A statue of King Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon King Kings and knights in Anglo-Saxon times likely ate plenty of plant-based foods, suggests new research. - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

Medieval Kings Were Mostly Vegetarian, New Study Discovers

An absence of certain diseases indicates that Anglo-Saxon diets were more plant-based than one might expect

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2 Minutes Read

When you picture a medieval banquet, it’s likely you imagine lots and lots of meat. Kings, queens, lords, and knights washing down roasted pig, pigeon, pheasant, mutton, and more with ale and wine. These meat-heavy feasts certainly did take place in the early medieval period. But new research suggests that the rest of the time, Anglo-Saxons likely followed a more flexitarian approach to food—even the kings.

Researchers at Cambridge University recently analyzed more than 2,000 skeletons to figure out what kind of diets people during this period were following. To assess social standing, they looked at the type of grave goods they were buried with, and where they were buried. The conclusion: even society’s richest and most powerful were eating a predominantly vegetarian diet.

Dr. Sam Legget, a bioarchaeologist, led the study. They explained that while meat was in abundance at feasts (which they know from the examination and translation of royal food lists), this wasn’t common every day of the year.

A flexitarian approach to diet

“We would find isotopic evidence of excess protein and signs of diseases like gout from the bones. But we’re just not finding that,” Legget told the BBC

Gout is a form of arthritis. Symptoms occur when there is too much uric acid in the blood, causing a “gout attack” (the sudden, severe, and very painful swelling of joints). Organ meat and red meat often trigger symptoms for people with gout, because when digested, the purine content in these foods causes the body to make uric acid.

Anyone can get gout. But, in the past, it has been dubbed “the disease of kings” (likely due to the expensive food and drink that exacerbated the symptoms). But this wasn’t the case for the Anglo-Saxons.

“The isotopic evidence suggests that diets in this period were much more similar across social groups than we’ve been led to believe,” said Legget. “We should imagine a wide range of people livening up bread with small quantities of meat and cheese, or eating pottages of leeks and whole grains with a little meat thrown in.”

It’s not so dissimilar from how many people are living their lives now. Last year, one study found that more than half of young Americans describe themselves as flexitarian (meaning they are actively reducing their meat intake). And another 2020 study concluded that people in Europe are rapidly reducing their meat consumption too.

Now, research suggests that a reduced intake of animal products may ease the pain of arthritis and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease and certain types of cancer.

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The Author

Charlotte Pointing

Charlotte writes about sustainable beauty, fashion, and food. She spent more than 4 years editing in leading vegan media, and has a degree in history and a postgraduate in cultural heritage.

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Varun
Varun
3 months ago

Please include links to studies if you cite them, otherwise it just comes across as wishful hearsay.

Vishnujana
Vishnujana
3 months ago

Indeed most people usually ate mostly plant foods.
Most people already eat a mostly plant-based diet as humans always have:

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/human-ancestors-were-nearly-all-vegetarians/

As pointed Scientific American points out above, our guts and those of our ancestors were of plant eaters predominantly for 25 millions years. While meat has nutrition and is a complete protein (many plants, even milk for vegetarians-are compete proteins. Milk also has b12, traditionally gotten from brooks and streams or garden plots), we don’t have the digestive systems meant to live off of meat regularly.

There are over 50,000 edible plants. You may be surprised how many species of plants are actually edible and extremely nutritious. In fact most people could survive from the wild plant life growing outside their doors (http://markusrothkranz.com/online-store/free-food-and-medicine/edible-plant-guide.html)

There were a few regions where plant material may have been rare or some catastrophe or famine that led people to eat meat, but these are the exceptions- not the norm.

Although milk is also a complete protein and if gotten from farms that don’t kill cows is an ethical option.

“All sorts of people have dreamed of a long-lost paradise in the remote past.” Norman Davies says in Europe: A History. “Romantics, nationalists, and Marxists have all had their idealized Gardens of Eden, their semi-mythical Golden Ages.” Indeed evidence suggests in by gone ages humans weren’t warlike but rather lived harmoniously with nature and each other for millennia. The earliest written texts such as the Vedas attest to a Golden Age of humans as do the Greeks, Norse, even Sioux Indians.

