw)

A specialist Cook would be usually be a man: in Old English the word for Cook is a male word.

Types of food

Cereals: Barley, wheat, rye and oats were grown and made into bread and beer. A popular use was pottage: a stew of cereals, pulses and vegetables. This was called briw in Old English.

Drinks: Beer, which was made from malted barley, was the main beverage consumed. This was really a type of ale, meaning it did not contain hops (later centuries would classify beer as ale made with hops). Mead was also produced along with cider but more rarely. In Old English ale was called alu or ealu. Wine was very uncommon and only available to wealthy individuals. Milk was occasionally drunk but more often used for cheese and butter.

Pulses: Beans and peas were commonly used in briw.

Vegetables:Typically used again in briw, these included leeks, onions, garlic, cabbage, turnips, beets, parsnips, carrots. They did not include potatoes – a much later 16th century import.

Herbs: Ginger, coriander, pepper and other herbs and spices were known, but were mainly used in medicines.

Fruit: Very commonly used in diet, although often dried or boiled and stored for later use; these included apples, pears, plums, cherries, rasberries, strawberries and blackberries. Nuts such as hazelnuts were eaten.

Eggs: were an easily available food which also included ducks and goose eggs as well as hens.

Meat and Fish: Pretty much all of an animal would be consumed. Red meat was rarer in the diet; pork and chicken being much more common. Game and fowl was eaten much more than today. Shellfish, such as oysters, were a standard part of the diet: much more than is the case in our day, where they are considered an exotic luxury item (although maybe not as much as 20 years ago). Eels and other fish were often eaten on fast days when meat was off the menu.

Methods of Cooking

Fire Making and ovens:
Most men and women would have their own set of fire steels, flints and tinder boxes. There are occasionally found in pagan graves. Dependant on what was easily available; the hearth was lined with clay tiles or stones and was heart of each house. Commonly this would be a fire pit in the centre of the room. Smoke would escape through a hole in the roof or just be filtrating out through the thatch.

Sometimes heated stones were dropped in pots of water to boil it as a prelude to boiling food.
Larger brick ovens would often have been located in separate buildings and burnt wood faggots.  Sometimes they would consist of a chamber for fire with flues to carry hot air to another chamber where the food was cooked.

Earth Oven: This was created from a pit dug in the earth. Heated stones would be laid in them. Then meat covered with clay and leaves was laid in the pit and the food covered over with hot stones

Cooking Utensils
Pots and Cauldrons could be made from metals such as Iron, Bronze, Copper or Tin. Clay pots were used but soapstone was popular as it was tough and easier to clean than other crockery.

Methods of Cooking
Boiling and stewing was main method used by the Anglo Saxons. Often salted meat was later boiled.
e.g. Goose put in floured bag with milk or butter and lowered into cauldron. Beans, barley and vegetables might be in other bags in the same cauldron.

Roasting and Grilling was used for fresh meat and fish

Griddles and frying pans were in use e.g for cooking flat breads or omelettes.

For unleavened bread, flat bread and round cakes this was prepared by mixing meal (ground barley, wheat etc) with salt. This would then be cooked on a griddle or upon the hot heath stones near the fire. Adding yeast produced leavened bread. Yeast could obtained from the dregs that remained after brewing ale or even some forms of mould.

Bread was cooked in a pan, upon hearth stones or in the oven. Ovens could be single chambers or two chambers. In the single chamber you put in wooden faggots and burnt them. When the faggots where ash you would take out the ash and put in the dough. This bread would be blackened and discoloured so you would have to cut or break off the crust.

Alternatively, you could cover the bread with an upturned pot and then pile the hot embers ash on top.
Another method was the two chamber oven. Wood would be burnt in one chamber and the bread cooked in the adjacent chamber, which was heated by hot air from the other.

Further reading: I can recommend a superb reference book  by Ann Hagen:Anglo-Saxon Food(published by Anglo-Saxon books).

For more on my Novels set in 6th and 7th Century Northumbria go here:


  1. An interesting post. My new novel is partly set in the ninth century, so thank you for the extra bits of information. No matter how much one researches, someone else will always have slightly different titbits!

  2. Thanks this is very interesting. I remember an episode of Horrible Histories where they have the "Historical Dentist" and the Anglo-Saxon dentist was fascinated by modern-day fillings because they just didn't get much tooth decay due to lack of refined sugar in the diet!

  3. Brilliant post Richard. Great research. As a re-enactor of the later pre-Conquest English, this is very informative for me as we like to eat authentically on our display wics. I read soemwhere that buttermilk was sometimes drunk, probably in winter months. People often have this misconception that because our ancestors drank a lot of ale they were drunk most of the time which wasnt true. The ale was very low in alcoholic content but i'm sure they made it stronger for special occassions

  4. Do you think leavened bread was also made by the sourdough method of allowing a flour and water mix to "grow" natural yeasts from the air?

  5. Thank you, that was very interesting and informative!

  6. Well done, Richard. I especially like the photo of the cookfire on the snow -- a reminder that in Anglo-Saxon times a lot of daily activities - including cooking - might have taken place out of doors in all seasons!

  7. Sue,
    according at Ann Hagen's book yeast for bread came from 3 sources:
    1.wild yeasts present in the air as you suggest will ferment a mix of flour and water left uncovered.
    2. sediment from beers etc holding back sour dough from one batch and using that to start off new batch of bread. etc etc - a perpetual suply

  8. yes everyone drank ale but whilst it generally would be much weaker than our ale, I am sure that stronger batches were made.

  9. Thanks so much for this post and the book recommendation. I saw something about cauldron cooking in Dorothy Hartley's Food in England, and have been meaning to try it some day...

  10. This is a great post, which will come in handy for my 12th century novella. I've got it bookmarked for future reference. Thank you.

  11. this is amazing!!! I was writing a socials project and I needed to find research of foods and cultures of eating in great britain in the 6th century! I was looking for a long time, and I thought I would never find anything. 10/10!


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