Medieval feasts looked very different from what pop culture might suggest, study says

Sam Leggett, a researcher who studies ancient skeletons for chemical signatures of the Anglo-Saxon diet, is shown at work in a lab.

(CNN)Meat-heavy banquets have long been thought to be a common feature of early medieval life for England's kings and nobles, who are often depicted feasting on legs of animal flesh and knocking back goblets of ale in the great halls of their realm.

However, a new study that examined the dietary signatures contained in bones of more than 2,000 skeletons has cast doubt on this assumption, finding that most Anglo-Saxons ate a diet rich in cereals and vegetables and low in animal protein -- no matter what their social status.
Archaeologists were able to glean this information by analyzing the presence of different isotopes, or variants, of the elements carbon and nitrogen in bone collagen. Bones preserve an isotopic record of the different types of food an individual consumed over time. The study mainly looked at ribs, which represent a period of 10 years before a person's death.
    "Basically, what I do is I get bones from skeletons, dissolve them in acid, make them squishy and work out what people ate," said study author Sam Leggett, an early career fellow at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
      "You can tell roughly how much animal protein, not just meat, but any kind of animal protein -- eggs and dairy as well."
      Historians had long assumed that Anglo-Saxon elites ate far more meat than the peasantry they lorded over because of documents itemizing food tributes, known as "feorm" in Old English.
      These texts, some of the very few written documents available from that time, list in great detail the foods that were owed by peasants to royal and noble households. It was thought that these lists represented a typical elite diet.
        A re-creation of a structure in an Anglo-Saxon village is shown.

        Big appetites?

        One such food list compiled during the reign of King Ine of Wessex (688-726 AD) listed supplies that amounted to 1.24 million kilocalories -- over half of which came from animals -- including mutton, beef, salmon, eel and poultry, as well as cheese, honey and ale.