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Food Notes for the Isle of Man Demo

By James A. Howell

September 2001; additions: April, 2002

Note: this article was originally posted on the Yahoo! Groups Manx Camp email list.

Information on food eaten by Viking era peoples comes from archaeological contexts and the various self-help medical manuals used by the Christian communities with whom the Viking era Scandinavians came in contact. Bones, which indicate the various meats consumed, can be recovered from middens. Plant evidence is sparser, but documents such as the garden plans for the monastery of St. Gall help fill in the picture. On the island of Man, the burial mound at Cronk Moar yielded burnt bones, teeth and shells, as well as a partial ox tooth. The “Pagan Lady of Peel’s” grave contained an iron spit 83.7 cm long, wrapped in miscellaneous textiles, with goose feathers and tiny spherical seeds.

There is further evidence from York; the Shetland Islands; Freswick Links in Northern Scotland; Earl’s Bu, Orkney; SvalbarÞ, Iceland; and various parts of the British Isles that Ann Hagen discusses. Comparing the evidence of the British Isles with Scandinavian sites such as Ribe and Oxbxl in Denmark, and Archsum, Elisenhof and Haithabu presents a coherent survey of the foodstuffs available in much of Europe and Scandinavia in the Dark Ages.

Domestic Meat Animals

At Ribe, the archaeologists noted that there were more beef remains than pig or the goat/sheep category. The cattle were larger than the other animals; in England, Ryder notes that one beef animal equaled five sheep. It is thought then, that as the cattle were bigger, they yielded more remains. At Ribe it is thought that pigs and the goat/sheep category provided more food. The category goat/sheep is indicated this way because it is difficult to tell the animals apart from bones. The skull is the only reliable indicator. Horses were also eaten.

At York, Freswick Links, and Earl’s Bu, cattle are listed as the most numerous finds. None of the reports associated with these sites mention the relation between size of animal and amount of remains. At York, the pig and goat/sheep category are the next important, while at Freswick Links and Earl’s Bu, sheep are second in importance and pig third. There is evidence at York of domestic fowl as well as horses as food. Anglo-Saxon England ate (in order) cattle sheep goat and pig, while horse was made taboo as the country was Christianized.

Food from the Sea

Ribe is a coastal town, but fish remains are poorly represented. It is thought that the midden that provided the finds was not a kitchen midden. At York, Freswick Links, Earl’s Bu and the Shetlands, it’s cod, cod, cod (and stockfish!). The second and third are saithe and ling. Mackerel, herring, eel, pike the carp family, perch, pollack and torsk were found in these digs as well. At Svalbartþ, undifferentiated fish remains are far greater than any other meat. Ann Hagen mentions salmon, and York had salmonid remains.

Shellfish, including mussels, limpets and periwinkles have been found at all the sites, but are not mentioned in the report on the Shetland Islands, or at Ribe. At the Shetland Islands and Svalbartþ, seal was eaten, and the remains of a killer whale were found at Ribe. Ann Hagen mentions the use of dulse and laver, North Atlantic seaweeds.


Hordeum vulgare (barley) was the only grain found at Ribe. At Oxbøl, about 37 km. north of Ribe, Hordeum vulgare (barley) Secale cereale (rye) and Avena sativa (cultivated oats) were found. At York, Triticum species (wheat) were found in the greatest abundance, then Hordeum vulgare (barley) and Avena species (oats). At Earl’s Bu and Freswick Links, Avena sativa (cultivated oats) and A. fatua (wild oats) were the most important grains, with Hordeum vulgare (barley) second. Freswick Links also had Triticum aestivum (bread wheat) as well as undifferentiated Triticum species.

Earl’s Bu also has a horizontal Norse mill (c.1000-1400). It is a mill in which the wheel is arranged horizontally. The wheel is in the lowest level of the building, and entirely inside the building, so that the stream that turns it runs through the lowest level of the building, which is built so that it straddles the stream on an incline.

Ann Hagen notes several Triticum varieties were grown in England, including Triticum spelta (spelt). She notes that wheat grew well in the British Isles, rye tends to produce ergot there, unlike the continent; and oats grow well just about anywhere.


There were many plant remains found at Ribe, and these were compared to finds at Archsum, Elisenhof and Haithabu. These are:

Fragaria vesca (wild strawberry) also found at Haithabu; Corylus avellana (hazel; Haithabu); Rubus fruticosus (blackberry; Archsum, Haithabu); Raphanus raphanistrum (wild radish; Archsum, Elisenhof, Haithabu); Brassica sp. (cabbage; Archsum, Elisenhof, Haithabu); and Mentha aquatica and M. arvensis (water mint and corn mint; Elisenhof, Haithabu).

Then came the hard to translate list. These are plants that were identified by family only, no genus or species. Or, when they are translated into British English, I don’t recognize the common name! At Ribe, some of these are:

Menyanthes trifoliata (buckbean; Haithabu); Rumex acetosella (sheep’s sorrel, Archsum, Elisenhof, Haithabu); Urtica dioica (stinging nettle; Archsum, Elisenhof, Haithabu); Arctium sp. (burdock; Elisenhof, Haithabu); Barbarea sp. (winter cress); Stellaria media (chickweed); Polygonum lapathifolium (pale persicaria; Archsum, Elisenhof, Haithabu); Polygonum hydropiper (water pepper); and Chenopodium album (fat hen; Archsum, Elisenhof, Haithabu).

I knew that burdock and stinging nettles are edible; I thought the sheep’s sorrel might be. The fact that Polygonum hydropiper was water pepper (in Latin as well as English) had me wondering if it was edible. With some digging, I found that the plants I’ve listed are edible. Because burdock is nice to eat (I’ve had it) and the sorrels are supposed to be good tart additions to salads, I began to wonder if these plants represented the need in the diet for fresh greens or tubers, in the case of burdock.

