Peasant pottery sheds light on medieval English diets

Peasant pottery sheds light on...
Food residues on pottery have provided insights into medieval English diets
Food residues on pottery have provided insights into medieval English diets
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Food residues on pottery have provided insights into medieval English diets
Food residues on pottery have provided insights into medieval English diets

A new study from the University of Bristol claims to have, for the first time, found direct, definitive evidence of the food eaten by medieval common folk in England. Based on the chemical analysis of food residue found on pottery fragments from excavations of the village of West Cotton in Raunds, Northamptonshire, as well bones from the site and historical documents, the Bristol team found culinary insights along with evidence of animal husbandry and butchery.

One of the great services that archaeology performs is to shed light on aspects of the past that history overlooks for one reason or another. For much of human history, there was little interest in recording the mundane day-to-day lives of common people. Even where we have good documentation, much of it is accidental, like shopping lists or court complaints.

One example of where archaeology is spreading much-needed light is on the diet of the English common folk (often erroneously called peasants) of medieval times. While we have cookbooks, accounts, and pictures that tell us what the nobles and the wealthy dined on, and we even know a lot about how townsfolk ate thanks to laws passed to make sure food merchants weren't bilking the public or that the streets weren't clogged with livestock running free, what the majority of people who lived in farming hamlets and villages ate is still a bit of a mystery. What little is recorded indicates that they ate meat, fish, various dairy products, fruit, and vegetables, but there is very little or no direct evidence beyond some pollen traces and cooked bones.

"All too often in history the detail, for example food and clothing, of the everyday life of ordinary people is unknown," says team leader Julie Dunne. "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."

Modern research has helped us to gain some understanding and the Bristol study shows that the diet of the average English villager was far from one of surviving on a dreary succession of peas, porridge, and pulses. To gain direct evidence of their diet, the Bristol team looked chiefly at pottery from across about 500 years from West Cotton, which was abandoned around 1450.

Pottery is valuable for this sort of research because its not only widely used – especially for storing and cooking food – but fragments can potentially last forever. And the porous nature of most pottery means that it readily absorbs organic residues.

In the case of the West Cotton pottery, the team, which included Dunne and Professor Richard Evershed from the University of Bristol's Organic Geochemistry Unit, looked for traces of lipids, including fats, oils, and natural waxes. These survive very well even in the British climate that would soon destroy proteins and from these it was possible to identify meats from ruminants like cattle and sheep as well as leafy vegetables like cabbages and leeks that would have gone into pottages – what we would call stews today. Pork might also have been eaten in quantity, though the team acknowledges that this might have been underrepresented in the sampling.

In addition, one quarter of the pots studied were used solely for dairy products, indicating that the villagers consumed a lot of "green" or new cheeses, That is, fresh cheese that hasn't been pressed, dried, or aged.

"West Cotton was one of the first archaeological sites we worked on when we began developing the organic residue approach – it is extraordinary how, by applying the suite of the latest methods, we can provide information missing from historical documents," says Evershed.

The results were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Source: University of Bristol

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If you have a surplus of milk and not much transportation to markets, then fresh cheese, aka carefully-spoiled milk, is going to be a big part of your diet by default. (And we know that it wasn't worthwhile for peasants to raise beef, because that went to the aristocrats.)