The spread of Christiany through Anglo-Saxon England is the reason horses stopped being eaten, researchers claimed today.
As Britain is in the midst of the horsemeat scandal, the researchers from Oxford University say that the meat first became unpopular as it was believed to be 'pagan' food.
'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,' said Professor Helena Hamerow, from Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology.
The finding appears in the latest issue of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, produced by Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology.
It is based on animal bone data from settlement sites in Anglo-Saxon England that shows that although horses were largely available to all, horsemeat was rarely eaten.
‘This is an important paper that shows how far back in history the aversion to eating horses seems to go amongst the English,' said Professor Hamerow.
Christianity was reintroduced to England at the end of the 6th century and for around 200 years pagan and Christian practices co-existed.
However, at the end of the 8th century, a taboo around horsemeat developed due to attempts to standardise Christian beliefs and practices, suggests the paper.
It argues that the Romans had viewed the eating of horse flesh as ‘pagan’ and this view was incorporated into the early teachings of the Catholic Church.
Author of the research paper, Kristopher Poole, who completed his PhD at the University of Nottingham, suggests that horses had religious significance as they featured in pre-Christian religions and were linked with various gods in north-west Europe throughout this time, including Odin and Freyr.
In Anglo-Saxon belief systems, horses were mythical warrior figures, legendary leaders of the invasion of southern England.
These half-man, half-horse figures were believed to be descended from Odin/Woden and claimed to be the ancestors of Anglo-Saxon royal dynasties.
‘Eating horsemeat was rare and this could have made the slaughter and consumption of horses a highly significant act,’ says Poole.
‘Whilst 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.’
By the mid-Saxon period, most of the sites containing butchered horse bones appear to have been inhabited by those lower down the social hierarchy.
Poole suggests this could have been because the less well-off had no choice but to eat horse in times of famine; or it may also have been because this section of society continued to follow pagan practices for longer than other sections of society.