Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England (Revealing History) Paperback – 1 Mar 2004
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
After eagerly combing through this book, I came away feeling that Debby Banham has indeed produced an excellent text and certainly one worth having for any student of the subject or re-enactor of the period.
As with any study of the Anglo-Saxon period there are assumptions that have to be made in the absence of any forthcoming evidence. Whether these assumptions are truer than others is open to conjecture, and it is only through efforts like experimental archaeology that a better understanding can be made of the subject. There are other suggestions however that can only be based on extant artefacts or contemporary depictions, and this is where some of the author's claims don't ring as true for this reader as some others.
Such claims as minimal tableware or the lack of cooking utensils other than pots and/or cauldrons for food roasting is at odds with contemporary depictions in such documents as the Bayeux Tapestry, where spitted foodstuffs are very evident, along with sumptuously set tables.
Conspicuous by absence is a section devoted to extant food preparation or consumption artefacts, such as the Sevington cutlery (which features a fork on one end) for example. An elaborate bone spoon is featured but the ubiquitous eating seax is surprisingly nowhere to be seen. Also missing is any reference to the different climate of the period and its resultant effects on crop yields and livestock numbers.
The tired assumption that people of the period were on the whole comparatively malnourished flies in the face of the state of human remains excavated that demonstrated fairly robust health in many individuals for a good portion of their lives (especially after childhood).
There tends to be an overwhelming assumption that certain foodstuffs were rare - honey, preserved foods, certain crops and fruits. There may be little evidence for their ever having existed, but the state of health of the people of the time and the wealth the land generated (thus making it a tantalising target for waves of invaders) speaks as well as to what was achieved. There is also no reference to the invading Normans' impression of Anglo-Saxon food, where some descriptions were reportedly made (including the preponderance for sauces, apparently).
Also missing was any reference to food preparation techniques that have arguably survived from the period (such as the Portuguese dish of salt cod poached in milk, garlic and onions - a recipe that has come from ancient Scandinavia and one that probably saw the light of day in the Danelaw areas of the British Isles, in all likelihood influencing the Anglo-Saxons the same way the language had been affected).
I was eager to see if there was going to be a section on foodstuffs available via a table of when certain species were introduced to the British Isles, but there was none. What I was hoping for was a tabulated collection of not only what the Anglo-Saxons did have, but what they arguably didn't have (potato, coffee, tea, chocolate, tomato, apricot, citrus fruit for example).
One of the greatest difficulties in studying this period and its diet is the conflicting interpretations made by the various authors who have contributed to the subject, and therefore I do not envy Debby Banham in her efforts to commit to a book on such a scantly understood topic.
She deserves a hearty pat on the back, more money, and a horn of mead for her excellent efforts.
Banham bases her findings in part on Hagen's work, and on the Monasteriales Indicia (which she has also written about), as well as archeological and linguistic evidence.
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