- Food, Eating and Identity in Early Medieval England by Allen Frantzen
There is something of a fashion for archaeological evidence lately among Anglo-Saxonists who are not themselves primarily archaeologists. The most widely known example is Robin Fleming’s Britain After Rome (2010), and now Professor Fleming is joined by Allen Frantzen, in this new study of diet and its social dimensions. This is of course a welcome trend: the early Middle Ages, even in the most literate regions, are a period only imperfectly illuminated by written evidence. In Britain, whole centuries, the majority of the population, and some really important areas of life hardly feature in written sources at all. Thus it is essential to bring together all possible sources of information: written, linguistic, material, and pictorial. The interpretation of archaeological evidence, however, requires as much training and expertise as that of written evidence. The nonexpert needs to tread extremely carefully and take plenty of advice from archaeologists. It is important to realize that the durable materials that survive a thousand or more years in the soil were as much a preserve of the wealthy and powerful as the technology of writing, and are not “democratic.” As Professor Frantzen says, “Texts are much easier to study than are things” (p. 59); this is not of course true for archaeologists, who are trained to study material remains, but it is bound to be so for scholars whose training is in studying texts.
Anglo-Saxon food also seems to be a growth area at the moment. Recent years have already seen a number of excellent publications by Alban Gautier, and now we have Professor Frantzen’s book to place alongside them. The study of diet is something of a new departure for him; his previous contributions comprise two articles on dietary provisions and vocabulary in Anglo-Saxon penitential literature, on which he is probably the foremost expert at the present time. He has done his homework on Anglo-Saxon food and drink, and is kind enough to describe the present reviewer’s work, together with that of Ann Hagen, as “pioneering”; it should be pointed out, however, that both of us are still very much alive.
The first section of Professor Frantzen’s book, “Food Words,” brings his considerable expertise in Old English language to bear on questions of diet and attitudes toward food. He also brings in ideas about meanings, both symbolic and more basic, that might be invested in food and the artifacts associated with it. It is difficult to find firm evidence for most of these meanings, of course, but it is useful to draw attention, for instance, to the maker’s attitudes toward objects, as well as the user’s or viewer’s. How difficult was the object to make? Was it just like all the others that the artisan usually made, or was it a one-off, a special commission? Were the materials recalcitrant, or easy to work? Did the maker give the job all their attention, or were they thinking about dinner, or too tired to think about anything much? We cannot answer these questions, of course, but it is well worth raising them. The maker’s perspective is often the last one we consider when we interpret material remains. Indeed, it is often neglected altogether.
The second section is entitled “Food Objects,” and it is here that the focus is most firmly on archeological evidence. Four case studies make up this section, on quernstones (or hand-mills), pots, iron utensils, and wooden ones. It is no easy task to make the connection between food and identity promised in Professor Frantzen’s title, especially where material remains are concerned. In the chapter on querns, for instance, he proposes that mechanical mills “distance[d] people . . . from food culture,” while admitting that the associations of watermills are [End Page 263] “difficult to document.” But a majority of Anglo-Saxons, in particular those who produced our written sources, were not involved in producing their own flour with the...