Unit 10 Food & drink

Section 1

Using the modern English word search, look up the words ‘food’, ‘butter’, ‘honey’, and ‘cider’. You will see that many of the words listed are ancestors of modern English (ModE) words: foda > food; fodder > fodder; butere > butter; hunig > honey (and hunigcamb > honeycomb). There are also several compound words, such as dunhunig (downland or hill honey) and cubutere (cow’s butter). The word for cider, æppelwin (apple-wine), has become obsolete and replaced by a French-derived word.

You may notice that the word mete, which gives us ModE ‘meat’, is listed under general words for food. Try typing ‘meat’ into the modern English word search and selecting the heading ‘Meat’: you will see that the Old English word for this is flæsc or flæscmete, the ancestor of our modern word ‘flesh’. The Old English word mete has narrowed in meaning in the past few hundred years: it now refers specifically to animal flesh instead of any kind of food. In contrast, the word flæsc has widened to refer to the soft covering of both humans and animals, whether dead or alive. See Unit 9 Farming for more about ‘meat’-related words.

Another word which has narrowed in meaning is Old English æppel. From the search menu, chose ‘Old English word search’, then from the ‘Wildcard’ menu chose ‘Beginning-of-word’. You can now search for the Old English word æppel, meaning ‘a fruit’. This has given us the ModE word ‘apple’, but its meaning was wider in Old English. (When you type æppel into the search box, you will need to use a capital A in place of the ash (æ).)

You will notice that æppel is part of many Old English compound words – click on some of the results to see what categories æppel turns up in.

Q1a. How many words do you recognise as being ancestors of ModE words? Look at æppelfæt, æppelhus and æppelcyrnel – can you work out what the second parts of these words mean? It might help to look at the sections that these words occur in. Answer Q1a

Q1b. Most of the æppel results are related to fruit, harvesting, cider and orchards. However, there are three results from seemingly unrelated categories. What are these, and what does this tell you about the uses of the Old English word æppel? Answer Q1b

Dairy products were an important part of the Anglo-Saxon diet, with words for milk and cheese being recorded. Wealthier Anglo-Saxons could eat mature cheese, which was more expensive to preserve and keep. The poor ate mainly fresh cheese.

Q2a. Using the modern English word search, look up the words for ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’. Which Old English words are ancestors of the modern terms? Answer Q2a

Q2b. It is possible that blue cheeses were also being developed at this time: look up the word for ‘mouldy’ – it has given us the modern (dialectal) word ‘vinny’. Does this remind you of the name of a cheese? Answer Q2b

The Anglo-Saxons used various crops and grains in their diet. Many words for these products have survived into Modern English and can be considered part of the core vocabulary of the language, for example hwæte > wheat; corn > corn; ryge > rye and ate > oats. These crops were ground to make meal or flour for baking, porridge, etc.

Q3a. Look up the word ‘meal’ in the Modern English word search and chose the section ‘Meal’. Which words from Old English have survived into modern English? Answer Q3a

Q3b. Look at the sub-sections under ‘Meal’. What kinds of foodstuffs did the Anglo-Saxons grind to make meal/flour? What can you deduce from this? Answer Q3b

Feasting was an important part of social life in Anglo-Saxon England. Some feasts were given by people of high status and others in connexion with church festivals.

Q4a. Look up ‘feast’ and chose the section ‘Feast’. Is there an ancestor of our modern English word ‘feast’? You will see several synonyms, such as symbel and feorm. Why do you think there are so many synonyms? Looking at the flags may give you a clue. Answer Q4a

Q4b. Look up the word ‘drunk’, then select the section ‘to drink heavily, get drunk’, and scroll down the left side until you reach the adjectives. Then see if you can make a literal translation of the words below. Some of them should be recognisable from their modern counterparts, but you may need to look up others using the Old English word search. Although such words would not be hyphenated in Old English, we have put hyphens between the parts here so that you can see how they are constructed. To start you off: ealu = ale and medu = mead.

drync-werig; ealu-gal; medu-gal; medu-werig; ofer-druncen; symbel-wlonc; win-druncen

Do the flags tell you anything interesting about these words? How do they compare with ModE words for this condition? Answer Q4b

Many foodstuffs which we take for granted today were not known to the Anglo-Saxons (as far as we can tell).

