Trading in butter?

You just never really know when you are going to find something unexpected. I’ve known for a long time that early medieval Ireland had a heavily cattle based economy, really a dairy based economy. Most of this product would be used for local consumption,  as a primary source of both calories and protein. During my research for Kalamazoo this past spring, there were many things I learned that were along the lines of what I expected.

The Irish recognized several forms of milk and milk products. Law codes and other sources mention whole milk, skim milk, buttermilk, cream, curds and whey, and nine different kinds of cheese (graded based on their chewiness!). Butter was a special food for the elite and eaten both fresh and salted. Out of these products, I would have expected cheese to be a primary foodstuff and a trading product. Afterall, cheese is the most durable dairy product. Yet, I really couldn’t find evidence for trade in Irish cheese.

Butter! Butter is the only dairy trading product mentioned. Why butter? Well, real butter doesn’t need refrigeration so it could be transported. Kerr, McCormick and O’Sullivan found a letter between Waldebert and Bobolenus found within the prologue of Jonas’ Life of Columbanus, written in the 640s, that life at Bobbio in northern Italy was so austere that  the monks barely have enough Irish butter (‘ex Hibernia…butyrum’) to get by compared to the luxury Mediterranean goods at other monasteries. They view this as indicating that Irish butter was cheap and plentiful as far away as Italy. They note that in the 19th century, Irish butter was traded across the Atlantic without refrigeration so that it would have been possible. Ok, so we have Irish butter kings… (sounds odd) but never the less, still why butter rather than cheese? Perhaps since cheese is more durable, making butter was something only done where there really is a lot of excess milk, not often done in most areas with fewer cattle. Kerr, McCormick and O’Sullivan calculate that an average productive medieval cow could produce about one pound of butter per day easily producing enough for trade and local consumption. That being said, Irish cattle management was not very advanced; many of their cattle would not have been productive. Cattle in Ireland at the time didn’t calf until age 4 and a calf had to be kept with them to keep them milking. There is little evidence of butchering calves or yearlings.

So for all the novelists out there, feel free to spread the butter around. Only put it on bread for elites though, because the poor didn’t have much bread at all. They ate mostly gruel or porridge made from barley or oats (essentially oatmeal). I imagine they cooked with a lot of milk, cream or butter for added nutrition and flavored with salt and honey. They could also add some meat (mostly pork) and vegetables including peas or  beans. I imagine ham and beans could have been on the menu occasionally.

(Another cattle based trade product was leather. Not just as raw leather hides but shoes are specifically mentioned in trade accounts. Irish ships arrived on the continent with clothing and shoes for trade.)



McCormick, F. (2008). The decline of the cow: agricultural and settlement change in early medieval Ireland. Peritia, 20(-1), 209–224.

Kerr, T., McCormick, F., & O’Sullivan, A. (2013). The Economy of Early Medieval Ireland. (pp. 1–103). Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research (INSTAR) program 2013. (open access)

McCormick, F., Kerr, T. R., McClatchie, M., & O’Sullivan, A. (2011). The Archaeology of Livestock and Cereal Production in Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100 (pp. 1–813). Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP2). (open access)

Ireland’s First Easter Vigil

This is one of my favorite posts from the Heavenfield archive:

From Muirchu’s Life of Patrick:

“And on the very night that St Patrick was celebrating the Passover, they were partaking of the worship of their great pagan festival. Now there was a custom among the pagans — made clear to all by edict — that it would be death for anyone, wherever they were, to light a fire on the night before the fire was lit in the house of the king (ie the palace of Tara). So when St Patrick celebrating the Passover lit the great bright and blessed divine fire, it shone clearly and was seen by nearly everyone living on the plain of Tara. And those who saw it viewed it with great wonder. All the elders and nobles of the nation were called in the king’s presence and he spoke to them. ‘Who is this man who has dared to commit such a crime in my kingdom? Let him perish by death!” And the answer from those around him was that they did not know. Then the wise men answered: “‘O king, life forever!” This fire, which we see lit this night before the fire of your own house, must be quenched this night. Indeed, if it should not be put out tonight, it will never be extinguished! You should know that it will keep rising up and will supplant all the fires of our own religion. This one who lit it, and the kingdom he bringing upon us this night, will overcome us all — both you and us– by leading away everyone in your kingdom. All the kingdoms will fall down before it, and it will fill the whole country and it ‘shall reign forever and ever.'”

[The king and men confront Patrick to try to kill him but he and his followers escape. The king sees only 8 deer and one fawn in the darkness...]

“The next day, which [for us] was the Day of the Passover [Easter Day], was for the pagans the day of their greatest festival…. While they were eating and drinking in the place of Tara,…Patrick with only five companions appeared among them, having come through ‘closed doors’ in the way we read about Christ. He went there to proclaim and demonstrate the holy faith in Tara in the presence of all nations.” (Davies and O’Loughlin trans, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist press, 1999, p. 99-100, 102)

Theology as narrative at its best. As Thomas O’Loughlin describes it in his Celtic Theology (2000, p. 107):

“Muirchu had a few uncertain traditions about Patrick, but he had one theological certainty: the changing of people from being not-the-people-of-God to being part of Christ was the drama of the Paschal Mystery; the Paschal Mystery was entered through the drama of the liturgy, so the story of his people was the story of Easter Night. From his perspective as theologian/churchman could he have provided a more fitting origin story — a people reborn in the great event of Christian rebirth– for his people’s faith?”

Muirchu never calls Patrick’s fire a bonfire that is our assumption. The divine fire that Patrick lights represents the Paschal candle lit during the Easter vigil symbolizing the light of Christ in the world. Just as Muirchu claims that every fire in the kingdom was to be lit from the king’s pagan fire, every candle used during the easter vigil is lit from the paschal candle. Muirchu wrote for and was read by primarily monastics who would have immediately recognized this divine light as the paschal candle that they light every Easter Vigil. This candle is known to go back to at least the time of Jerome in the 4th century. Paschal means passover, and Muirchu calls Patrick’s Easter Vigil his celebration of Passover. In early medieval literature, including the Historia Brittonum, Patrick is consistently linked with Moses.

Muirchu says that Patrick went to Tara to speak to all the nations this is because the King of Tara was the High King of Ireland and representatives from most of the kingdoms of Ireland would have been present for the greatest pagan festival of the year.

Have a blessed Easter Sunday!


The Death of King Diarmait

I’ve been browsing through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for you know what, plague, and I came across an interesting entry.

665 Kl. The death by plague of the son of Áed Sláine, i.e. Blathmac [...], i.e. in Calatruim. Diarmait died in the same place, standing, stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him. His soul departed from him. It is found in some books that these two kings, Blathmac and Diarmait, reigned twelve years. In others, however, … years, which we follow. These two kings of Ireland, then, Blathmac and Diarmait, died in that plague, i.e. the Buide Conaill. (FA 28)

The Annals of Ulster has a king Diarmait son of Aed Slaine and a king Blathmac who died of plague. There is nothing about being “stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him.” I don’t think that I’ve seen anything quite like this before. This would seem to have a Leinster (Laigin) connection, like some of the other hints in plague lore like the name Buide Conaill itself (Conaill being the dynastic founder of the Leinster). Has anyone seen anything like this before?