Anglo-Saxon Eating, or The Dark Ages Diet

Matthew Harffy author photoRelevant History welcomes Matthew Harffy, who lived in Northumberland as a child. The area had a great impact on him. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria’s Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of novels. The first is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, The Serpent Sword. Matthew has worked in the IT industry and as an English teacher and translator in Spain. He has co-authored seven published academic articles, ranging in topic from the ecological impact of mining to the construction of a marble pipe organ. He lives in England with his wife and two daughters. To learn more about Matthew’s books, check out his web site, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


Bowl of chiliI sat down this evening with my family to eat one of our favourite meals—Chilli con Carne. Beef in a rich sauce of tomato, onions, kidney beans, peppers, cumin, chilli pepper powder, cinnamon, garlic, cocoa, salt, oregano and black pepper. All of this on a bed of basmati rice. It was delicious!

I got thinking about how many of the things I was eating and enjoying would not have been available to the characters in my book, The Serpent Sword. It is set in Britain in 633 A.D., and whilst much of the story is concerned with epic battles, warriors and kings, the fate of nations, and the search for justice in a dark and troubled time, everyone needs to eat!

Dark Ages grub
Food in what is commonly known as the “Dark Ages” was a far cry from our modern diet. Now we can easily obtain fruit, vegetables and spices imported from all over the world. But Europeans had not yet been to the New World (or if they had, they hadn’t returned with all of the wonders of later centuries, such as tomatoes, cocoa, potatoes and the many other delicacies that came from the Americas), and whilst there were some imports from mainland Europe, Asia and Africa, these things would have been extremely rare and expensive, and of course, only items that could remain fresh for a long time, such as spices, could be imported.

Grilled lamb chopsEveryday food would have been much simpler than what we are used to. Pottage would have been a staple—basically whatever was available cooked in a cauldron over the house’s central hearth. This would be accompanied by bread, baked in a clay oven or on a griddle. The vegetables used would be seasonal, so the pottage would change as the year went on. There would be times when there was some meat in the stew, such as when calves and lambs were killed in spring to leave cows and ewes with milk. At other times, there would be no meat. Hunting would be an extra source of food that would be very welcome.

In general, meat would have been consumed quite sparingly. Nobles would have eaten more meat than the poor. The richer one was, the more meat one could afford. Fish was eaten fresh or, if it was to be stored for longer periods, it could be smoked or salted. Butter and cheese were made from the milk of goats, sheep and cows. Milk wouldn’t keep for long with no refrigeration, even in the British climate, so converting it to cheese and butter made it last much longer.

There was no sugar for sweets or cakes. The only sweetener was honey. Honey cakes were popular but would have been eaten a lot less frequently than we tend to eat sweet things.

Vegetables and fruit
The staple grain crops were wheat, rye, oats and barley. Wheat and rye were used to make bread, and barley was used to brew ale. Oats were eaten as porridge and also fed to animals.

VegetablesCommonly eaten vegetables were carrots, but not the orange things we know. These would have been purple-red and much smaller. The inhabitants of the British Isles also ate parsnips and cabbages (though these too, were wild, smaller and tougher). Peas, beans, onions and leeks were common cultivated crops too. Foraged plants, such as wild garlic and burdock, would also have been added to the menu.

Although the food would not have been as rich and spicy as my chilli, there were some herbs that could be used to add flavour to dishes. These included coriander, dill and thyme. The wealthy could possibly obtain imported spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace and pepper. However, it is unlikely many would have tasted such things. The import of these goods would become more widespread in later centuries as trade routes to the east were opened up.

Anglo-Saxons ate quite a lot of fruit. Apples, plums, cherries and sloes were all consumed. Of course, no oranges, lemons or bananas!

Magenbitter and halbbitterThe most popular drink was ale. This would not have been the ale we drink (and I love!) today. Instead it would have been a less alcoholic drink, flavoured with gruit (basically, whatever flowers or herbs you had to hand). Brewed with barley, it would not have had hops, which are what give modern beers their crisp dryness.

The drink that perhaps epitomises the images we have of this period, is mead. Beowulf and other heroic Old English poetry talk of the medubenc (mead bench) in the lord’s hall, where warriors would drink from great horns (literally the hollow horns of cattle). Mead was made from honey and often flavoured with herbs, or meduwyrt (mead plant).

Wine was imported and therefore rare and expensive. Cider (or apple-wine) was drunk, as were fruit juices.

The process for distilling spirits was not yet known, so there was no whisky, brandy or the like.

