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Rachel Small

Archaeology, University of Leicester

Thesis title:

Food and drink as social capital in early modern England: a case study from Leicestershire

Archaeological studies of food have generally taken an isolationist approach: they have tended to consider animal and plant remains separately and integration of historical sources has been rare. Furthermore, interpretations have tended to focus on economics or on identifying aspects of identity (most commonly social status). A major omission is that evidence has seldom been interpreted within the ontological framework of humoral theory which was dominant in Europe c. 500 BC to AD 1850.

Humoral theory stated the body comprised four humors (yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm) and these had to be kept in balance to maintain good physical and mental health. One of the main ways to achieve this was through diet; all foods were understood to have a humoral composition and when consumed influenced the individual’s physical and emotional state. 

My research focuses on a primary case study, the diet of the aristocratic Grey family who lived at Bradgate House, Leicestershire c. 1500-1750. Evidence for their diet is sought from analysis of the animal bones and plant remains recovered from archaeological excavations at the house, and analysis of the surviving 17th-century (1678-1681) household account book. This will be compared to humoral advice gathered from contemporary regimens, cookery and husbandry books and archaeological evidence from contemporary sites in the region. Combined, these sources will make it be possible to determine the extent to which humoral theory influenced early modern diet, alongside other factors such as elite identity and religion. 

Research Area

  • Archaeology


Richard Thomas, Matt Law, Emma Browning, Alistair Hill & Rachel Small (2020) The Changing Exploitation of Oysters (Ostrea edulis L. 1758) in Late Medieval and Early Modern England: A Case Study from Dudley Castle, West Midlands. Environmental Archaeology 25: 82-95. DOI: 10.1080/14614103.2018.1563373


  • Upcoming paper at the Leeds Symposium on Food History and Tradition, 24th April 2021, York. http://www.leedsfoodsymposium.org.uk/2018_Symposium.html
  • The University of Sheffield Centre for Early Modern Studies Seminar Series, 28th March 2019 (20-minute paper).
  • The University of Leicester Centre for Historical Archaeology Seminar Series, 3rd December 2018 (45-minute paper).
  • 13th ICAZ International Conference, Ankara, Turkey, 2nd - 7th September 2018 (20-minute paper).
  • Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology Congress, 23rd - 25th March 2018, University of Bristol (20-minute paper).
  • M3C Research Festival, 25th May 2017, University of Leicester (digital story).
  • AEA Spring Conference, 29th April 2017, University of Leicester (poster).
  • Early Modern Forum at Nottingham Trent University, Communities and Society in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, 14th July 2016 (30-minute paper).
  • Oxford Medieval Diet Group meeting 'Medicine and foods', 14th May 2016 (20-minute paper).  
  • M3C Research Festival, 12th May 2016, Nottingham Trent University (poster).
  • University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History Wednesday Research Seminar Series, 16th March 2016 (15-minute paper).
  • Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference, 14th - 16th December 2015, University of Bradford (15-minute paper). 

Public Engagement & Impact

Other Research Interests

  • Zooarchaeology
  • Archaeobotany
  • Dietary studies 


  • Association for Environmental Archaeology, 2018 - present
  • International Council for Archaeozoology, 2018 - present
  • Archaeobotany Working Group, 2016 - present