Thursday, 5 April 2018

Feast or Symbel?

Where can you eat beans, but not vegetables?
Where can you give your cows fodder, but not eat the beef?
Where can you plant garlic, but not carrots?





Yes, in Anglo-Saxon England.

There are two problems facing the researcher or novelist who might wish to provide some detail to the daily life of their characters:

Firstly, did they know of the items, be it food, or plants?
Secondly, did they have a name for the item which would be recognisable today?

Some of the terms are commonly known. The Anglo-Saxons ate cow, the Normans ate beef; sheep/mutton, pig/pork, the differences are explained by the Norman words becoming the more 'civilised' option. Thus a stool becomes a chair, an arse becomes a derriere, and so on. 

When I'm writing fiction, I don't stick rigidly to the system of using words derived from Old English. It's not easy putting dialogue together when you can't use words like because, or try, or sky.



But sometimes the word will give me a clue as to whether an item I'm thinking of including in my Anglo-Saxon world has any right to be there.

What if, for example, you want a character to describe another's eyes as almond-shaped? If the Anglo-Saxons didn't know of almonds, then they simply wouldn't think in those terms. Well, it seems that they did know about them, although they were at the time quite an exotic import. So, a rich person, maybe only even a royal person, would know of such a delicacy, or perhaps only someone living near to a port.


The jury is still out, I believe, about rabbits, and whether the Romans or the Normans introduced them to England, but for safety's sake I make sure my characters only talk about hares.

So, assuming that we make sure only the meat, fruit and vegetables that go into the story were known to the Anglo-Saxons, would the names be familiar? Would it be possible to concoct a feast that not only used produce known to them, but with nouns derived from Old English? ('Feast' isn't by the way, the word would be symbel)

We could start with our meat course, and have cow. We wouldn't eat veal, but if we did, we'd have to call it calf. We might have goat meat, especially kid, but that would be called ticcen. Chicken would be fine, and so would goose. Fish, too, and eel, if you like that sort of thing. Herring, fluke and oysters are all okay, too. But sorry, if you want some plaice, you'll have to say facg.


Cheese will be plentiful, but if you want a ploughman's lunch you'll need to ask for a loaf, not bread, and I'm afraid you'll have to forgo the pickle and just stick with butter.

You could have a nice pottage, but you'd need to call it a briw, and in it you might find the afore-mentioned garlic, along with peas, beans, leeks and beets, but the onion would be ciepe. You'd maybe add some herbs for flavouring, but they wouldn't be called herbs. 

For pudding, you might have some fresh fruit, but if you want strawberries then you need to ask for earthberries, and raspberries would be hindberries.


It is difficult to know, when researching, what is meant by 'native' plant. I decided that if a plant or flower had a name derived from Old English, then it's probably safe to assume that it's a pre-Conquest inhabitant. 

So, happily, we have cress, mallow, hemp, hemlock, (not that you'd necessarily want to put that one in the pot!) nettle, hawthorn and hazelnut, but we'd probably have to do without parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. 

I say 'probably', because it's not a fail-safe method. It's known that the Anglo-Saxons ate cabbage, grew barley, and oats, but of those, only oats have a name that looks anything like the modern-day noun. 


The Anglo-Saxons drank wine, but not from 'grapes', (they called them wineberries!) although beer and hop are both derived from Old English, as is apple, but they turned their apples not into cider, but apple-wine.

Little Miss Muffet had curds and whey, but only whey is recognisably derived from Old English.




I'm not a fan of spices, and I like quite traditional food. I could live without that modern invention, the potato, and I think that this diet of dairy produce, meat and veg would suit me quite well. But it seems there were 'nasties'; not only did they have radishes - they called them rædic - but the vegetable called more might refer to carrots (yum) or parsnip (not so yum, unless I can roast them in honey.)

Ah, what about honey? Yes, it was available, but seemingly not used for sweetening foods, certainly not for cakes or fruit dishes, but possibly for drinks, and there is a recipe for pea soup sweetened with honey, which in Old English was called hunig

Still, if you are worried about the food tasting bland, there were many salt works, for instance at Nantwich and Droitwich, but even if we didn't know that, the name, sealt, makes it clear that the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with the condiment.

Ketchup though? Probably not.




8 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I've studied a lot of Anglo-Saxon and medieval history, and I'm always so thankful to find great historical fiction that's really well-researched and true to the time.

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    1. Thanks so much - I do like finding out about the origins of words and how language has developed. Though my characters are made up, they are all based on real people and whilst I might fill in the gaps of history, I do always strive to keep the setting as authentic as possible. Glad you enjoyed the post :-)

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  2. A tasty post that has me wondering if I could understand an Anglo-Saxon menu better than one in say - German.

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    1. Good question, Roland! There are certainly a lot of similarities between English and German, which sometimes only become apparent when you look back to Old English.

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  3. With reference to rabbits, my understanding is the while the Romans had rabbits in this country they were bred in captivity for food and they did not get loose. Where as the Normans brought them over and set them free to breed for hunting as sport

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    1. Thank you - that makes a lot of sense. I always thought that the Normans brought them over, and that's where the surname Warriner comes from - keeper of the rabbits - but then I saw some discussion about the Romans so I wasn't sure. Your answer makes perfect sense to me!

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  4. Great post Annie, and a great blog too. Keep up the excellent work ..... and write faster ! Deb Massey.

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    1. Thanks so much, Deb. I'm currently adding the finishing touches to my book on the history of Mercia, then I'll be getting right back into the Iclingas tales :-)

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