The Norman conquest led to far-reaching and long-lasting political change across England – and new research suggests it also led to the English eating more pork and chicken.
Before 1066, beef, lamb, mutton and goat were among the meats most likely to be served in England, but a study of human and animal bones – as well as fat residue found on fragments of cooking pots – found that pork and possibly chicken became much more popular following the arrival of William the Conqueror.
Experts believe the Normans passed on their love of pork to local people, and pigs and chickens began to be farmed much more intensively.
The study also suggests there were food shortages for a few years after the Norman invasion, but supplies were soon restored and life returned to normal.
Richard Madgwick, an osteoarchaeologist at Cardiff University’s school of history, archaeology and religion, said 1066 was arguably the most famous and important date in English history.
“It’s seen as a grand transition after which nothing was the same again. For the elite, the nobility, everything did change radically – the administration of the country, legal frameworks, the organisation of the landscape. But at a lower level, people adapted to the new normal rapidly.”
The research team used a range of bio-archaeological techniques to study human and animal bones recovered from sites across Oxford, along with fragments of ceramics used for cooking.
They found that pork and chicken became a more popular choice for the cooking pot at the expense of beef, lamb and mutton. Some things did not change, however: cabbage remained a staple.
Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, a senior lecturer in human osteology at the University of Sheffield, said: “Examining archaeological evidence of the diet and health of ordinary people who lived during this time gives us a detailed picture of their everyday experiences and lifestyles.
“There is certainly evidence that people experienced periods where food was scarce. But following this, an intensification in farming meant people generally had a more steady food supply and consistent diet.”
The researchers used a technique called stable isotope analysis on bones to compare the diets of 36 men and women who lived between the 10th and 13th centuries, whose remains were found in various locations around Oxford, including at Oxford Castle.
They found there was not a huge difference between the health of the individuals, who were alive at different points before and after the conquest. Levels of protein and carbohydrate consumption were similar in the group and evidence of bone conditions related to poor diet – such as rickets and scurvy – were rare.
However, detailed analysis of teeth showed evidence of short-term changes in health and diet during the transitional phase after the invasion.
Isotope analysis was also used on 60 animals found at the same sites, to ascertain how they were raised. Studies of pig bones found their diets became more consistent and richer in animal protein after the conquest, suggesting pig farming was intensified under Norman rule. They were probably living in pig sties in towns and being fed scraps instead of being allowed to forage in the countryside.
Fragments of pottery were examined using a technique called organic residue analysis. When food is cooked in ceramic pots, fats are absorbed into the vessel. The 11th-century cook would sometimes roast pork or chicken but most often simply threw it into a pot and turned it into a stew.