People living in Anglo-Saxon England were turned off the idea of eating horses once they became Christian as they believed it was “pagan” food, a new research paper argues.
The finding appears in the latest issue of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, produced by Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology.
The research is based on animal bone data from settlement sites in Anglo-Saxon England that shows that although horses were largely available to all, horse meat was rarely eaten.
“This is an important paper that shows how far back in history the aversion to eating horses seems to go amongst the English,” said Professor Helena Hamerow, from Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology who is a leading expert on early Anglo-Saxon England communities.
“Although the custom of eating horseflesh appears to have been widespread in early medieval Northern Europe and early Anglo-Saxons on occasion consumed horse, it disappeared from the diet after the conversion, as church authorities tried to undermine the habit.”
Christianity was reintroduced to England at the end of the 6th century and for around 200 years pagan and Christian practices co-existed.
However, at the end of the 8th century, a taboo around horsemeat developed due to attempts to standardise Christian beliefs and practices, suggests the paper.
It argues that the Romans had viewed the eating of horse flesh as “pagan” and this view was incorporated into the early teachings of the Catholic Church.
Author of the research paper, Kristopher Poole, who completed his PhD at the University of Nottingham, suggests that horses had religious significance as they featured in pre-Christian religions and were linked with various gods in north-west Europe throughout this time, including Odin and Freyr.
In Anglo-Saxon belief systems, horses were mythical warrior figures, legendary leaders of the invasion of southern England. These half-man, half-horse figures were believed to be descended from Odin/Woden and claimed to be the ancestors of Anglo-Saxon royal dynasties.
“Eating horsemeat was rare and this could have made the slaughter and consumption of horses a highly significant act,” Poole says. “Whilst many ‘pagan’ beliefs became integrated into Christian practices in England, the possible veneration and eating of horse seems to have been too much of a challenge to Christian perspectives.”
Of nine sites of Early Saxon date where ageing data of horse remains are available, Poole finds that nearly all of the horses were mature at the time of death, suggesting that meat was not the main reason for raising these animals.
Even so, evidence of butchered horse remains were found in 30 per cent of Early Saxon sites but by the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period, the rate of butchery had dropped considerably, suggesting says Poole that the Church had “at least some effect” on attitudes to horse meat.
Horse meat was apparently rarely consumed, says the research paper, but happened in times of famine; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports a number of years where famines occurred and taboos could have been ignored.
Conversely, horse flesh could also have been considered a feast food, due to the infrequency with which it was consumed. Feasting may be indicated by the presence of horse head bones and absence of the main meat-bearing bones on a number of settlements, indicating that meat was shared out and then consumed elsewhere.
There are also some instances where only a horse’s head was interred in a grave, which perhaps represents horse-feasting, possibly at the graveside.
By the mid-Saxon period, most of the sites containing butchered horse bones appear to have been inhabited by those lower down the social hierarchy.
Poole suggests this could have been because the less well-off had no choice but to eat horse in times of famine; or it may also have been because this section of society continued to follow pagan practices for longer than other sections of society.
The paper, Horses for Courses? Religious Change and Dietary Shifts in Anglo-Saxon England, will be published in the August 2013 volume of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, produced for Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology by Wiley-Blackwell.