15.05.09, Frantzen, Food, Eating and Identity

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Bonnie Effros

The Medieval Review 15.05.09

Frantzen, Allen J. Food, Eating and Identity in Early Medieval England. Anglo-Saxon Studies, 22. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2014. pp. xi, 290. ISBN: 9781843839088 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Bonnie Effros
University of Florida

Allen Frantzen's recent book wholeheartedly engages with the material remains of the Anglo-Saxon world, a task previously undertaken mainly by archaeologists and historians. [1] Inspired, however, by the idea that "object survivals are democratic," unlike the era's texts, Frantzen's assessment betrays a somewhat idealistic encounter with the material turn that has become increasingly dominant in medieval studies (2). [2] Despite this initial misstep--which fails to acknowledge the bias of archaeological remains toward the inorganic traces left by the monumental households and possessions of elites--Frantzen deserves praise for his willingness to embrace modest artifacts like quernstones, ceramic vessels, and wooden cooking implements in his study. As he rightly notes, focus on heroic deeds and feasting rites has offered a slanted view of Anglo-Saxon culture whereas attention to ordinary interactions helps reconstitute a more representative understanding of the early medieval habitus. This approach is especially meaningful if we consider that written sources give little information about the conditions of daily life for the majority of the inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England.

In order to achieve his stated goal, Frantzen insists that "objects be seen as primary and as part of the human imprint that makes a place a settlement, a house a home. I propose that we look at objects within the context of ordinary interactions that make humans recognizable to each other. That is how food objects contribute to the formation of social identity" (29). Unfortunately, Frantzen never crafts a satisfactory definition of what kind of identity he has in mind. While he thankfully does not settle in most cases upon the discourse of ethnicity to explain these trends, he likewise does not hint at potential gender or status readings of these artifacts. Objects like a bone spoon with a leaf pattern on the handle (32) may have shaped their users' identity, just as the reverse is true. Yet it is not entirely clear from this book how social identity was derived from querns, cooking pots, and drinking vessels, or how Frantzen thinks that this identity was internalized, communicated, and read by contemporaries. If, in all likelihood, it is impossible for us at more than a millennium's remove to determine the answer to these questions, than what nuances might they nonetheless bring to our studies of the period? Frantzen does not offer as much guidance as readers might deem desirable.

In this work, Frantzen brings his magisterial command of literary evidence to bear on this project, and reminds his readers of some important features of the early medieval period that are often forgotten due to our traditional focus on the feasting hall and monastic refectory at the top of the social pyramid. First, in studying the Anglo-Saxon period, Frantzen argues that elite estates were not isolated but rather part of a complex network of suppliers and producers. Second, he reiterates that drinking vessels may have been the showiest objects on display in the mead hall but knives and spoons were far more plentiful feasting implements. In some chapters, however, Frantzen defers too much to the archaeologists who have debated these topics and does not advocate for a particular interpretation. This leaves the reader with the task of sorting out whose argument is more convincing in the absence of their data.

In chapter three, on food words in Old English, Frantzen comes into his own to a greater extent. He actively discusses the nature of the fairly scant evidence, suggesting reasons for the emphases in the surviving evidence and noting the lacunae. He convincingly argues for the evidence of a food pyramid here as well, though some of our sources such as the Monasteriales Indicia give attention to food culture at the daily table rather than exclusively the feast.

In the fourth chapter, Frantzen addresses evidence of quernstones. These hand-mills for grinding grains, present in nearly all settlements, were likely imported from the continent in large numbers from the Roman period until the tenth century. They reached English shores in an unfinished state, and were prepared for use in England. After the tenth century, there is more evidence for domestic production of querns, which were finally banned in England in the twelfth century with the success of more efficient water-mills. In discussing these ponderous artifacts, which mostly survive in fragments, Frantzen fluidly moves between their practical role in providing ballast for elite goods such as pottery and glass and their symbolic associations with biblical imagery. Nor does he neglect their association with numbingly repetitive work, that of grinding grain, one of the unavoidable burdens of daily life in Old English households necessary to produce bread.

