Examining Norman nutrition

1 min read

A project – led by Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins from the University of Sheffield, and Dr Richard Madgwick and Dr Ben Jervis from the University of Cardiff – has examined the impact of the Norman Conquest on diet. Using finds excavated in Oxford and dated to between the 10th and 13th centuries, the team applied a multiproxy analytical approach, combining ceramic residue analysis, isotope analysis of both human and animal bones, incremental isotope analysis of tooth dentine, and palaeopathological analysis of skeletal remains. The results, recently published in PLOS One (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0235005), are illuminating.

A photo of a pig mandible
A pig mandible that was used for the isotope analysis. [Image: Richard Madgwick]

The ceramic residue analysis found that most of the examined vessels were used to cook meat – particularly beef, lamb, and goat – with evidence of dairy fats found exclusively in sherds from pre-Conquest contexts. They also found an increase in pork- and chicken-processing in post-Conquest sherds. This accords well with previous studies, which have also observed an increase in non-ruminant meat-consumption and a decrease in dairy after 1066. The previous data, however, were largely based on elite contexts, and the new data suggest that this change may have occurred throughout all echelons of society.

But diet was not the only change brought about by the Conquest: isotope analysis of animal bones from Oxford demonstrates that there was also a change in some husbandry practices. While cattle- and sheep-management appear to have remained largely the same, the handling of pigs seems to have shifted. Pre-Conquest pigs were largely herbivorous and potentially sourced from a wider landscape, but after 1066 they appear to have been fed largely on waste from the growing urban population, suggesting that they may have been confined to sties within the city.

Isotope analysis from human remains also highlights a shift in practice. While there was more ‘noise’ to interpret, most likely due to the diverse backgrounds of the people analysed, some trends were noted, including the possibility that the Norman diet was more homogenous. This may reflect more meat coming from the land directly around Oxford and/or more-consistent food choices. Some individuals seem to have experienced periods of physiological stress, too, possibly as a result of one or more of the well-documented famines and food shortages during this period.

Overall, as the team summarises: ‘Our findings, in combination, have revealed a pattern of increasing intensification and marketisation across various areas of economic practice, with a much-lesser and more short-term impact of the Conquest on everyday lifestyles.’

This news article appears in issue 367 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.