How a distaste for 'pagan food' first put the British off horsemeat
Catholic guilt first put the British off the idea of eating horses almost 1,500 years ago, archaeologists have concluded.
A new study of the eating habits of the Anglo Saxons suggests that they may have developed a strong distaste for horsemeat because they saw it as a “pagan” food.
The findings, published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, could help explain the level of revulsion at the recent revelations that consumers have been eating horsemeat uwittingly.
Evidence from animal bones found at settlement sites across England shows that horses appear to have been eaten on special occasions in the early Anglo Saxon period.
But as Christianity was gradually reintroduced to Britain between the Sixth and Eighth Centuries the custom became increasingly rare.
Dr Kristopher Poole, of Nottingham University, the author of the study, compared dated records of animal bones in former settlements.
He found that almost a third of the sites from the early part of the period contained evidence of butchered horse bones.
Often the heads were found but not other parts of the animal, suggesting that the meat had been shared out for feasting.
But evidence of horse butchery from the later part of the period is much rarer.
He notes that the decline coincided with a period when Christianity was becoming more firmly established.
In Rome Pope Gregory III condemned the consumption of horse meat as and “filthy and abominable practice”.
Dr Poole says that an earlier “laissez faire approach to horse consumption” evident in writings from the Seventh Century had given way to a more rigid line by the Eighth Century.
One reason for its disappearance, according to Dr Poole, could be that horses were associated with various pagan gods in north-west Europe, leading to them being eaten for religious reasons.
“While many ‘pagan’ beliefs became integrated into Christian practices in England, the possible veneration and eating of horse seems to have been too much of a challenge to Christian perspectives,” he writes.
Prof Helena Hamerow, of Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology, said: “This is an important paper that shows how far back in history the aversion to eating horses seems to go amongst the English.
“Although the custom of eating horseflesh appears to have been widespread in early medieval Northern Europe and early Anglo-Saxons on occasion consumed horse, it disappeared from the diet after the conversion, as church authorities tried to undermine the habit.”
The paper does not attempt to explain how the fashion for eating horsemeat re-emerged in other European countries, notably France.