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Sabine Karg (ed.). Medieval food traditions in Northern Europe.

SABINE KARG (ed.). Medieval food traditions in Northern Europe (Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology and History 12). 230 pages, 63 b&w & colour illustrations, 45 tables. 2007. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark; 978-87-7602-065-1 hardback DKK300.

The scope of this volume is narrower than its title suggests, but it is nonetheless an important collaborative advance, containing the first fruits of the HANSA Network Project, established in 2001 by a group of archaeobotanists. Focused on countries and urban centres with links to Hanseatic trade (although it excludes those in England, Flanders and Russia) between AD 1160 and 1650, it has brought together extensive work with botanical remains with a view to discerning common points of reference across the region. The contributions take a standard form, with seven chapters principally on food consumption in the Hanseatic towns of northern Germany, northern Poland, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, concluding with a brief chapter synthesising results. The book concentrates on some 175 plants, from 156 species, largely food plants, both cultivated and wild, as well as some arable weeds and a few ornamental plants or plants with industrial use. One of the achievements is a common pattern of recording, underpinned by linguistic work (word-lists for plants in English, Latin and the seven languages of the participants are included): the volume itself is in English, with an extensive and welcome bibliography principally of site reports from each of the countries.


The chapters set out the results from excavations, mainly from urban sites, and within those primarily from waterlogged material or from latrines, along with carbonised remains of cereals. The ambition is not only to establish which plants were cultivated and which collected from the wild, but also to trace imports and trade. As with all archaeological material, there are paradoxes and biases in preservation and excavation. The consumption of many legumes and vegetables before seed is produced means that there are now few remains from plants that were commonly eaten; there are also difficulties with identification and it is hard or impossible to distinguish between the wild and cultivated forms of some plants from their seeds. Written sources are considered: a wider range of botanical material is sometimes recorded than appears in the archaeology, especially with herbs and spices listed in elite domestic accounts; on the other hand, botanical material provides greater variety than documents would lead one to believe, again with herbs and greens.

There are fascinating conclusions to be drawn from this study. The Hanse were principally German traders, an elite in an urban environment. Contrasts can be found with other urban groups, for example, between the Deutsch and Undeutsch in the German colonial towns of Livonia, now Estonia and Latvia. There are also distinctions from rural settlements, although there is a paucity of botanical material from these sites. Links to status are apparent in the connection of some plant foods, especially spices, to the elite food culture of Europe. Across the region, a small group of cereals was cultivated: barley and rye were the most important grains, but with a broader range in northern Germany and northern Poland. Bread wheat was a much less common find: the granaries of Gdansk are exceptional in their data here. But one must not assume these are local crops: in some areas, like the western coast of Norway, very little corn was grown. Weeds in cereal finds from Bergen show that the crop almost certainly originated in eastern England. In central Sweden there is evidence that flat barley bread was replaced during the Hanseatic period by leavened bread made from rye. In many of the Nordic towns there is convincing evidence for the consumption of large quantities of wild fruit, berries and nuts, probably exceeding the amounts drawn from cultivated varieties. Plants, such as hemp, grown for industrial use in some places, may have been used as foodstuffs in others, with the seeds used in a mash. The range of plants added to drink is also discussed, with a transition to hopped beer, displacing in some areas beer flavoured with sweet gale (Myrica gale L.). It is also argued that monastic foundations had an important role in increasing the range of plants that were cultivated.

This volume has much to offer to the archaeobotanist and to the study of diet more generally. Plant foods were the major element of diet for most people in Hanseatic Europe, yet they are among the most difficult to trace in both the archaeological and the historical record. This volume is therefore especially valuable for its survey of these elusive materials.


University of Southampton, UK

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Author:Woolgar, C.M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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