British archaeologist and anthropologist Clive S. Gamble said about prehistoric peoples that the question isn’t ‘How did they progress towards the higher levels of an agricultural and politicized society?’ but ‘What persuaded them to abandon the secure, well-provided and psychologically liberating advantages of their primordial lifestyle?’

Historian Norman Davies says “[ancient man] it seems, were not saved by the advent of agriculture from the immemorial threat of extinction. On the contrary, they enjoyed many millennia of ‘unending leisure and affluence.’ They were not unfamiliar with agriculture when it arose, but rejected it, except as a marginal or supplementary activity.”

As time progressed cyclically men formed into political organizations and these cultures were a synthesis of matriarchal-patriarchal societies. This is illustrated best in the oldest living tradition, the Vedas, wherein material nature is female, as is the earth. The word matter comes from the latin/greek mater, which in turn descends from the primordial sanskrit ‘mata.’

Because we have separated humanity from nature, subject from object,…and universities from the universe, it is enormously difficult for anyone but a poet or a mystic to understand … the holistic and mythopoetic thought of Ice Age humanity was a culture of art, love of animals, and women …

Norman Davies, Europe A History.

Most Hindus and Buddhists were always predominately vegetarians (no meat, fish, or eggs) or even vegans.

The staple of the common European diet has always been predominantly grains, fruits, and vegetables (An economic History of Medieval Europe, NJG Pounds).

The Choctaw native Americans had vegetarian leanings in shelter and food. The homes were constructed not of skins, but of wood, mud, bark and cane. The principal food, eaten daily from earthen pots, was a vegetarian stew containing corn, pumpkin and beans. The bread was made from corn and acorns. Other common favorites were roasted corn and corn porridge. (Meat in the form of small game was an infrequent repast.) The ancient Choctaws were, first and foremost, farmers. Even the clothing was plant based, artistically embroidered dresses for the women and cotton breeches for the men. Choctaws have never adorned their hair with feathers.

A Cherokee legend describes humans, plants, and animals as having lived in the beginning in “equality and mutual helpfulness”. The needs of all were met without killing one another. When man became aggressive and ate some of the animals, the animals invented diseases to keep human population in check. The plants remained friendly, however, and offered themselves not only as food to man, but also as medicine, to combat the new diseases.
More tribes were like the Choctaws than were different. Aztec, Mayan, and Zapotec children in olden times ate 100% vegetarian diets until at least the age of ten years old. The primary food was cereal, especially varieties of corn. Such a diet was believed to make the child strong and disease resistant. (The Spaniards were amazed to discover that these Indians had twice the life-span they did.) A totally vegetarian diet also insured that the children would retain a life-long love of grains, and thus, live a healthier life. Even today, the Indian healers of those tribes are likely to advise the sick to “return to the arms of Mother Corn” in order to get well. Such a return might include eating a lot of atole. (The easiest way to make atole is to simmer commercially produced masa harina corn flour with water. Then flavor it with chocolate or cinnamon, and sweeten to taste.) Atole is considered a sacred food.

https://ivu.org/history/native_americans.html

Tarahumara of México

https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article-abstract/32/4/905/4666402?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Choctaw’s, Tarahumaras, Monacans, Africa’s peoples such as the kikuyu, Bantus like the Wakamba, and other Nilotic tribes, South Asian peoples like the Hunza, Kargil, Leah, Todas,Brokpas, etc. Aztec, Mayan, and Zapotec children in olden times ate 100% plant diets, etc.

