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Horsemeat linked to Paganism

A paper published by the Oxford Journal of Archaeology suggests why horsemeat is so unpopular in England
Yiyi Dong on Friday 1st March 2013
Photograph: Ele Grieveson

A recent paper published in Oxford Journal of Archaeology suggests that Britain’s aversion to horsemeat may have originated almost 1500 years ago from the diffusion of Christianity.

Dr Kristopher Poole of Nottingham University led the research which involved studying dated records of animal bones in England to try and understand the diet of Anglo-Saxons. He found substantial evidence of humans eating horsemeat during the early era when the German tribe first settled in Britain. On one-third of the sites investigated, butchered horse bones and heads were discovered instead of intact horse carcasses.

Horsemeat consumption among Anglo-Saxons reduced steadily between the sixth and eighth centuries as Christianity gradually gained more followers than paganism in England. From the eighth century, when Christianity dominated Britain, the English rarely consumed horsemeat due to its associations to Paganism and its condemnation by the church.

Dr Poole writes in his paper, “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.”

Professor Helena Hamerow from Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology and a leading expert in early Anglo-Saxon England communities, explained the significance of the research, “This is an important paper that shows how far back in history the aversion to eating horses seems to go amongst the English.”

She added, “In Anglo-Saxon England, it appears from Poole's study that the aristocracies were the first to abandon eating horse, presumably because they were the first group to espouse the new religion.”

However, in other Christian-dominant European countries, including France and Germany, consuming horsemeat is fairly common practice. When asked to explain the popularity of eating horse meat in these countries, Hamerow told Cherwell, “It appears from written sources that the early medieval Church tried to put a stop to the practice of consuming horsemeat in France and Germany too.”

“Without studying the animal bones from settlements in these countries,  it is hard to know what impact the Church's disapproval had on the behaviour of ordinary people.”

Kyle Wehner, an English student at Magdalen, shared his thoughts on the recent horse meat controversy, “I think the extent of the aversion so many people have to the idea of eating horse meat stems from the human race’s intrinsic relationship with horses. There’s a connection there that we don’t have with other animals. It makes the notion of eating horseflesh that much more repugnant.”

When asked whether he would give the ‘pagan’ meat a try, Wehner answered, “I’ll stick with a salad.”

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