The history of early medieval food can provide useful ways into exploring the period’s culture and society. Everyone experienced food or its absence. It could be valued and discussed differently depending on availability, cultural taste, and metaphor. It has also been a staple part of analyses of long distance trade and economic patterns, something firmly back on the agenda with efforts to push beyond national historiographies.

Cullen Chandler, our Bullough Fellow in St Andrews for 2018/19, has just started a project to explore Carolingian society through its food. To get started, he organised a workshop to find out some of the things that are going on in the field.

Debby Banham

Debby Banham (Cambridge) started the day with an overview of The Early English Bread Project she has been involved in alongside Martha Bayless (UOregon). Banham had been responsible for investigating the making of bread, and so talked us through key issues from the choice of grain to the techniques involved. In England, environment and politics affected patterns: it was harder to grow the best ‘bread wheat’ because of the damp, barley was better to grow but didn’t produce a loaf that was as white or which rose as well, Romans preferred to use spelt but it declined in popularity later on, and migration and long-distance cultural exchanges (e.g. through the Gregorian mission) introduced people to different ways of doing bread. Bread was a much more varied thing than it sometimes appears in the sources.

Cullen Chandler

Cullen Chandler (Lycoming College) talked about the different social meanings of food under the Carolingians. Hunting, for instance, was important for providing a way of producing food that reinforced particular lay aristocratic (and possibly masculine) values. Harsh legislation introduced briefly during Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony enforced a sense of community through food and ritual, when eating meat was banned during Lent on pain of death. (You can here a fuller version of the talk from earlier in the year here).

Alban Gautier

Next, Alban Gautier (Caen) presented on Charlemagne and cheese myths. Many cheeses in France claim medieval origins, as they are often used to symbolise regional identities. Two in particular, Roquefort and Brie, claim to have been Charlemagne’s favourite cheese. The origins of the myth, Gautier explained, was a story in Notker the Stammerer’s late-ninth-century Deeds of Charlemagne. Charlemagne, visiting an unspecified place, was served some humble white cheese on a Friday. The cheese had mould, so Charlemagne cut it off. The bishop, standing over him like a servant, told him that was the best part, so the king tried it, liked it, and demanded two cartloads per year be delivered to the palace. The bishop struggled to fulfil the demand but, after two years of trying hard, was richly rewarded by the king. Within the text, it is a story to illustrate the rewards for a bishop who does his best, and it contrasts with another story of a bad bishop who lives richly. But it has nothing to do with either Brie (not a mouldy cheese) or Roquefort (if you cut off the mould there isn’t much left). What the myth shows is how, with just a couple of ambiguous details, a story can be reappropriated. And then now, as it spreads across the internet, it just appears to be ‘true’ because it is everywhere, so don’t forget to question everything.

Katherine Cross

After a quick break for cake, we regrouped to hear two papers on food metaphors in early medieval culture. First, Katherine Cross (York) looked at discussions of breastfeeding and milk in Bede’s writings. In the story of Aidan (in HE III.5), for example, the saint talks about giving new converts the milk of easier doctrine, drawing a parallel between nurturing babies and nurturing neophytes. This is imagery Bede developed more fully in his commentary on the Song of Songs, turning comments by Augustine into a vision of pastoral care as an ongoing process, with an emotional relationship developing between teachers and pupils much as there is between mothers and babies. Cross argued that we can see this vision coalescing into a coherent literary theme in missionary hagiography too, notably in the ninth-century Vita Liudgerii.

The final paper of the day was from Thomas Greene (U North Georgia). Greene argued that food metaphors were a powerful part of the repertoire of Carolingian exegetes Haimo of Auxerre, Hrabanus Maurus, and Christian of Stavelot – not just because they allowed for some good rhetorical turns, but also because they allowed for a material reinforcing of orthodoxy. On Hosea 7.16, to give one example, Haimo made a comparison between the relative difficulties of consuming food and drink and the interpretation of scripture, leading to a discussion of how heretics and Jews had effectively failed to digest things properly. (You can read a draft of Greene’s paper here).

Food discussion

The workshop provoked some good discussion throughout the day. It was only intended as an aperitif, with the main feast(s) still to come. There are exciting issues about regionality, transculturality, and networks to be explored, drawing on both texts and material evidence. And of course these issues are already being explored and Chandler left with a good list of people to tap up for future events. (If you have ideas, do contact him at

Plus, as Alban Gautier pointed out, the website Ménestrel has a whole section, regularly updated, on medieval food history.

And you will glad to know it was well into the evening before anyone made a joke about the day being a ‘Cullen-ary’ event.