Commonplace Vol. 3 Issue 5
In which the writer holds forth about reconstruction in medieval food research.
Hello! The interesting year continues. I’m going to ignore that, and amble off to talk about reconstruction in medieval (and earlier) food studies. I do a lot of my historical cookery from two Arabic books, generally called al-Warraq (Kitab al-tabikh, “The Book of Dishes”) and the Kanz (Kanz al-fawāʾid fī tanwīʿ al-mawāʾid, “Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table”), both translated by Nawal Nasrallah with annotations, glossaries, explanations, and essentially all the clarity a cook might desire. The other major part is pre-Norman Irish cookery, for which we have zip, nada, and nothing in terms of written recipes.
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(MidJourney’s idea of an Irish medieval kitchen. Which… isn’t terrible, actually.)
So in the absence of written recipes, I need to engage in what’s (usually) called reconstruction. Terms aren’t all that nailed down in food history yet, mind, and there’s some serious confusion arising out of SCA terms like “redaction”.
A diversion: The historical meaning of redaction was getting something ready for publication, and specifically the combination of texts from several slightly different sources into one. The modern meaning of blanking out bits of text with black bars comes a bit out of left field. But the SCA, for some reason, uses the term to mean “constructing a useful set of instructions from a period recipe”, which is close to but not the same as the historical meaning. And since the SCA is by far the largest experimental archaeology group in the world, the terminology spreads.
Anyway. Redaction in whatever form is irrelevant here, because there are no written recipes. I’m engaging in reconstruction, which I’m roughly defining as “taking non-recipe texts, archaeological findings, and information from other sources, and combining them to determine ingredients, cooking methods, and dishes”.
Some re-enactors are very opposed to reconstruction. I do not understand this thinking; we use reconstruction in almost every other aspect of re-enactment. There are, for example, very few or no clothing patterns for most historical eras; we work from remnants and images. There are very few or no instructions on pottery-making; we work from remnants and images. The same applies to swords, tools, woodwork, tents, and all the other things, so refusing to apply that to food because some few cultures do have recipes seems like madness to me.
So what material do we have, for this pre-Norman Irish food thing? We have a few bits of mostly poetic writing, a good chunk of law texts, some written observations by visitors from abroad, some archaeobotanic and arachaeozoologic remnants (seeds, pollen, bones, shells; mostly in middens), some implements and vessels, some burnt material, some small aspects of food preparation and cooking area layouts from archaeology, and some knowledge of when various foodstuffs came into use in other places, mostly Great Britain and Scandinavia. That actually adds up to quite a lot.
There’s also been some very valuable work done in neighbouring cuisines - the principal work here is An Early Meal - a Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, by Hannah Tunberg & Daniel Serra. Since most (possibly even all) of the larger settlements in pre-Norman Ireland were Norse, this is not so much neighbouring as overlaid, and indeed, given that many of the archaeobotanic investigations were in those settlements, some of my data may be biased toward Norse culinary culture. I do have data from monastic settlements as well, though, which were pretty definitively non-Norse.
The law texts are an interesting bit here. The book I’m mostly drawing from is Fergus Kelly’s Early Irish Farming, an excellent work which picks through many medieval Irish law texts for information about agriculture, apiculture, and other food producing practices. It is a book very much worth reading, if you are interested in such matters. Kelly is actually a law historian, not a food historian at all.
The principal texts which he uses are the 7th century Críth Gablach, which deals with rank and privilege, the 8th century Bretha Comaithchesa, which deals with judgements concerning neighbours and trespass, and the Cáin Aicille, the law of clientship and patronage, also from the 8th century. It is worth bearing in mind here that these texts are primarily lists of precedent and accounts of judgements, rather than laws which were set forth in principle. So there’s a degree to which - despite the downright weirdness of, say, laws for the trespass of bees - they are descriptive rather the prescriptive.
Annoyingly, we know the name of a law text concerning the sea and fishing - Muirbretha - but the actual text is lost. References from elsewhere make it clear that salmon, trout, and eels were eaten, but that’s almost all the information that’s available. Given the later Irish antipathy toward seafood, and its association with fast days and poverty, this is a particularly galling gap in the information.
