Early Arthurian Britain – Food and Housing

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Agriculture remained the basis of the British economy throughout the Dark Ages and beyond. Roman influence greatly improved farming methods. By the fifth century, agriculture was a mixture of pastoral and arable. The Romans had introduced cabbages, peas, carrots, turnips, parsnips, leeks, plums, cherries, vines, walnuts, sweet chestnuts, and apples. Spelt, a hardy wheat, had been the staple crop. Rye, wheat, barley, oats and flax were added.

Beekeeping was practiced to produce honey for the fermented honey-wine, mead, as well as for sweetening. Cervisa, a Celtic beer, was common, and it is possible that a distilled grain drink called uisge beatha in Gaelic, meaning “water of life,” may have been produced that early. Cattle, horses, pigs, dogs, goats, sheep and oxen were raised. The Romans observed early in their occupation that the Britons kept chickens, geese and hares for amusement instead of food, but it is likely that by the early Age of Arthur, they were used for sustenance. Other foods included bread, hazlenuts, butter, eggs, cheese, milk, whey, and buttermilk.

Fishing produced shellfish, including oysters and limpets. Hunting, popular as sport as much as to keep tables filled, produced wolves, foxes, boars, deer, and even bears. Dogs were raised for hunting purposes.

Housing

Early houses of Britain’s Celtic people were usually round. They were built of timber beams, with walls of daub and wattle (a plaster-like mixture of clay, soil, straw and dung). The floor was packed earth. The roof was of thatch, conically shaped with a small hole in the top to let out smoke. A hearth was dug into the center of the floor. A fire would have been kept going at all times, and a cauldron suspended over it for cooking and heating water. A dome-shaped oven made of clay was used for baking. Storage pits were sunk into the floor and sometimes lined with baskets of willow. Beds were constructed from an oak frame and woven hazel, a mattress of hay or feathers, then blankets of wool or skins and pillows of sheepskin. The lime-washed walls were often decorated with painted designs. Drinking horns of cattle horn, looms for weaving, pots of clay, grinding stones (querns) for grinding grains, floor coverings of skins, and dishes of wood, metal or pottery would also be found in such a house.

In a settlement, often in a hillfort, a great hall or feasting hall was a central feature. Built in the same manner as houses, it was rectangular in shape instead of round. It also had a central fire pit like a house, only bigger. At the ends, cubicles were draped or screened off for privacy.

With the Roman occupation, villas were built extensively throughout the south and in some distribution along the eastern side of what is now England. Villas were actually farmhouses, usually rectangular with several separate rooms. Some were built around a central courtyard. Verandas were popular, but were often later replaced with corridors. Wealthier villa owners built hypocausts beneath the buildings for heating — an open basement through which hot air was directed from a furnace. They also had baths and even temples on the grounds.

The influence of Roman-style buildings made its mark on the earlier Celtic houses in the south. However, after the occupation ended, the villas were abandoned and the Celtic style house returned to some degree. In the more northerly reaches of Britain, where villas had not been built, the round house and great hall were a constant. Small and easy to build, they were also easy to rebuild after an attack.