Craft Fair: Early Medieval Anglo-Saxon Cooking

Culture is a multifaceted thing that expresses itself in hundreds of ways, from the manner in which people of a certain culture dress to the types of structure in which those people live. It is arguable, however, that cuisine is perhaps the most important part of any culture. It is certainly used very often as a symbol for cultures and peoples: what does a hamburger signify if not America? Who but the French are brought to mind by a baguette? Their function as synecdoche is, however, not the only cultural function for the dishes people eat. Everyone in the world needs food in order to live, after all, and so the mere act of maintaining one’s own existence is tied via eating to one’s culture. It is possible, therefore, that we in the modern world may through replicating the creation and consumption of dishes from the cultures of the past gain some understanding of the way in which the people of those cultures lived. As such, we set out to recreate dishes from Early Medieval England for both ourselves, our classmates, and the visitors to our fair, in the hopes of allowing all of us to become more connected in some small way to a people separated from us both by distance and by time.


1. Deciding What to Cook

The first of many decisions we faced was what sort of food we wanted to make. We didn’t want to represent the higher class of Early Medieval society with their roasted meats and elaborate feasts — for one, it would have been near-impossible to roast a deer on a college campus, let alone procure one; and for another, we wanted to represent a group of people often overlooked by textbooks and history novels: the average person in Early Medieval England. Online, we discovered the Early English Bread Project, which told us about the various different flours used to make hearth cakes, a staple in the Medieval diet. We initially selected wheat and barley flour to mix for bread dough, but a lack of barley flour in local stores led us to fall back on oat flour, which may not have been used along with wheat by contemporaries, but certainly would have been available. Hearth cakes, we learned, are the simplest of creations: nothing but flour and water mixed into dough and baked like pancakes on an open fire. No grease, no salt. (Although they would have been consumed with butter or cheese to disguise their bland taste.)

Naturally, a diet of hearth cakes alone would have left one wanting for a good many nutrients, so after perusing a few books, we decided on stew as the second component of our meal. Stew would have been ubiquitous to Early Medieval England, made with whatever vegetables and meats were available thrown into a pot together. Fava beans, onions, garlic, carrots, and a few select spices all would have been around, and we chose to add in bacon as well, as most meat would have been heavily preserved with salt, like bacon.


2. Cooking

The process of learning how one makes a hearth-cake in the Anglo-Saxon style began, for us, in the kitchen on 2nd Cassat with a frying pan, some bags of flour, and a faucet. Since we planned to make a few mistakes and could regulate the stovetop’s temperature more easily than a fire’s, we decided to prototype our bread there before making our cakes properly in the fire-pit at Mai-Fête Island. Our first few attempts to bake these cakes were flawed: we mixed together our oat and wheat flour more or less randomly in a bowl and added water, as we had been instructed to do by our recipe.

A dough which turned out to be too wet

When we flattened out our cakes and laid them in the pan, however, they remained wet for far too long and, when they finally cooked, had both an unpleasant chewiness and a leathery toughness to them that made it clear we were doing something wrong.

We discovered, after experimenting and eventually reducing the amount of water in the mixture, that this was a drier dough than that of, say, a pancake, closer to the consistency of modern bread dough than we had initially thought. Once that problem had been fixed, we discovered that our hearth-cakes tasted quite acceptable, if a bit chewy, and moved on to preparing the ingredients of the bean stew.


To begin with the stew, we prepped the carrots (a bag full of about 9 carrots) by washing them in the sink and chopping them into appropriate chunks. Initially, we were unsure how thick a stew carrot should be. We started with chopping one-third inch thick cylinders, but then proceeded with a diagonal slicing motion, which yielded jagged peaks. However, if we could have gone back, we should have made the carrot pieces even smaller because as long as we cooked our stew for, they still came out undercooked. For the onions (three of them, two round one flat) we peeled the skins off and sliced away any signs of decay, and diced them. For garlic (two cloves), we merely peeled the skins off and threw them directly into the pot.

The stew prior to cooking


Unfortunately, none of Northfield’s local stores carried fava beans, so we had to make do with Lima beans (six hearty cans). After dumping in all of the ingredients, we poured in a 3:5 ratio of water and set them to cook over charcoals for about 2 hours, mixing approximately every 5 minutes to prevent the stew from sticking to the bottom.

The stew being served

Making the hearth-cakes in the fire on Mai-Fête was a substantially different task than making them on the stove in Cassat had been. The problem in Cassat was figuring out the proper ratio of ingredients to use in order to create the cakes, while the problem on the island was ensuring that the we didn’t burn or undercook the cakes in the uneven heat of the fire. All in all, however, despite the edges of every cake being routinely burnt and some cakes occasionally being produced which somehow managed both to be undercooked and burnt, the quality of bread production which we managed to achieve at the fair itself was higher than in the Cassat kitchen.

