Melitta Weiss Adamson

title.none: Lee, Feasting the Dead (Melitta Weiss Adamson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0803.019 08.03.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Melitta Weiss Adamson, University of Western Ontario,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Lee, Christina. Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals. Anglo-Saxon Studies, vol. 9. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 176. $80.00 (hb) 978-1-84383-142-6 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.03.19

Lee, Christina. Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals. Anglo-Saxon Studies, vol. 9. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 176. $80.00 (hb) 978-1-84383-142-6 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Melitta Weiss Adamson
University of Western Ontario

Feasting around the grave is an old custom. It is found in the burials of high-status Romans, and among the Merovingians and Alemannic tribes, but research has so far been lacking whether it was also practiced in Anglo-Saxon England. Following in the footsteps of Bonnie Effros and her multidisciplinary work on death in Merovingian Gaul, Christina Lee examines the role of food and feasting in Anglo-Saxon burial rituals through the analysis of archeological data and textual evidence and traces the changes that occurred over time as a result of Christianization. In her Introduction she emphasizes the importance of food as the most basic human need and as a means to create cultural identity. For her theoretical approach she uses the studies on food by the anthropologists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas, and the literary critic Rolandes Barthes, as well as the study on gift-giving by the sociologist Marcel Mauss. Her stated goal is to "show that food offerings found in pre-Christian cemeteries were part of an elaborate system of signs that contain meaning." (2) In the chapters that follow she offers a "grammar" for food and food-related items at Anglo-Saxon grave sites, and suggestions for the interpretation of the signs not all of which the reader will necessarily find convincing.

Before embarking on the analysis of the animal bones present in Anglo-Saxon cremation and inhumation sites and in the backfills of graves, the author devotes Chapter 1 to an overview of the food consumed in Anglo-Saxon England, focusing in particular on animal husbandry and crops and cereals. She observes that domestic animals, in particular cattle, were the primary meat source, with sheep gradually gaining in popularity. Also discussed are the roles of pork, horse meat, freshwater fish, barley, rye, oats, wheat, flax, and some fruits and legumes in the Anglo-Saxon diet. From the archeological evidence found in the excavations of settlements, she then turns to the information on diet that human skeletons can provide thanks to modern science, such as the study of isotopes. While food deficiencies were to blame for many of the diseases and a low life expectancy, especially among women, some diseases, such as diabetes, occurred as a result of prolonged obesity even then. In the absence of written sources regarding the diet of the general population, she discusses the information contained in the various monastic rules of the early Middle Ages, and concludes the chapter with an overview of the food obligations between king and subjects in Anglo-Saxon England. Lee argues that the reciprocity that can be observed in the area of food and drink among the living also extended to the dead in Anglo-Saxon society.

Chapter 2 focuses on animal bones in Anglo-Saxon burial archeology and their possible symbolic functions. With grave goods primarily a phenomenon of the pre-Conversion period, it is in the final phase that the most elaborate burials are found. While on the Continent food deposits in graves were consistent with the diet of the rich, Lee does not find the same correlation in the data from Anglo-Saxon England. In cremations, which were the predominant form of burial in the fifth century, human and animal bones are usually found in the same vessel, with the type of animal chosen being dependent on the age and gender of the deceased, as the author points out. The fact that animal bones are also found outside a vessel, and frequently show butchery marks, leads Lee to speculate that they could be evidence of funerary feasting by the mourners, perhaps to pass the time during the lengthy cremation process. For her analysis of the distribution of animal bones in inhumations, the author uses age, gender, status, and burial position as criteria, and manages to tease out of her material some fascinating correlations that indicate a display of the dead and their grave offerings that was by no means accidental but minutely choreographed and highly meaningful. The presence of bones in the backfill of inhumation sites is again seen by Lee as an indication of possible meals at the grave side. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of displacements of actual animal bones with animal symbolism on grave objects.

In Chapter 3 the emphasis shifts from the animal bones to the food containers found in Anglo-Saxon grave sites, of which Sutton Hoo is one of the most prominent and most thoroughly studied. Coptic bowls, glassware from the Rhineland, and drinking vessels in silver and bronze from Byzantium speak not only to the high status of the deceased but to an extensive network of cultural relations. Again the author tries to establish distributions of objects according to gender, status, age, and burial position of the dead. She points to the symbolic replacement of pots with potsherds, and speculates that the deliberate breaking of objects may have been part of the funerary ceremony.

From bones, vessels, and backfill, Lee widens the scope in Chapter 4 to examine other features of Anglo-Saxon graves and the immediate surrounding that may provide evidence of feasting at the grave side. Among them are burnt stones, charcoal remains on the body or in the grave fill, postholes, and the presence of hearths at cemeteries. With regard to postholes she argues that rather than mark the grave, they may have been used to erect temporary cellae memoriae, a type of structure used in some regions of Germany for meals to commemorate the dead. While the combined presence of animal bones, charcoal, and postholes may suggest feasting by the mourners, Lee does admit that there is no conclusive link between postholes and food in Anglo-Saxon England. She concludes the chapter by contrasting the cemetery's function of "establishing and remembering identity" (102) with a new form of memory as a result of Christianization. It was no longer tied to grave goods, but to payment to the Church in return for salvation of the soul through prayer.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to remembering the dead in pre and post-Conversion England. The author traces the changes from actual goods deposited in the grave to permanent markers above ground and eventually commemoration by the Church, described by the author as a complex form of communal memory in which the cult of the saints, liturgical remembrance, memorial feasting, and almsgiving all play a role. In this system commemoration is paid for by the dead and unlike the pre-Conversion burial rituals, it offers the opportunity of eternal remembrance. In Chapter 6 the author compares the portrayal of feasting and fasting in art ranging from the Bayeux tapestry to Beowulf with the attitudes towards feasting displayed by the Church. While the eternal banquets promised to the faithful are described in positive terms, secular feasting usually carries negative connotations. In her Conclusion, Lee briefly summarizes the developments from Anglo-Saxon cremation and inhumation to the commemorative practices introduced by the medieval Church.

Christina Lee's book is well researched and makes excellent use of sources, especially German ones, from a variety of disciplines. Although she states that there "is enough evidence to propose that the grave was a place where eating and drinking had an important role and even took place on site" (99), all the evidence for the latter claim is ultimately circumstantial and still leaves this reviewer unconvinced that funerary feasting was a regular feature of Anglo-Saxon burial rituals. The book contains eight plates and a number of diagrams several of which are unfortunately very hard to read. In addition, the text is full of typos and syntactical errors and would have benefited greatly from a thorough proofreader. The individual chapters are uneven not just in length but also in quality, adding to the impression that the manuscript was rushed into production. There is no doubt that Christina Lee knows her field well. She has certainly succeeded in writing an intriguing book in this unexplored area of Anglo-Saxon Studies that in parts is as engaging as an episode of CSI. However, it should be seen for what it is, a somewhat hastily written first account of the evidence but by no means the last word on the subject.