Guest blogger Mark McKerracher considers the fate of foodstuffs after Roman rule…
The boats safely beached, four Germanic feet touched the sands of old Britannia. The heavily moustached faces of Hengest and Horsa looked out over these strange new shores, littered with imperial detritus. A limp, decaying sack lay at Horsa’s feet.
‘Spelt flakes,’ it read, ‘naturally rich in Romanitas.’
‘Pah,’ muttered Horsa. ‘Foreign muck.’
Behind this stirring vignette of the birth of England lies a real archaeological conundrum: why didn’t the Anglo-Saxons eat more spelt? The facts are simply stated. When charred crop deposits are excavated from Romano-British settlements, the wheat component is practically always dominated by one type: spelt wheat. Yet from the 5th century AD onwards, in deposits from Anglo-Saxon settlements, bread wheat takes its place, dominating the wheats to the near-total exclusion of spelt – as it has done, pretty much, ever since. After the collapse of Roman imperial governance in the early 5th century, the wheat scene in Britain seems to have changed faster than you can say ‘winnow.’ How can we explain this phenomenon? Why didn’t the Anglo-Saxons eat more spelt?
Bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) and spelt wheat (Triticum spelta L.) in fact belong to the same biological species – a fact hidden by the traditional Latin names I’ve just used – but are different in a number of important ways. Perhaps most important to mention in a food blog is the fact that, although both wheats are versatile foodstuffs, their chief talents lie in different dietary directions. The key culinary attraction of bread wheat, from a modern bread-eating perspective, is that it makes a well-risen, better-leavened loaf. On the other hand, it’s said that spelt is better for brewing. So it’s possible that dietary preferences changed between the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, with less of a taste for spelt ale and more of a taste for light, wheaten bread. But, as far as I know, there’s no independent evidence for such shifts in appetites. So if this interpretation is to hold water, we have to ask: is it plausible? Could the end of Roman administration have been accompanied by an abrupt change in eating and farming habits?
Well, with Roman towns in decline and Roman legions marching off, that’s two spelt-eating consumer populations disappearing from Britannia. But what about the rural folk – is it plausible that their habits changed so quickly? One answer is that, yes, habits did change, because the populace itself was changing. This is the traditional historical response: the Anglo-Saxon population largely replaced the Romano-British one, and similarly replaced their farming and dining practices – including new preferences in wheat crops. Different people had their own traditions, and therefore different crops and diets, just as they used different pottery, wore different brooches, and spoke a different language. This sort of interpretation was popular in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries in a paradigm known as ‘culture-historical’, whereby different ideas and practices were equated with different peoples: so if artefacts (or crops) change in the archaeological record, it’s interpreted in the context of migration.
Nowadays, however, archaeologists aren’t so quick to make that assumption – partly because theoretical models have changed, but partly also because of new evidence. Without more data from ancient DNA studies, we simply can’t know how much of the population was ‘replaced’ when the Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived. Also, and most relevant to the spelt question, archaeologists no longer envisage Saxon farmers carving out new virgin farmland amid the ruins of Britannia. Pollen analyses and landscape studies now suggest that much of the countryside remained continuously occupied and farmed from the Romano-British through to the Anglo-Saxon period. Practices changed, yes, and estates may well have changed hands, but there’s no evidence of abrupt and wholesale dislocation. Farmers in Anglo-Saxon England, whatever their ethnic origins, weren’t starting from scratch. So why didn’t they carry on growing the tried-and-tested spelt, at least to begin with?
Surely people weren’t so desperate for Triticum aestivum that they completely changed their cropping habits as soon as Roman rule ended, dropping spelt in the space of a generation? At the very least, we might expect something of a transitional period. Are there any signs of this in the archaeological record? Well, an increase in the occurrence of bread wheat has been observed among some Late Roman sites. Perhaps the final withdrawal of the Roman imperial presence was the last straw (or culm-ination – a little joke for you archaeobotanists out there), the tipping point at which spelt’s declining popularity slipped below that of bread wheat. But there’s still the problem of abruptness. According to the usual chronologies, spelt disappears practically overnight. If nothing else, that seems like a pretty risky farming strategy, even if bread wheat had started becoming more popular.
So maybe, just maybe, the Anglo-Saxons did eat more spelt – that is, more spelt than we usually credit them with. This idea is still a bit controversial, a bit speculative, but it needs to be taken seriously. Maybe spelt continued to be grown and eaten well after the turn of the 5th century, but we’re failing to see it because we so often tend to assume that spelt-rich deposits are Roman, or prehistoric. Even when a few stray spelt grains appear in Anglo-Saxon deposits, it’s often argued that they probably represent residual material, disturbed from a preceding Roman or prehistoric layer. And yet, for some time now, the evidence for apparently genuine Anglo-Saxon spelt has been growing. As early as 1979, archaeobotanist F. Green identified spelt in 9th century deposits in Gloucester, and grains have since appeared at Saxon settlements at Yarnton (Oxfordshire), Bishopstone (Sussex), Harston (Cambridgeshire), Lyminge (Kent), and other sites – rarely in great numbers, it must be said, but frequently enough to deserve closer attention. Maybe we should revisit some supposedly prehistoric or Roman spelt-rich deposits and try radiocarbon-dating them. They might turn out to be later than we’d thought.
I’m not suggesting that spelt continued being a major crop for centuries after the Roman withdrawal from Britain. But perhaps the transition from spelt to bread wheat could have been much more gradual than it currently appears – we just need more dates to find out.
For excellent up-to-date works on Anglo-Saxon England generally, including plenty of archaeology, see Robyn Fleming’s Britain After Rome (2010, Penguin Books), and Nicholas J. Higham and Michael J. Ryan’s The Anglo-Saxon World (2013, Yale University Press).
For food history specifically, there are two readable, compendious volumes: Debby Banham’s Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England (2004, Tempus Publishing) – sadly out of print at the moment – and Ann Hagen’s Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink (2006, Anglo-Saxon Books). Allen J. Frantzen’s recent book, Food, Eating and Identity in Early Medieval England (2014, Boydell Press) looks promising too, but I haven’t yet read it.