Sunday, 24 August 2014

Diet fit for a king

The fascination of the whole Richard III find is that here you have a skeleton who belongs to a known individual – with a(n) (in)fame. Nobody would have been interested for Tutankhamen, if he had not come with a treasure, since he was just an almost disappeared footnote in the history. Richard III is something else. With the story of the princes in the Tower, Shakespeare’s lines and Josephine Tey’s detective story, there is an individual all English have heard about and the foreigners have an inkling of.

Richard III (National Portrait Gallery)

Now the team from the British Geological Survey in collaboration with the University of Leicester team have studied the bone chemistry of Richard III’s bones and found out that – he ate like a king. Not really the greatest surprise on the planet, but the foods he ate reflect the times he lived in. Different levels of isotopes, such as oxygen, strontium, nitrogen and carbon, revealed that he ate high protein diet that had changed remarkably after he became king in 1483. The news is not without historical data, since the results of scientific test have been compared to the documents, such as the menu of his coronation banquet.

The oxygen isotopes actually suggested that Richard III had lived in the fartherst south-west of England, an area were London is not known to be located. Different stable isotope markers fitted that area best. The researchers started to wonder if the discrepancy originated from the fact that he was not drinking water, the source of oxygen. The researchers concluded that the king was downing up to a litre of wine every day. The fact that was the main ‘meat’ in the popular news stories in the papers. Instead the real news is that the different drinks and foods skew the interpretation of isotope data. Would a continued San Pellegrino habit result with an interpretation that the person lived in Italy?

However, the fact that fish and wildfowl were not considered meat is fascinating. During the times when religious observances required fasting – up to a third of the year – the [higher status] people had come up with a way to have some whiter meats on the table. Keeping a king in fish, species such as pike were cultivated in fish tanks – a landscape feature in places such as Braybrooke Castle in Northamptonshire where breeding tanks are part of the earthworks among the buried remains of the Medieval moated manor house. The fowl included heron and egret, not widely eaten today. Richard’s coronation dinner included also rarer delicacies, such as peacock. Naturally, the royal swan was regularly on table as well.

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