There’s all sorts of information from these texts, some more detailed than others. The comparative value of grain, for example, was a matter which which the law was very much concerned, and so the 8th century Bretha Déin Chécht gives this order of precedence in descending order: bread-wheat, rye, spelt-wheat, two-row barley, emmer wheat, six-row barley, and oats. Several of the terms used in the list are words whose finer distinctions have been lost - so two-row and six-row are guesses, and the identity of rúadán (roo-ah-dawn, emmer wheat in this list) has been extensively debated. The one thing it is definitely not (but which some people have proposed) is buckwheat, because that wasn’t introduced to Europe until the 13th century, and isn’t a grain.
Similarly, there are translation issues with other texts. There are references to ríglus , tarblus, and aithlechlus, translated approximately as “king’s herb”, “bull’s herb” (that is, for the cattle-owning people), and “plebian herb” - but we have no idea what plants they actually were.
Achaeozoology can tell us a little about preparation as well as what was eaten, and tell us some things that the texts cannot - the age at which animals were slaughtered, for instance. Remains from the Moynagh crannóg in Co. Meath indicate that most cattle were under three years old. Similarly, holes in sheep bones - the scapula in particular - found in excavations indicate that the meat was hung, presumably for curing in some way. It is difficult, particularly in archaic breeds, to tell sheep bones from goat bones, so it’s pretty likely that goat was eaten in the same way. Pork was even more frequently hung for curing, as evidenced by holes in pig bones.
There is definite evidence from 11th century - still primarily Viking - Dublin of plums and walnuts, which were very likely imported. There’s little to no evidence of them elsewhere or in previous periods, although, as often quoted, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
The grain usage from the law texts is generally supported by what’s been found on sites, with the odd addition that rye is considerably more present in ruins and remnants than it was in law. Rye actually grows pretty well in the modern Irish climate, and would likely have done well in the early medieval era too. Grain usage also varies a great deal from site to site, which does make it difficult to draw broad conclusions.
There is also evidence of mustard seed, radishes, hazel nuts, blackberries, sloes and elderberries, none of which except hazel nuts are definitively mentioned in texts as far as I’m aware. Hazels don’t have the same significance here as they did in earlier periods, but they were still an important foodstuff (and coppicing timber).
Some plants we don’t consider as crops at all may have been grown as such in pre-Norman Ireland - Michael Monk lists Goosefoot (a relative of quinoa) and Knotweed as possibilities for this. Seed remains of both have been found in considerable quantities in sites in Drogheda and Dublin, more than would be supported by their presence as weeds.
There’s a fantastically useful paper by Susan Lyons called Food plants, fruits and foreign foodstuffs: the archaeological evidence from urban medieval Ireland, which provides a lot of information on what has been found. Picking through that, I’ve found references to: Wild cabbage, Radish, White mustard, Grape, Wild cherry, Apple, Field pea, Common vetch, Broad/horse bean, Flat pea, Dead nettle/mint, Carrot family, Poppy, Hop, Fig, Water pepper, Sloe/blackthorn, Plum/bullace, Pear/apple, Haw, Raspberry, blackberry, Wild strawberry, Whortleberry/cranberry/bilberry, Wild/cultivated celery, and Garlic/onion/leek.
The reason that a number of those aren’t terribly certain is that it can be very, very hard to tell particular seeds in a close family apart, and it’s mostly seeds that survive. Obviously, with figs and grapes appearing on the list, some of these have been imported - but that still means they’re in the food culture.
Overall, I’ve a fair idea at this stage what was available, food-wise, in the period I’m working on reconstructing. I now want to start working out what methods of cooking were available, both for the elite and for the peasantry. Broadly, you’ve got roasting, baking, frying and boiling, together with cooking-on-hot-stones, which is mostly the same as frying in modern cookery. Roasting takes a lot of firewood, which makes it expensive if you’re in a time and place where that’s limited, but it’s otherwise the easiest to do - you don’t need much equipment. Cooking on hot stones is the next easiest, and probably remains so, albeit it’s very limited in what you can do. Frying requires a less complex vessel than boiling, and once you have a pot with a flat base, you can do nearly everything. Baking requires some form of an oven; this can be a pot placed in coals, or a space heated from within.
So the next step to get on with in the reconstruction project is to see what’s supported in text and archaeology for available methods, hearths, and so forth.
This issue got completed first, but I expect the next issue to be about garden successes and failures, and how this year’s foraging looks. This issue has been brought to you by the passing on of a very elderly cat, the arrival of a young rapscallion of a cat, raspberry jam, and the very first hints of autumn. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.