Two cooked hearth-cakes; note the ash

Hearth-cakes, it turns out, taste better when made in the cooking fires for which they were developed (and when accompanied with goat cheese or butter). Our visitor taste-testers even found them palatable, and there was something pleasantly hardcore about having to pull the cakes out of a fire and brush literal ash off of their outsides before eating them. We were connecting with Early Medieval people via an experience they would have had on a daily basis.

Making the hearth-cakes


3. Insights

Our overall experience left us with considerably more faith in Early Medieval cooking than we’d previously had. The main challenge of cooking a stew of charcoal was the time it took; we did not anticipate it taking any more than an hour and a half, but it went well over that time, closer to two hours. It delayed our funeral procession, which allowed the rain to roll and, once we got moving, rain on our parade. There was a limited supply of charcoal as well, and we expended a good amount of lung-power into breathing and sustaining the life of the embers. However, once we started running out, we realized we could retrieve the burnt wood from our firepit, where the hearth-cakes were cooking, to feed our supply and keep the soup cooking.

The hearth cakes, while rustic and rather chewy, were actually quite palatable with salted dairy products, and the stew wasn’t half bad with bacon. Moreover, we gained some insights into the specific knowledge and skills that people in Early Medieval England would have had that we otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. Through trial and error, we learned what the ratio of oat flour to wheat flour to water should be in dough to keep it from getting either too sticky or too dry, how thick the hearth cakes should be for even baking, where they should be placed in the fire to minimize scorching on the exterior without leaving the inside doughy. Bakers of hearth cakes a thousand years ago would have had this process down to a science, barely needing to think about how long to leave their bread on the fire for or how much water to add to their dough. Even for us, towards the end of our three hour festival the process became a bit more streamlined, and we turned out fewer charred and rock-hard cakes. In the end, the world of Early Medieval people became just a bit more real to us through their cooking.

ORP: Bone Needle

By Brendan Glenn,  class of 2021

When one considers the objects of importance in one’s life, it is often the largest or most complex things which first come to mind. The buttons on my shirts or the zippers on my backpack, however, are as vitally important to my life, or at least to my lifestyle, as my phone or my computer. Such unseen but ever-present objects are probably more populous nowadays, in the age of mass-production and unobtrusive design, but they have doubtless existed for nearly as long as groups of humans have been producing things. One particular invisible object, a needle of carved bone, can be used to shed a little light on a certain group of humans: the people inhabiting the early Anglo-Saxon settlement of West Stow in the middle centuries of the first millennium. Despite the fact that it was likely taken for granted in its “life,” or perhaps because it was, it can if thoroughly noticed offer insights about those who created and used it.

The needle in question (Fig. 1) is a fairly simple object comprised of two main sections: a head and a shaft. The shaft is thin and cylindrical, descending from the head and tapering at the other end to a somewhat sharp point. The head is  a roughly shield-shaped structure with a hole in its center, which is positioned directly in line with the shaft. The needle likely originates from a pig fibula which was carved down into a needle shape around its central axis, preserving the tensile strength provided by the original bone while also minimizing the space the item would have taken up.

I bet whoever owned this lost it on purpose. Would *you* want to sew with it? It's made of a pig's leg and its head probably gets stuck in every piece of fabric it passes through.

Figure 1: An image of the bone needle I reconstructed, and one of many photographs used in that reconstruction.

This object was most likely used either as a simple dress-pin or for single-needle knitting. It shares with sewing needles found at and near West Stow a perforated triangular head and a simple design, although it is more elaborate than other needles due to the extra carving on its head which makes it shield-shaped. That this needle is fancier than other, similar objects, however, raises several questions about the people who used it. Why might someone want a more elaborate version of a bone tool whose uses were fairly mundane? The answer is likely that this needle’s relatively-ornate design served to highlight the bone-working skill of the person who created it, and therefore the status of its user. From this, one can infer that there was a certain amount of value placed on having finely-made things in the community at West Stow, which isn’t necessarily surprising, but also that this applied even to small, seemingly mundane items such as needles.

Finely-made needles have been important tools and status symbols in many societies.

Why, then, didn’t a person with the means to have a nice needle have a needle made for themselves out of a higher-status material? Iron, silver and bronze dress-pins are present at the West Stow site, but no needles of anything but bone have been found. Why make metal pins but not metal needles? Since needles, unlike dress-pins, are unlikely to be buried with people, it’s possible that metal needles were used and didn’t end up where archaeologists could find them, but it seems unlikely that no metal needles would ever be lost, unlike the many doubtlessly-misplaced bone needles found in other excavated dwellings. Perhaps metal simply couldn’t be shaped into fine enough needles for the purposes of West Stow’s needle-users. Either way, the fact that this simple object is the nicest needle found at the site provides a glimpse, however murky, into the sorts of things that its people valued in their invisible objects.

