Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
“The horse is a noble animal. This opinion is widely shared in Anglo-Saxon countries where it is felt that it is an ignoble action to eat a noble animal, and one which is an intimate friend of man, on the same principle which forbade Alice, in ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ to sink her knife into a leg of mutton to which she had just been formally introduced.” Waverley Root, ‘Esquire’ January, 1974
A noble quote, but it may turn out to be not so true in regards to the Anglo-Saxons. The debate over eating horse meat has increased over the past year when in Winter 2013 it was discovered that a slaughterhouse and meat processing company in Britain were selling horse meat as beef for kebabs and hamburger meat. Ikea pulled their meatballs from thousands of locations after it was determined that their meat may too have been tainted with horse. In the US, there has been debate over whether horse slaughter should be allowed and only one slaughterhouse in the US has petitioned to allow horse meat production. While people are very polarized on the issue, there is a demand for horse and in many countries it is considered a delicacy. A great article from Huffington Post discusses horse consumption and in an attached video shows a test taste of horse jerky. But you’re not here to listen to a debate about eating horse, you’re here for the dead people.
A new article by Poole (2013) examines the relationship between the Anglo-Saxons, horses and the rise of Christianity. Texts from the early medieval period note the importance of horses and a Christian taboo against their consumption. The Church saw the slaughter and consumption of horse as relating to pagan practices and sacrifice to false gods. It is also possible that this taboo stemmed from Roman ideals that horses were meant for use, and that consumption was an act of the barbarian ‘other’. The removal of horses as spiritual beings was an important part of the Christian conversion of England.
Prior to conversion, horses were closely linked to Germanic religious identities and rituals. Tacitus described a pagan Germanic ritual whereby the future was divined through the noises made by a horse. Half horse half man warriors were believed to be part of the Anglo-Saxon elite identity. Horses were also viewed as spiritual guides for the afterlife, which explains the appearance of horse bones in Anglo-Saxon graves and cemeteries. The remains of horses are frequently recovered from cremation burials of both the elite and common. The cremation burials in Mounds 3 and 4 at Sutton Hoo both included pieces of horse bone. Horse burials have been found throughout England, and are thought to be a symbol of elite masculine identity. 31 burials of Anglo-Saxon individuals with complete horses have been recovered throughout Britain, and many are wealthier weapons burials.
However, the importance of the horse and its presence in burials does not necessarily mean that it was consumed either as food or for ritual purpose. Poole (2013) examines the bones of horses found at domestic sites in England for the Anglo-Saxon period. He discovered that horse bones were always present at these types of sites, however they are primarily adults which could indicate natural deaths. A comparison with other animal remains found that horse was the least found animal in comparison with cattle, pig and sheep/goat. A deeper look at the bones themselves revealed that there are indeed butchered horse bones. In the earliest period, 30% of all Anglo-Saxon sites had butchered horse bone, however by the mid-Saxon period this declined to 16%. Further, Poole (2013) argues that documentary evidence does note the consumption of horse, but more in relationship to famine periods and it being a last choice source of protein. On the other hand, butchered horse bones have also been found in ritual deposits meaning that their consumption may have been limited to more important religious functions.
Overall, Poole (2013) argues that horse consumption was limited in the Anglo-Saxon period, though this could have further increased the importance and significance of eating horse for ritual purposes. Both consumption of horse and horse burials decline rapidly in the 7th century with the rise of Christianity. The association of horses with pagan rituals meant that their consumption and worship was taboo as the Church gained more power and followers. While his argument doesn’t clarify whether horse was allowed to be eaten as a normal food source, he does show the strong connection between horses and broader social processes. This is what we need to consider when looking at horse consumption in our own country. It isn’t about the meat, it is about perception of what eating the meat would mean, and about possible religious implications.
Poole, K (2013). HORSES FOR COURSES? RELIGIOUS CHANGE AND DIETARY
SHIFTS IN ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND Oxford Journal of Archaeology DOI: 10.1111/ojoa.12017