Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet

Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet

Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet

By Kathy L. Pearson

Speculum, Volume 72, Number 1, 1997

Introduction: The food supply of the temperate lands of early-medieval western Europe, and the ways in which its peoples dealt with the central problem of feeding themselves, has been subjected to a variety of interpretations in recent years.

Vern Bullough and Cameron Campbell’s study of the medieval diet and female longevity concluded that early-medieval women suffered from iron deficiencies triggered jointly by poor nutrition and frequent childbearing and that these deficiencies contributed substantially to their average early age of death. Ann Hagen’s overview of Anglo Saxon patterns of food production and consumption suggested that most of the early English population routinely lived at marginally adequate or outright sub standard levels of nutrition. Similar conclusions were reached by Renee Doehaerd in her study of the early-medieval economy. Michel Rouche, on the other hand, asserted that the typical Carolingian-including the peasants-had access to a monotonous, but abundant, supply of foodstuffs and may have consumed an average of 6,000-9,000 calories per day. Richard Hodges likewise decided that Anglo-Saxon peasants were reasonably well fed, based on the heavy food rents per hide demanded (and presumably collected) during the reign of the West Saxon king Ina.

Such disparate interpretations are created by the serious difficulties of reconstructing the early-medieval diet. Different climates, soils, and terrains forced local variation in the food supply. Social class and ethnic identity likewise shaped food consumption patterns. The Romanized aristocrats of southern Gaul ate differently from the Rhineland Franks living along the frontier. Regionalism resulting from post-Roman changes in long-distance trade also altered or created new food patterns. Population density determined both the nature of agriculture and the community’s access to wild foodstuffs.

The source materials themselves present a number of difficulties. Estate surveys and capitularies reveal the demands made upon their peasants by lords of large clerical and lay properties, but they tell us almost nothing of private peasant resourcefulness in producing foods from their exploitation of kitchen gardens and orchards or from the forests, meadows, and streams adjoining the cultivated lands. Such records likewise tell us nothing about populations living in more modest communities or in relatively isolated family groups. Nor do the surveys and capitularies address distinctions between sedentary, grain-raising communities and those pastoral populations whose primary dietary components would have been the meat and milk-based products of their livestock.