Despite the fact that this needle was probably used for fairly mundane purposes, such as doing simple, decorative embroidery, it nonetheless is an object which could be said to have had a higher level of importance than other quotidian tools. The people of West Stow lived simple lives and had access, from the perspective of even people alive in their own time in places not terribly far from Britain, to very little indeed.

Pictured: two residents of West Stow

    Despite that, however, they had the time and energy to make even their simple tools prettier than they necessarily had to be. Knit-work is useful for keeping oneself warm and dress-pins are necessary for holding certain types of clothing together, but there’s no need for the objects that facilitate knitting or pinned dresses to be nice. Despite this, some inhabitant of West Stow nonetheless wanted this needle to be prettier than it absolutely had to be, to make things nicer rather than simply do the bare minimum in a time and place where even achieving the bare minimum of survival was a fairly pressing task. It is things like this small, simple-yet-ornate needle which remind us that even the people who do not appear in histories have inner lives, and are, essentially, human.

Of course, producing this needle was not a task accomplished via the crafter’s deep belief in the innate human quest for beauty, but via bone-working tools and the leg of a slaughtered pig, which are much less romantic to ponder but substantially more useful. My own work to recreate this object was significantly less bloody and physical than its original creator’s, but did give me an appreciation for the effort required to produce such an object. Several of the issues which I encountered in my quest to convince Agisoft PhotoScan to produce a 3D model of the object could be taken as oblique metaphors for the experience of a human interacting with a needle like this one.

Not quite.

The program initially, for instance, had difficulties separating the needle from the background of the photos in which it was pictured. I have had the same experience multiple times when attempting to find similar small objects against backgrounds which seemingly ought to highlight their presence, and while I understood that PhotoScan was having a different issue than I do when I drop a red thumbtack and cannot find it on a solid green carpet, I still empathized with the program’s struggle. For reference, see Fig. 2, where the program constructed a horrible amalgam formed of photos of the object taken from many angles due to its inability to distinguish it from its  background.

And when the shapeless thing in skies above/does take the sun within its charnel form/the sky will tear itself apart for love;/ the stars despite that darkness will us warm.

Figure 2: an in-progress screenshot of my attempt to model the needle.

Likewise, the refusal of the program to assign any tie points to the object or its environs I assumed to be similar in aspect to my own difficulties when attempting to, say, seize hold of such small items as the needle. The solution for both of us in this sort of situation appears to be the application of additional computing power to the problem; I, on my second attempt, take time to resolve the depth of the evasive object before attempting to pick it up again, while PhotoScan required a greater limit for the number of points which it’s allowed to apply when aligning its images in order to sufficiently “acquire” the needle and model it sufficiently (see Fig. 3). In other words, I was able to experience an interaction with this item in vicarious fashion through the trials which PhotoScan went through in attempting to locate, acquire, and correctly model it.

Please ignore the blobs near the head, or imagine that they are there so as to avoid the wrath of God by the creation of a perfect thing.

Figure 3: My final model for (the upright perspective of) the needle.

    The stories which something as simple and seemingly unimportant as a needle can tell are, honestly, surprising in their scope and occasional depth. Through attempting to understand this object one can learn not only about its history but about the concerns, both social and aesthetic, of its user or users. That this needle holds so much information within it despite the fact that it likely went almost unnoticed by those in whose lives it was present has induced in me a sort of paranoia concerning the materials with which I live my life. What will my shirt-buttons tell the archaeologists and college students of the future? My discarded coffee-cup lids? My headphones? It’s not paranoia in the sense that I feel threatened (though I suppose it’s always uncomfortable to consider the prospect that nameless others will understand in great detail how I live my life), but more in the sense that my every use of an object is now paired with the thought, “what will they think of this when they find it?”. This has the uncomfortable effect of making objects that ought to be invisible (like my suddenly-fascinating shirt-buttons) quite visible indeed. Perhaps the owner of this needle felt the same way when considering its shield-shaped head. “I hope” they might have thought, “that nobody notices how inconvenient the shape of this thing is for sewing.”



West, Stanley. West Stow, Suffolk: The Anglo-Saxon Village. 2 vols., East Anglian Archaeology Report 24. Ipswich, Suffolk: Suffolk County Planning Dept., 1985.

The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, edited by Hamerow et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

West, Stanley. West Stow Revisited. West Stow: West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village Trust, 2001.