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Food as a Marker of Status
Although a number of factors impact the types of foods individuals consume (environment, availability, access and nutrition), in hierarchical societies, such as early medieval Ireland, diet is also influenced by a person’s relative social status.
The designation of certain goods as ‘luxury’ items associated with the nobility was made manifest in a number of literary sources.
The image of the Suidigud Tigi Midchúarda, ‘the seating of the house of the mead-circuit’, which survives in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster, expertly illustrates this principle.
In this depiction, members of the king’s household are carefully positioned around a banqueting hall, and both their proximate position to the king as well as the portion and quality of meat they were afforded were based on their grade and status.
The archaeozoologist, Finbar McCormick, has shown that the higher up on a cow’s back (i.e. the closer to the head) the meat was, the greater status it was afforded; the king received the tenderloin and the queen a rump steak, while the royal doorkeepers received the coccyx.
This division of food based on personal grade and status can also be found in a mythical dish entitled the ‘caldron of restitution’ (caire aisic), which appears in two twelfth-century Irish tales. In Fled Dúin na nGéd, 'The banquet of Dun na n-Gedh', individuals placed their forks into the caldron and pulled out a meal that was ‘sufficient for the company according to their grade and rank’.
A.T. Lucas, in his seminal work, ‘Irish food before the potato’, asserted that ‘from prehistoric times to the close of the seventeenth century, corn and milk were the mainstay of the national food’.
The otherwise excellent study denied meat any significant role in the diet of all socio-economic levels.
More recently, Fergus Kelly’s exhaustive Early Irish Farming included both cereals and meats as the cornerstones of the medieval diet; importantly, however, he also argued for a potentially balanced diet, depending on seasonal and regional availability of nutritious fruits and vegetables.
Recent archaeological and historical analyses have added to this growing dietary discussion by offering evidence for extensive fishing, fowling and gathering in early medieval Ireland.
Hospitality was a vital cultural institution in early medieval Ireland, for which every free law-abiding individual, ‘regardless of his rank or profession’ (according to Catherine O'Sullivan), was eligible.
One twelfth-century text, Aislinge Meic Conglinne, 'The vision of Mac Conglinne', is a story centred around the consequences of refusing to provide hospitality to a stranger. In order to drive the demon of gluttony out of a Munster king, one memorable dream-sequence envisages the world as if it was made of food:
'The fort we reached was beautiful,
With works of custards thick,
Beyond the loch.
Now butter was the bridge in front,
The rubble dyke was wheaten white,
Bacon the palisade.
Stately, pleasantly it sat,
A compact house and strong.
Then I went in:
The door of it was dry meat,
The threshold was bare bread,
Cheese-curds the side'
Kuno Meyer (ed. and trans.), Aislinge Meic Conglinne: A Middle-Irish wonder tale (London, 1892), p. 36
Can I Have Some More Please?
Your portion depended on your grade and status; nobles were generally allotted the quality parts of an animal, while commoners often received the remainders. Thus, the nourishment of guests reinforced the social hierarchy through these dietary entitlements.
Did you know? Butter was both a luxury item and a necessary nutritional additive in early medieval Ireland. One ninth-century text notes that penitents on a strict bread and water diet kept dying as a result of malnutrition. The saints of Ireland then began to pray for divine intervention, according to the text, and an angel of the Lord appeared and said:
Mix some meal with their butter to make gruel, so that the penitents should not perish upon their hands, because the water and bread did not suffice to support them."Edward Gwynn and W.J. Purton, 'The Monastery of Tallaght' in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. 19 (1911-12), sect. C, pp 115-79: 157-8, §73.
Historical and archaeological evidence has shown that barley and oats were the most popular grains cultivated in early medieval Ireland and generally, loaves were made from them.
Field of barley in Co. Donegal
Wheat and rye require especially rich soil in which to grow and were, as a result, considered luxuries.
These two grains, barley and oats, lack gluten, a necessary leavening agent, so these loaves would have been quite dense.
The eighth-century Irish law tract Bretha Crólige, 'judgments of blood-letting', is one of the only sources which described the food entitlements of sick women in early medieval Ireland. A woman on sick-maintenance was entitled to half the food (lethbíathad) to which her husband was entitled. A concubine, however, could only claim one-third or one-quarter of his food; no mention is made of any compositional differences.
One reference, in the ninth-century ‘Prose Rule of the Céli Dé’, required nuns who were menstruating to be given brochan (v.l. brothchán), a dish often reserved for invalids, made by heating milk with oatmeal and herbs.