Q5. Look up words for ‘sugar’. What can you deduce from your results? Answer Q5

Section 2

The importance of bread
Bread was considered an essential part of any meal in Anglo-Saxon England. Its importance is reflected in the fact that it was often used to make payments, for example rent from a tenant to a landlord. In Ælfric’s Colloquy (late 10th century), the baker is recorded as saying:
You can live for some time without my craft, but you cannot live well for
a long time without it. For without my craft the whole table would appear
bare, and without bread all your food would become vomit.
(Online translation by A. Watkins at http://www.kentarchaeology.ac/authors/016.pdf)

The standard meal was a loaf (hlaf) and something to eat with it, like lard or new cheese. Only the very rich could afford to alter the pattern of bread plus accompaniment, making the accompaniment the most important part of the meal. On feast days, ordinary bread would be replaced by a finer kind, or by spiced cakes, which included fruit or honey to add sweetness. There are records showing spiced/flavoured loaves being used as offerings on a Sunday. It is possible that present-day regional specialities in fruit and tea-loaves derive from the special Anglo-Saxon feast-day breads.

The centrality of bread to Anglo-Saxon life is reflected in Old English vocabulary. A common word for ‘lord’ is hlaford, which is derived from hlaf-weard (bread-guardian). This term reflects the responsibility of the lord for providing food for his followers. We use a similar metaphor today when we describe the main household worker as the ‘breadwinner’. The lord’s wife was the hlæfdige (bread-maker): this word is the ancestor of present-day English ‘lady’. Finally, a retainer or dependant of the lord was known as a hlafæta (bread-eater). It is worth noting that hlaf was the usual term for ‘bread’ in Old English; bread, the ancestor of the ModE word, was rarely used.

Methods of cooking
In smaller households, part of the main room would be used for cooking. Larger households would have had a separate (usually detached) kitchen, and this was accompanied by social prestige: the laws of King Æthelstan (mid-10th century) state that a ceorl (ordinary freeman) may be promoted to the rank of thane if he has his own kitchen.

The Anglo-Saxons used many of the cooking methods that we know today, although they boiled or stewed many of the foods which we would expect to be roasted (e.g. goose). Boiling food is nutritionally and economically more effective, because more of the juices are preserved. Roasted food was more luxurious, because it was more wasteful, and as such was kept for special occasions. Two Anglo-Saxon staple foods were broþ (broth) and briw (a kind of pottage or soup made with cereal) – both of these dishes could be boiled/stewed in a large cauldron, making them convenient dishes for large-scale catering. This was particularly useful in monastic communities.

The Anglo-Saxons used two different methods of baking: open hearths and enclosed ovens. An 11th-century scribe glosses the Latin word formacula (little oven) with the Old English words for both hearth (heorþ) and kiln/oven (cylen). In the famous legend where King Alfred burns the ‘cakes’, described in the 10th-century Life of St Neot, the loaves are described as baking at the fire, as opposed to in an oven.

Not all Anglo-Saxons had access to cooking utensils or pots. It is possible that some cooking was done outside, in earthen pits lined with hot stones. Further hot stones would be dropped into the food to help it cook. Linguistic evidence supports this theory: Old English (ge)seoþan (simmer, boil; ModE seethe) is derived from seaþ (a pit).

Famine, feasting and fasting
Famine led to many food shortages during the Anglo-Saxon period. It could be caused by bad weather, infestation of insects, diseases in livestock, and human factors, such as war. In times of famine, food would be bulked out (e.g. with bark) and diseased or rotting food was eaten more readily. Infanticide was not considered to be a crime in famine times, and in extreme cases even cannibalism was recorded (for example, the famine of 695-700 AD).