So food and drink were less varied than today and a far cry from our modern diet, high in fats, sugars and protein. Today we are spoiled, seldom eating something we do not like the flavour of. The amount of fibre and vegetables in the diet of the Dark Ages, coupled with the effort required to pull together enough to survive, would today be seen as the basis for a healthy lifestyle.

However, it was not all good news. In the worst times, when crops failed or when the winter stores were depleted, no amount of effort was enough to keep sufficient food on the table. Death from starvation was not uncommon in this period, and there is even evidence of cannibalism!

I’m happy to stick with my chilli con carne and all the trimmings, but there are many people today who extol the virtues of living in closer connection with the seasons, eating only locally-sourced produce. Perhaps we should call this modern trend to lower our carbon footprint “the Dark Ages Diet.”


Images attributions:
“Bowl of chili” by Carstor – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

“Ecologically grown vegetables” by Elina Mark – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

“Magenbitter und Halbbitter” by ChasseurBln – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

“Grilled Lamb Loin Chops-01” by Naotake Murayama from Los Altos, CA, USA – Grilled Lamb Loin ChopsUploaded by Caspian blue. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


The Serpent Sword book cover imageA big thanks to Matthew Harffy. He’ll give away a signed paperback copy of The Serpent Sword to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Anglo-Saxon Eating, or The Dark Ages Diet — 32 Comments

  1. Really interesting reading, It reminds us how lucky we are with our selection of foodstuffs, Maybe a an odd week or two of the diet would not do us any harm

    • Hi Elisabeth,

      Thanks for stopping by. I know I could do with less of the modern, high protein, sugar and fat diet and to eat a little more simply. The exercise of farming and producing my own food wouldn’t go amiss either! Being a writer is not the fittest of professions!


  2. Hrothgar was my 47th great-grandfather, so hopefully if I had lived during the Dark Ages, my diet would have been a bit better! I’m still glad to have been born in the late 20th century!

    By the way, do you remember the name of the documentary on Northumbria you mentioned?

  3. Aww, pottage has a really bad reputation (perhaps because of a certain rhyme). Every time I have tasted it, and even flatbreads, its been really good- and I don’t think they kept pottage for nine days- they seem to have cooked it for the day and eaten it for the day.

    Then again, I like onions, garlic, my fruit, bread and meat- so I might quite happily live on that for a while. Only thing I might miss would be plenty of meat and that which involves tomatoes or pasta.

  4. Hi,
    I found the article ams the information interesting. It seems that little changed through the Viking Age ams into the earlyiddle Ages, which I am more informed on. I appreciate both the information and the perspective. Thanks.

  5. Yesterday, my brother, jokingly, tossed me a young burdock, that he had dug up, and asked if I wanted to eat it. He didn’t realize, that people did and do eat it. When I saw, how rubbery the root was, I wondered too, how people could possibly eat it.

  6. Great stuff, Matthew. Glad to see Anglo-Saxon delights getting an airing in the 21st century. I’m wondering, as I haven’t yet got around to reading The Serpent Sword (shame on me!), how far food and drink enter your storytelling. Can I expect a few symbelwerig (lit. ‘feast-weary’) warriors?

  7. The carrots eaten before the seventeenth century in Britain white not purple (as is the root of the wild carrot that still grows here which is still good eating and which smells of carrots). The Egyptians bred a purple variety but I am not aware of it being prevalent or even known in Britain.m

  8. Really interesting, I did not know about the colour of carrots then!

    I was talking with my wife about how the body needs sustenance. However I think the person needs enjoyment. We take for granted the enjoyment we can get from our food.

    • We take so much of our modern day life for granted, food is one, but there are so many other things that we would not know how to do without.

      A good thing is that with quite simple food and drink, you can still get enjoyment. :-)

  9. Fascinating blog! Great fun. One of my friends gave me a cookbook called TAKE A BUTTOCK OF BEEFE, that has a bunch of Medieval recipes. Haven’t made any of ’em yet :-)

  10. Enjoyed the article. The Dark Ages Diet would probably be healthier than some of the things I eat, but I think I will stick with modern times.

  11. I’ve enjoyed a few cans of Ben Shaw’s Dandelion & Burdock drink – I wish they were easier to get as I’d drink them more often. Your chili recipe looks like it makes a tasty meal – much better than the average pottage!

  12. I love reading about daily life in previous centuries, and food habits are particularly interesting. This is great: ‘Per­haps we should call this mod­ern trend to lower our car­bon foot­print “the Dark Ages Diet.”’!