Thinking About Food Security in the Middle Ages

I am very lucky to be a member of the Medieval Diet Group, which meets in Oxford twice a year to discuss all things medieval food. The group is deliberately small and interdisciplinary, consisting of archaeologists and historians, mostly with links to Oxford and Southampton universities. Themes for the meetings are extremely varied (the next one being on the somewhat enigmatic subject of ‘bread’) but last Saturday we met to discuss the subject of ‘food security’ With a growing interest in issues of resilience in the medieval past this was a subject which jumped out to me.


The day kicked off with Chris Dyer introducing the subject. His summary included a call for a return to the Assize of Bread after his purchase of an overpriced breakfast in one of Oxford’s eateries… In the morning discussions focussed on the Anglo-Saxon period. Debby Banham considered how Anglo-Saxon food rents were strategies through which elites could secure supplies of food. Mark McKerracher turned to the archaeological evidence for storing and processing the harvest in the Anglo-Saxon period, highlighting the evidence for specialised grain storage and processing zones at Lyminge in Kent and Yarnton in Oxfordshire. These areas consist of large buildings (interpreted as barns) and heaths, as well as features containing a particularly high density of charred plant remains. David Hinton then summarised the evidence for barns and dryers, including an unpublished dryer from Worcestershire excavated by the late David Peacock in the 1960s. Before lunch Dale Serjeantson led a discussion of how we might see attempts at gaining food security in zooarchaeological evidence.


After lunch the focus shifted to later periods. Fiona Whelan gave an entertaining summary of the ways in which courtesy poems seek to prevent gluttony, whilst also exploring how they balance the need to exercise restraint against the need to show off and provide commensurate to the status of a medieval noble household. Phillipp Schofield then discussed regional differences in famine and food shortages in the 14th century, showing how famine manifest to different degrees depending upon agricultural regimes and population, as can be seen, for example, in regional variations in grain prices. The day finished with Jim Galloway and Margaret Murphy discussing food security in Irish towns, a wide ranging talk which considered the ways in which urban communities sought to exercise control over the supply of grain.


Overall this was a valuable and stimulating day, which, as ever, set off as many questions as it asked. In my mind it stressed the need to continually think about the relationships between town and country in the medieval period and to explore power both from the perspective of landowners but also the consumers who were able to develop a range of strategies to secure their food supply. Food security is a ‘hot topic’ in a range of disciplines and there is clearly great potential in using it as a concept to frame archaeological questions; to move from dietary reconstruction to exploring the economic and social implications of provisioning networks.


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