Happy New Year! As I awake from the food coma resulting from two months of holiday meals (thanks for the cheesecake I really, really shouldn’t eat, Mom), this may be a good time to talk about food, drink and feasting in Dark Age Britain.
I’ve had two comments from several readers on this subject. One is that there sure seems to be a lot of feasting going on, at least in the beginning of the book. That is true, because it was an important facet of the period. Dark Age feasting was not just an entertainment. It was crucial to any sort of diplomacy, governance, or religious celebration.
Dark Age feasting was a sort of ritual, tying the warlord to his people, his allies, and especially his warband. Warlords were judged, in large part, by the contents of their tables. When dealing with rivals, allies, or strangers, the warlord would endeavor to have “boundless provisions” and “overflowing flagons”. Having the means to provide such feasts showed how rich and powerful the warlord was. It was a way of telling rivals they better not test him. It was a way to encourage warriors to join his retinue. Feasting was how a warrior received the mead he had earned. Warlords would also provide feasts for their common subjects, usually at harvest-time, to affirm that the warlord is the provider for his people.
Feasts, especially royal events, could be multi-day affairs, with games and other entertainments, like Gawain experiences when visiting Alt Clut in chapter five of The Retreat to Avalon. The hosting lord would give gifts, grant reprieves, praise the deserving, and sometimes sponsor contests.
If a warlord ran out of anything during a feast, it would an embarrassment worse than losing a battle. At best, it would show a lack of foresight. At worst, poverty and weakness. And the food better be good! No warlord would hold onto worthy warriors if he fed them the swill the Army fed us…
Hospitality was one of the most sacrosanct cultural conventions of the time, and feasting was a form of hospitality. Among the most important laws of hospitality was that no harm come to anyone at a feast. If you’ve watched Game of Thrones, (show spoiler here!) you will likely remember the “Red Wedding” episode.
George R. R. Martin surely intended that scene to be shocking, though I don’t know if he realized just how much more of an utter atrocity it would have been considered by the ancient world. There are a few similar instances in human history. Two notable examples that inspired Martin come from Scottish history in the 15th and 17th centuries, but neither approaches the carnage of his imagination. (You can read more about this on Drew’s blog post. I’m eagerly awaiting his historical fiction novel on the subject!)
Yet there is one event, recorded as history, but disbelieved by some (who may not want to admit such an atrocity occurred), that is much closer to Martin’s “Red Wedding”, and absolutely relates to the Arthurian Age. Unfortunately, I have to hold off on discussing it, because it would be a huge spoiler.
So let’s move onto the second comment: What did people eat? There were generally two variations to this comment. Some folks wanted me to describe the food to the degree that George R. R. Martin goes to in his books, which is apparently lengthy, while others were glad that I did not. Let’s make up for that first group a bit here.
First: alcohol, the most important part of the evening. And there better be plenty of it. Mead, made from fermented honey and water, was the hero’s drink. It was so important, a warrior’s prowess in battle is said to have “earned his mead“. Also common was ale (without hops), and cider. Wine was a prestige drink, only available to the very rich, who could import it from the continent (Britain’s vineyards failed early in the Roman occupation due to climate cooling). All of these drinks were often flavored with herbs, fruit, even flowers. Distilling had not yet been discovered, so no whiskey.
How much would they drink? Excessive drunkenness was frowned upon, partly due to the risk of violating hospitality with drunken brawls, partly because a drunken warrior could not defend his liege. I know this is a bit outside the timeframe, but it’s a great story: One night, George Washington and 54 of his Army buddies drank 45 gallons of wine, beer and cider, racking up a bar tab of more than $15,000 in today’s money. I could tell some stories of my Army drinking days, but George threw a party that could make a prequel to The Hangover. Returning to our Dark Age warriors, I imagine that the drinking was constant, but moderate throughout a long evening of feasting.
What’s for dinner? Meat, and lots of it. Unlike for the poor, meat was the most important part of aristocratic dining. Domestic beef, pork, and lamb were common, and hunting would often round out the table with venison, boar, and fowl. Fresh fish, eels and shellfish were common, if less prestigious, except that oysters seem to have been very popular. In fact, oysters from south-eastern Britain were considered such a delicacy that they were exported in massive quantities to Rome.
Staples were cheese, butter, and wheat or rye breads. They did eat vegetables, of course. Mostly carrots (purplish and small, not the orange ones we know today), peas, beans, onions and leeks. Nuts, wild cabbage, parsnips, mushrooms, and burdock were commonly foraged.
Spices were very popular, including those native to Britain, or introduced by the Romans. Now, let’s dispel a popular myth: spices were not used in the ancient world to cover up the taste of spoiling meat. People then were just as susceptible to food poisoning as are we. Spices were just popular because they added flavor, especially when your food choices were as limited as they were at that time.
A few native or Roman-introduced spices included wild garlic leaves, rosemary, coriander, thyme, bay, spignel, lavender, and dill. The wealthy could import long pepper, mace, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Also popular were sauces. The only one we know much about was the very popular fermented fish sauce called Garum, introduced by the Romans. Garum was sort of the ketchup of antiquity, and probably evolved into the Worcestershire Sauce of today.
And finally, desserts. Small cakes were made with honey, the only sweetener available at the time, but they weren’t a frequent treat. A Roman dessert that was likely found in Britain was called placenta. Considered a forerunner of today’s cheesecake, it was made of many layers of dough interspersed with a mixture of honey and cheese flavored with bay leaves, baked and then covered in honey. I doubt it was as good as my mother-in-law’s cheesecake, but I would sure like to try it. The most common treat, however, was fruit. Mostly apples, plums, cherries, berries and sloes, though the rich imported Mediterranean figs, citrons, pomegranates, rose hips and melons.
With dessert finished, it’s time to bid goodnight and stumble home (but never before the host had retired!). If you’re like me and enjoy reading before bed, you might pick up my recently released sequel, The Strife of Camlann! I hope you have all had a wonderful holiday season and look forward to happy, healthy, new year!