Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Farming in early medieval Ireland: comparing archaeological and documentary evidence

The previous post provided an overview of archaeological evidence for the types of cereals grown in early medieval Ireland (AD 500–1100). We can also look to documentary sources to find out more about what and how people were farming during this period.

I recently presented a research paper at the 16th meeting of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany in Thessaloniki, Greece. The focus of the paper was archaeological evidence for plant foods in early medieval Ireland, but I also discussed documentary evidence for food choices. A number of colleagues were impressed at the quality of documentary sources from this period in Ireland, particularly one document that lists different types of cereals and explains how they were perceived by society.

Historians such as Prof. Fergus Kelly have drawn our attention to Bretha Déin Chécht, an eighth-century law text that listed cereals in the following order: cruithnecht (bread wheat), secal (rye), suillech (spelt wheat?), ibdach (two-row barley?), rúadán (emmer wheat?), éornae (six-row barley) and corcae (oat) (Kelly 1997, 219). There are question marks attached to a number of cereal types, as their identity is uncertain.

This order represents the relative prestige of each type of cereal, which is correlated with a particular ranking in society. Bread wheat is equated with the rank of a superior king, bishop or chief poet whereas, at the other end of the scale, oat is equated with the commoner.

How does this compare with the archaeological record? A number of studies confirm that oat and barley are the most commonly recorded cereal types from early medieval excavations in Ireland (Monk 1991; McCormick et al. 2011). This probably reflects their lower status in society, as highlighted in Bretha Déin Chécht.

Bread wheat and rye were perceived as being of higher status, and accordingly, they are much rarer in the archaeological record. Cereals in early medieval Ireland were therefore regarded not just as a source of sustenance, but also as cultural symbols that could distinguish social classes (Fredengren et al. 2004).


Fredengren C, McClatchie M, Stuijts I (2004) Reconsidering crannogs in early medieval Ireland: alternative approaches in the investigation of social and agricultural systems. Environmental Archaeology 9(2):161-166

Kelly F (1997) Early Irish farming. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin

McCormick F, Kerr T, McClatchie M, O'Sullivan A (2011) The archaeology of livestock and cereal production in early medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100. UCD School of Archaeology, Dublin

Monk MA (1991) The archaeobotanical evidence for field crop plants in early historic Ireland. In: J Renfrew (ed.), New light on early farming: recent developments in palaeoethnobotany. Edinburgh University Press,
Edinburgh, pp 315-328