Monacan Indian

https://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/what-did-american-indians-eat-actually/

Bantu tribespeople Africa such as the Kikuyu and Wakamba were agriculturists. Their diet consisted of sweet potatoes, corn, beans, bananas, millet and Kafir corn or sorghum largely vegetarian. Other Nilotic tribes as well

https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/traditional-diets/out-of-africa-what-dr-price-dr-burkitt-discovered-in-their-studies-of-sub-saharan-tribes/

The Gilgit, Hunza, Kargil and Leh of India as well.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-life/100-dosas-and-more/article28678680.ece

Brokpa were vegan

https://inourishgently.com/himalayan-tribe-vegan-5000-years/

Todas

https://www.alternet.org/2015/02/ancient-vegetarian-tribe-struggles-keep-its-traditions-alive/

Hare Krishna

Channing
Channing
10 days ago
Reply to  Vishnujana

Thank you Vishnujana for posting all of this lost/little-known knowledge and links. Fascinating and heartening! The pumpkin, bean, and corn stew of the Choctaws sounds so nourishing and complete. Their knowledge of growing these crops together in harmony is invaluable; the 3 sisters ~ corn, squashes, and beans. Thank you for providing the basic recipe for their sacred atole. I look forward to trying it with freshly ground cacao and Ceylon cinnamon.

I’m very interested in the theory of ancient matriarchal golden age societies/cultures/tribes. If you have more information on this, please share.

You wrote that, “as time progressed cyclically men formed into political organizations and these cultures were a synthesis of matriarchal-patriarchal societies.”

In Uncovering the Truth Behind Matriarchal Societies in the Ancient World
By Dr. Philip Jamieson and Ms. Marianne Schmidt wrote,

“The case for finding such a prehistoric matriarchal society will be at its weakest if a matriarchy is defined narrowly as simply the opposite of patriarchy, as a society “ruled” by women instead of men. On the other hand, if any non-patriarchal society is by its very nature considered matriarchal, there will clearly be far greater latitude in identifying such a societal framework in pre-history. Or is it somewhere between these two extremes that a true matriarchy is to be understood? In my view it is.

Dr. Goettner-Abendroth has agreed that matriarchies will by definition never be found if one is looking simply for a society in which women take the “ruling” role of men that characterizes patriarchal societies. But this she argues is because a matriarchy will not be based on domination by any gender, but upon maternal values which will exhibit as caretaking and nurturing negotiation-oriented communities, with complementary equality for women and men alike.
So understood, she has found “abundant evidence” for the existence of many matriarchal societies, to be found today in Asia, America, and Africa. All, she notes, are “ gender egalitarian societies , and many of them are fully egalitarian”, with “no hierarchies, classes, nor domination of one gender by the other”. Most academics exclude egalitarian societies from the concept of “matriarchy”. In my view, they are mistaken in doing so.

On balance, there are strong grounds for concluding that the communities of our ancient hunter gatherer forebears were likely egalitarian in nature and so matriarchal in their social structures. Such societies are based upon maternal values, exhibiting as caretaking and nurturing negotiation-oriented communities, for women and men alike; a reality giving substance and form to the maligned mythology of a Golden Age of Matriarchy. Which only begs the question – What would our society be like if only we could escape the domination of patriarchal rule?”

https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/ancient-cultures-matriarchal-society-0011588

Holger
Holger
10 days ago
Reply to  Vishnujana

You have brought many great and interesting examples but in the end, like the article, it only draws an incomplete picture. Various cultures throughout the world, and throughout the times, have actively pursued hunting and animal husbandry. Take the development of (multiple different) lactase persistence genes, for example. The fact that even chimpanzees eat meat. The omnipresence of chickens and cattle in European culture. The sheer amount of hunting rituals and tools that all kinds of populations have developed. Cave paintings of mammoth hunts. Innumerable amounts of animal bones found at one of our oldest known archaeological sites, Göbekli Tepe. Even remote tribes like the Tarahumara of Mexico add small mammals to their diet. In complete absence of any definition of “vegetarian” or “vegan”, people used to eat whatever they could. And animal foods are generally nutrient-dense, so they would have risked starvation by avoiding a certain kind of food. The truth is, only today’s high-performance farming and food preservation allows us to farm enough food to easily survive the winter, and even periods of drought. Just a few decades ago, humans did not have that luxury.

Holger
Holger
10 days ago

The absence of gout does not equal low animal protein consumption. Animal protein does not cause gout. The human body is able to excrete the uric acid without any issue. Gout is a result of eating too many calories for too long. You can do that with cake and with sugar, of which the nobles had plenty.

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