Dissecting the diet of medieval peasants

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A reconstruction drawing of the West Cotton medieval village. (IMAGE: Andy Chapman)

A recent project analysing food residue on pottery from a medieval rural settlement in Raunds, Northamptonshire, has yielded detailed new information on the diet of peasants between the late Anglo-Saxon period and the 15th century – a vital aspect of medieval life that is often overlooked in the historical record.

As Dr Julie Dunne, one of the leaders of the project, explained: ‘Traditionally, we focus on the important historical figures, as these are the people discussed in ancient documents. Much is known of the medieval dietary practices of the nobility and ecclesiastical institutions, but less about what foods the medieval peasantry consumed.’

This project (whose results were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science) aimed to fill this knowledge gap by examining a large pottery assemblage from West Cotton, a settlement spanning the majority of the medieval period from the late Anglo-Saxon period (AD 950-1100) through to the mid-15th century, when the site was abandoned.

One of the reconstructed pots used in the study. (IMAGE: Julie Dunne)

In total, the team from the University of Bristol and MOLA assessed 123 potsherds from 73 reconstructed vessels. They found that 60% of the containers had held meat from cattle and sheep, while a quarter of the pots had probably been used solely for dairy products such as butter and cheese. In many of the pots, biomarkers for leafy vegetables – particularly cabbage and leek – were also identified alongside the meat residues, suggesting that these vessels were used to cook stews or pottages.

These results accord well with the zooarchaeological remains, which were examined as part of the initial post-excavation report. This analysis found that most of them came from domesticated animals – mainly sheep, cattle, and pigs – while relatively few came from fish or game. Interestingly, despite pig remains being well represented among the faunal assemblage, only 10% of the vessels appear to have been used to cook pork. This might suggest that pigs were more commonly roasted whole on spits rather than stewed in pots.

Overall, the findings indicate that the diet of medieval peasants was quite different from that of their higher-status counterparts, subsisting more on dairy products and on meat and vegetable stews than on fish or game.

This article appeared in CA 353.

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