Then I looked at Ann Hagen’s work, and discovered I didn’t need to sweat over the Latin the way I had been! She indicated that indeed these foods were valued, especially in the spring as relief to pre-scorbutic conditions. These plants also served as food during lean times.

York had the same species noted at Ribe, and more, such as Plantago species (water plantain) and Bromus species (chess). Freswick Links had Rumex species, Bromus, Brassica species (cabbage) Equisetum (horsetail) and Corylus avellana (hazelnuts). Svalbartþ had Stellarias (chickweed) Rumex species, Equisetum (horsetail) and Polygonum species.

This covers some of the vegetables available, and I used Hagen’s work to flesh out the vegetable picture. Alliums (onion, garlic, etc.) mustard, beet and turnip greens, spinach (Hagen indicates it was found at York) mushrooms, apples, pears, peaches, celery and many herbs.

The Daucus family is represented by red, purple or black carrots, and parsnips. Now, a problem with the purple carrots available commercially is that they were developed as part of a breeding project by Leonard Pike of Texas A & M!! Therefore, a purple carrot in the demo is no more or less correct than an orange. It also explains why I could not find the seed at a local museum with an excellent heirloom seed project!

This is an example of a perennial problem for cooks trying to re-create food of people in history. ANY foodstuff we use is not going to be right, as we do not have many pre-seventeenth century varieties to use. Even if you have an heirloom variety, usually it will only be about one hundred years old. Generally, I use a modern variety and don’t worry about it, unless there is a variety closer to the historical one and a variety that is different in colour etc. I’ll use purple carrots, but not rutabagas. The rutabaga was developed specifically in the nineteenth century, and white turnips are available.

Vicia faba (fava beans) represent the pulses at York and Freswick Links. Pisum sativum (peas) were also found at York. Hagen lists kidney and fava beans, peas and lentils, as well as a ‘swearte beanen’, which translates as a ‘black’ bean, but she does not indicate if these are the same kind of black bean I associate so strongly with Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking. The English black beans are actually favas, and favas are the only period bean for the British Isle, it turns out.

Myrica gale (bog myrtle) as well as Humulus lupus (Hops) were found at Ribe. Bog myrtle was used prior to the introduction of hops to flavour and preserve ‘beer’—I put it in quotes, as what I understand is that it isn’t beer without hops, but ale. Hagen refers to the products using bog myrtle, yarrow and rosemary as beer. Hops were found at York and at a tenth century find in Graveney, England, in a boat. Hagen sets the date for hopping beer at sometime in the eighth or ninth century in England. Ale and beer was an important foodstuff, a good source of carbohydrates, which was available to all of society.

According to Hagen, eggs were used and neither overly plentiful nor scarce, and hen’s eggs were not the only eggs eaten. She notes milk lasts longer as cheese or butter, and was a usual item of food. Cow’s milk was not the only milk drunk. Ryder notes that the first mention of milking sheep in England is in a rent in the ninth century, and that throughout the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages milk was the main product of the sheep with wool and manure as byproducts. The shepherd in Aelfric’s Colloquy (Hagen says 1000, Ryder says tenth century) milks his sheep twice a day, and makes butter and cheese.

Salt was certainly imported to the British Isles. There is plenty of evidence for sea-salt in England; the town of Maldon, established in the 800-900’s gathered and exported sea salt, and continued to do so throughout the Middle Ages. Cooking oil was imported as olive oil—this is recorded in Aelfric’s Colloquy as one of the things a merchant imports. Linum ussitatisum (flaxseed) was found at Ribe, York and Earl’s Bu. This would be an important source of fiber, and could have been pressed for oil. Modern flax oil is cold pressed, which makes it safe to use, however, it should not be cooked. Rapes and cole seed may also have been used. The remains of a straw ‘skep’ beehive and bees were found at York.

Cooking Methods

Boil, boil, boil! Open fire cookery means that boiling is the easiest method of cooking. This is true throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance as well. Pots made of iron sheets riveted together were the most expensive; earthenware pit-fired pottery was common, and the shoemaker in Aelfric’s Colloquy has to be skilled in making leather cooking pots.

Spit roasting was practiced, as well as pit roasting and baking in the ashes. Ovens were also used, however, they are an expensive commodity. Fry pans and griddles have been recovered.

That about covers what I’ve found out so far. This is designed to be reflective of the British Isles.


Three Viking Graves in the Isle of Man: Gerhard Bersu and David Wilson; The Society for Medieval Archeology, London, 1966.

Ribe Excavations 1970-76: ed. Mogens Bencard, Lise Bender Jørgensen, and Helge Brinch Madsen; Sydjsk Universitetsforlag, Esberg, 1991.

A Second Handbook of Anglo Saxon Food and Drink Production and Distribution: Ann Hagen; Anglo-Saxon Books, Norfolk, England, 1995.

Environment and Living Conditions at Two Anglo-Scandinavian Sites: A. R. Hall, H. K. Kenward, D. Williams and J.R.A. Greig; Council for British Archeology, London, 1983.

Norse and Later Settlement and Subsistence in the North Atlantic: Christopher D. Morris and D. James Rackham; University of Glasgow, 1992.

Re: Ateh and Her Salt: Tom MacDonald, posted to the Manx list archives, Sept/Oct. 2001.

Sheep and Man: M. L. Ryder, Duckworth, Ltd. Norwich, 1983.

A Pamphlet that Fearless lent me without any bibliographic information on the ‘Pagan Lady of Peel’ grave on the isle of Man.

Personal communication with Laura Sole of Bede’s World open-air museum in England, www.bedesworld.co.uk

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