Feasting was a social ritual which had religious, legal and aesthetic connotations. A king or lord who gave a feast emphasised his power and prestige, but also attracted loyal retainers to serve him. Feasting was well-established in Britain before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, and the Church had to incorporate feasting into its calendar (see also Unit 2 Life in Anglo-Saxon England). Holding feasts on saint’s days was both permitted and encouraged, although feasts were also thought to lead to the sin of gluttony. Wulfstan, in Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Sermon of the Wolf to the English, early 11th century), blames gluttony and excessive consumption for all of England’s problems.

Fasting was carried out by all adults as a Christian duty: only children and invalids were exempt. Fasting took one of three main forms: limiting the diet to certain items; limiting the daily amount consumed (e.g. only one meal per day); and adulterating food with unpleasant supplements. The Christian calendar set out the periods of fasting, which were usually followed by periods of feasting. The reasons for fasting were manifold: for example, fasting freed up food for almsgiving (giving to the poor) – although it seems that altruism was not the prime motive here; rather, people anticipated a heavenly reward for their abstinence.

Section 3


Further reading

Banham, D. 2003. ‘Be hlafum and wyrtum: Food Plants in Anglo-Saxon Society and
          Economy’. From earth to art: the many aspects of the plant-world in Anglo-Saxon
, ed. C. P. Biggam. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 119-131.
Banham, D. 2004. Food and drink in Anglo-Saxon England. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus.
Breeze, A. 2004. ‘What was “Welsh ale” in Anglo-Saxon England?’ Neophilologus 88(2), 299-301.
Carlin, M. and J. T. Rosenthal (eds). 1998. Food and eating in medieval Europe.
          London; Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press.
Fell, Christine E. 1975 ‘Old English beor’. Leeds Studies in English 8, 76-95.
Hagen, A. 1992. A handbook of Anglo-Saxon food: Processing and consumption
          Pinner, Middlesex: Anglo-Saxon Books.
Hagen, A. 1995. A second handbook of Anglo-Saxon food: Production and distribution.
          Hockwold cum Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books.
Hough, C. 2004. ‘Beowulf lines 480b and 531a: beore druncen again’. Neophilologus 88(2), 303–305.
Magennis, H. 1999. Anglo-Saxon appetites: food and drink and their consumption in
          Old English and related literature
. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Pearson, K. L. 1997. ‘Nutrition and the early-Medieval diet’. Speculum 72, 1-32.
Savelli, M. 2002. Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England. Hockwold cum Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books.


This website shows when various food terms began to be used in English, from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day:

Here’s a website about Anglo-Saxon culture, which has two useful sections on ‘cooking’ and ‘feasting’:

There’s a discussion of how the meaning of ‘meat’ has changed since Anglo-Saxon times here:

Regia Anglorum has two interesting sections, one on food and drink:
and one on feasting and fasting:

The Ashmolean Museum website has a section on Anglo-Saxon food and drink: http://anglosaxondiscovery.ashmolean.org/Life/food/foodanddrink_index.html

The Early English Bread Project is investigating bread in Anglo-Saxon culture: https://earlybread.wordpress.com/about/

Ideas for essays or projects

1. Write about representations of feasting in Anglo-Saxon literature.

2. Look up words for ‘gluttony’ in TOE – you will notice that there are many synonyms. Use this as a basis for
writing about excessive consumption in the Anglo-Saxon period.

3. Write an essay about how we can track the changes in the British diet since Anglo-Saxon times using linguistic evidence.

4. Look up ‘vegetable’ on the modern English search in TOE. Compile a table showing which vegetables the
Anglo-Saxons used and whether our ModE word for them derives from the Old English term. Add a section
for vegetables which aren’t recorded in the Anglo-Saxon period, and see if you can establish the etymologies
of the words for these vegetables, using an etymological dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).