How the Norman conquest changed agriculture in the British isles


The Norman conquest of England in 1066 was an event that had a decisive impact on the history, language and culture of the British Isles. Now an archaeological study shows that with the arrival of the Normans, the diet of the ordinary population also changed slightly: improved methods of agriculture led, among other things, to the fact that pork and chicken were more frequently on the menu.

Before the arrival of the Normans under William II, England was dominated by the Anglo-Saxons for centuries. These tribes dominated the south and east of the country since the end of Roman rule. But in the eleventh century, constant attacks by the Vikings and the death of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor in January 1066 led to a power vacuum.

One of the aristocrats competing for the throne was William II, Duke of Normandy, who was related to the Anglo-Saxon kings through the marriage of one of his female ancestors. At the end of September 1066, he crossed the channel with a fleet and began to conquer England. In October, at the battle of Hastings, he won the decisive victory over the Anglo-Saxons, gradually winning the rule of the country.

How did the way of life of ordinary people change?

In the years after the conquest, a Norman upper class was established, ruling with a hard hand over the Anglo-Saxon majority. Gradually, cultural and linguistic mixtures took place, especially within the nobles of the country. But whether and how the Norman conquest changed the lives of the ordinary population has hardly been investigated – partly because there is no written record of it. That is why Elizabeth Craig-Atkins of the University of Sheffield and her colleagues have now taken an archaeological approach.

“By examining archaeological evidence of the diet and health of the ordinary people who lived during this period, we get a detailed picture of their everyday experiences and lifestyles,” Craig-Atkins explains. For their study, she and her team analyzed the isotope conditions in the bones and teeth of 35 dead buried near Oxford between the 10th and 13th centuries, as well as 60 animal bones from the same time and area. In addition, they carried out chemical analyses of vascular residues. “It was only through this diverse range of methods that we were able to find out how the conquest affected the health and diet of the non-elites,” says co-author Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University.

Intensification of livestock farming

The analyses showed that the change of rule of the ordinary population caused difficulties only for a short time. In the long run, however, they benefited from the arrival of the Normans: “There is evidence that people experienced periods when food was scarce,” Craig-Atkins says. These short-time times could be seen on the teeth. During and shortly after the Norman conquest, there were temporary food shortages. However, the researchers found no evidence that this caused more serious health problems such as scurvy or rickets.

A little later, the situation of the population improved noticeably. “An intensification of agriculture meant that people had a more steady food supply,” the archaeologists report. As before, the menu included a lot of vegetables, cereals and sheepmeat. In addition, however, people ate less dairy products and more pork and poultry, as the animal bones confirm. The researchers attribute this to the fact that the Normans introduced new, standardized practices in livestock farming, which made them more profitable. They also intensified pig farming, making the meat more affordable for farmers.