Relaxations of, and exceptions to, the normal fare were also acknowledged as appropriate during pregnancy. At this time a woman required additional vitamins and nutrients, and this need was recognised in early Irish society.
The vernacular ninth-century hagiographical text Bethu Phátraic, 'Life of Patrick', documented one pregnant woman’s quest for chives, while another legal tract verified that the smell of malt could trigger a pregnant woman’s desire for beer.
Bronagh Ní Chonaill has argued that another reason the lawyers may have justified a fine for withholding food from a pregnant woman because a husband or partner might have withheld the food with the ‘intention of initiating a miscarriage’ for an unwanted child.
Evidence for the types of foods appropriate for children survives in abundance in the legal sources, which detailed the responsibilities of a foster-parent.
Fosterage was an institution in early medieval Ireland through which a parent gave his child, generally at the age of seven or possibly even at infancy, to another individual to be raised in the proper manner, according to the status of the father.
According to Bretha Crólige, all children in fosterage were given the ‘soft fare of fosterage’ (maotbiad altruma), explained by a later glossator as ‘the yoke of eggs, butter, curds and [porridge]’ (.i. in buidecan 7 im 7 maotla 7 lictiu).
Children of nobles were entitled to add fresh butter to their dishes, the children of kings were allowed honey and the children of commoners were only entitled to have ‘salted butter’ (gruiten) added to their meal.
Early medieval Ireland was a difficult time with a number of plagues, animal murrains and famines that swept throughout the entire country. Sometimes famines were so bad that families were forced to sell their children into slavery in order to pay for food. The Annals of Ulster, for example, recorded a
Great and intolerable famine in Ireland, so that the father was wont to sell his son and daughter for food."Annals of Ulster, s.a. 975.
Sometimes food shortages were so great that it continued for years. In these lean years, people not only sold children, but sometimes resorted to cannibalism:
Great famine in the spring so that a man would sell his son and his daughter for food and men would even eat one another, and dogs. All Laigin [Leinster] was almost emptied, and scattered throughout Ireland on account of the famine."
Chronicon Scotorum, s.a. 1116.
Daniel Binchy, ‘Bretha Crólige’, in Ériu, vol. 12 (1938), pp 1-77.
Anton Ervynck, Wim Van Neer, Heide Hüster-Plogmann and Jörg Schiber, ‘Beyond Affluence: The Zooarchaeology of Luxury’ in World Archaeology, 34, no. 3, Luxury Foods (2003), pp 428-41.
Fergus Kelly, Early Irish farming (Dublin, 1997).
Ruth Lehmann, Fled Dúin na nGéd (Dublin, 1964).
A.T. Lucas, ‘Irish food before the potato’ in Gwerin, 3, no. 2 (1960), pp 8-43.
Finbar McCormick, Thomas Kerr, Meriel McClatchie and Aidan O’Sullivan, ‘The archaeology of livestock and cereal production in early medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100’, Early Medieval Archaeology Project, Report 5.1 (December, 2011).
Michael Monk, John Tierney and Martha Hannon, ‘Archaeobotanical studies in early medieval Munster’ in Michael Monk and John Sheehan’s (eds), Early medieval Munster: archaeology, history and society (Cork, 1998), 65-75.
Kathleen Mulchrone, Bethu Phátraic: the tripartite Life of Patrick (Dublin, 1939).
Bronagh Ní Chonaill, ‘Child-centred law in medieval Ireland’ in R. Davis and T. Dunne (eds), The empty throne: childhood and the crisis of modernity (Cambridge, in press).
John O’Donovan, ‘Prose Rule of the Céli Dé’ in William Reeves, The Culdees of the British Islands, as they appear in history: with an appendix of evidences (Dublin, 1864; repr. Somerset, 1994), pp 84-97.
John O’Donovan, The banquet of Dun na n-Gedh and the battle of Magh Rath: an ancient historical tale (Dublin, 1842).
Seamus Ó hInnse, ‘Fosterage in early medieval Ireland’ (unpublished PhD thesis, N.U.I. University College Dublin, 1943).
Catherine O’Sullivan, Hospitality in medieval Ireland, 900-1500 (Dublin, 2004).
Whitley Stokes, ‘Scél na Fir Flatha Echtra Cormaic i Tir Tairngiri ocus Ceart Claidib Cormaic ‘, in Irische Texte: Mit Übersetzungen und Wörterbuch (Leipzig, 1891), pp 183-299.
At important feasts a person's status determined the part of the animal they were entitled to eat.