In chapter five, Frantzen moves to a discussion of ceramics in an Anglo-Saxon context, starting with hand-built pieces in the post-Roman period, and moving to slow-wheel production in the Middle Saxon period and wheel-thrown pots on a faster wheel starting in the eighth and ninth centuries. He contests the standard narrative of progress in these transitions, suggesting that there was considerable overlap in styles between these broad periods. In offering an explanation of this phenomenon, he identifies a certain traditionalism related to food production and consumption that caused communities to resist more efficient styles in favor of those that constituted an age-old part of their habitus. Frantzen thus suggests that we should mainly associate the influx of new ceramic forms with the activity of burgeoning emporia like Ipswich and Hamwic; however he argues that it was primarily foreign traders, such as those from Frisia, who employed such objects, preferring familiar vessels to those made locally in England. I read Frantzen's attribution of this conservatism in material culture to attachment to "cultural heritage" as ethnic identity, and I wonder why he is so confident in archaeologists' claims to be able to separate local from immigrant consumers of "foreign" ceramic goods (125). It would seem that this argument is largely negated by the fact that, as he acknowledges, imported forms were often used side by side with local wares.

In his sixth chapter, Frantzen turns to metal cooking wares which, unlike ceramics, could be easily repaired or melted to create entirely new objects. Interestingly, however, he characterizes metalwork as less able to register identity because of the mutable nature of this medium. This approach belies a long tradition in which metalwork, especially brooches, buckles, and weapons, has been understood as key in the creation of what have commonly been considered, right or wrong, markers of ethnic identity. One must give credit to Frantzen here for skipping more aesthetically pleasing iron and bronze remains and focusing on less frequently studied cooking implements such as iron cooking pots, suspension chains and pot hooks, spoons, skewers, flesh-hooks and knives, and their role in daily life in the Anglo-Saxon period.

In chapter seven, Frantzen engages with the limited number of extant cooking and food consumption objects made of wood, including spoons, cups, bowls, lids, troughs for kneading dough, baskets, and butter churns, nearly all of which have been rescued from waterlogged and anaerobic soil conditions at archaeological sites in York. His discussion of the possibilities offered by these artifacts for early medieval food culture is fascinating and includes attention to both the production and use of organic objects, which must have been used widely but rarely survive soil conditions at most Old English sites.

In the final chapters of the book, Frantzen returns to concerns with food purity and the role of "food officers," whose duties are described in early medieval ecclesiastical, monastic, and secular texts in England (178). He treads familiar territory on the role of food in penitential handbooks, especially the one attributed to Theodore of Canterbury, its Old English successors that borrowed much of this language relatively intact, and the Anglo-Saxon law codes that applied penalties to those who committed crimes during feasts, worked on Sundays, or violated fasting provisions. Contra Robin Fleming, Frantzen argues that secular rules in particular were signs of social mobility rather than provisions meant to control populations, although it is unclear why one must preclude the other (213). Perhaps most significantly, Frantzen challenges assumed links between fish and a fasting diet, demonstrating that freshwater and saltwater fish was considered a delicacy and not part of an ascetic diet (244).

We are left at the book's close with Frantzen's thoughts on the relative conservatism in the use of "simple food objects," which evolved far less than textual tradition in a contemporary period. While the reader will walk away from this book with a better sense of the networks that affected the production, consumption, and perception of day-to-day encounters with food in Anglo-Saxon England, one is left wondering how much closer we are to the ordinary individuals who owned and used these objects.



1. On the relevance of archaeological and anthropological remains for Anglo-Saxonists, see: Robin Fleming, "Bones for Historians: Putting the Body Back into Biography," in Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow, eds. David Bates, Julia Crick, and Sarah Hamilton (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006), 29-48.

2. More generally, on the disciplinary constraints that separate contemporary history from the past, and privilege written sources over material ones, see: Andrew Shryock, Daniel Lord Smail, and Timothy Earle, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

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