The Norman Conquest didnt change ordinary peoples lives very much

By unknown seamsters, Public Domain,

When William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, he became King of England in 1066. This changed the political landscape of Europe and the course of world history. For the English aristocracy and religious leaders, the world turned upside down as William replaced them with his handpicked Normans. But what was it like for ordinary people in England? A recent study suggests that, for them, not much changed under the new regime.

We usually see the Norman Conquest from the lofty and often perilous view of nobility and clergy. The roughly 2 million (based on a 1086 census) ordinary people who lived through the upheaval left behind no written records to tell us how they felt or what they experienced. To understand what their lives were like during the Norman Conquest and the years of political, economic, and social upheaval in its wake, archaeologists have to turn to other kinds of evidence.

For the new study, Elizabeth Craig-Atkins (University of Sheffield), Richard Madgwick (Cardiff University), and their colleagues cobbled together part of the story from the bones and teeth of medieval Britons, as well as animal remains and microscopic residues left behind in cooking pottery. Together, those lines of evidence revealed what—and how well—people ate in the years on either side of the Norman Conquest. The results suggest that food supplies got a bit scarce during the conquest and the sporadic fighting that followed, but some aspects of life didnt change much in its wake.

“Despite the huge political and economic changes that were happening, our analysis suggests the conquest may have had a limited impact on most peoples diet and health,” said Craig-Atkins.

Kings come and go; cabbage is forever

If you want to know about ancient peoples lives, sometimes its best to go straight to the source. So Craig-Atkins and her colleagues examined bones from 36 people who lived around Oxford in the centuries before and after the Norman Conquest, from 900 to 1300 CE.

Malnutrition sometimes reaches right down to the bone: in children who dont get enough vitamin D over a long period of time, growing bones are weak and bend into abnormal shapes, a condition called rickets. Left untreated, scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency that plagued sailors for centuries, can eventually cause osteoporosis in some places and unusual bone growth in others. Iron deficiency anemia can make the bones around the eye socket porous and fragile.

Of course, diseases of malnutrition dont always leave a signature on their victims skeletons. Bones tend to reveal only the most severe, long-term cases. A bad winter probably wont leave you with bone lesions from scurvy, but a bad several years might. Possibly for this reason, skeletal signs of diseases like scurvy and rickets were rare in people from early medieval Oxford, both before and after 1066. That suggests the general lot of English commoners didnt get much better or much worse after William the Conqueror landed on the British coast, at least from the standpoint of putting food on the table.

That, in turn, means that people probably werent dealing with economic depression, displacement from their homes, or the other social, economic, and political disasters that can make it hard to get enough food. In other words, the common people may have been a lot more secure than English nobles and clergy during the late 11th century.

But many people probably felt a short pinch. Craig-Atkins and her colleagues found evidence for that in the teeth of people who had been young children during the transition to Norman rule. Even a short period of malnutrition or serious illness can disrupt the development of a childs teeth; the layer of enamel that gets laid down during that disruption is thinner than normal, causing whats known as a linear enamel hypoplasia. Its presence suggests some sort-term fluctuations occurred in the English food supply, which apparently improved once things stabilized.

“There is certainly evidence that people experienced periods where food was scarce,” said Craig-Atkins. “But following this, intensification in farming meant people generally had a more steady food supply and consistent diet.”

Bringing home more bacon, less dairy

A closer look—zoomed in to the molecular level—of the medieval skeletons shed some light on those eating habits. For example, nitrogen-15 tends to get passed along from plants to grazers to predators more than the lighter isotope nitrogen-14, so the relative amounts of those two isotopes in a persons bones can suggest how much of their diet came from meat rather than plants.

Stable isotope ratios in the bones of people living in medieval Oxford suggested that peoples diets included meat and vegetables in about the same proportions after the conquest as before it. That means the standard medieval English diet of grains, vegetables like cabbage, and meats like beef and mutton probably didnt change much—either in its content or in the portion sizes in the average trencher. But Craig-Atkins and her colleagues suggest the conquest may have wrought some more subtle changes to Englands agriculture and thus to peoples diets.

Other than bone, theres no more candid glimpse into a persons daily life than their dirty dishes, even a thousand years or more after the fact. Fatty acids preserved in the clay can help archaeologists tell whether a pot contained milk, fermented dairy products, or meat, and whether that food came from sheep, pigs, or cattle. When CraiRead More – Source

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