I’ve been reading Kathy Pearson’s “Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet”, which is just full of interesting information. Assessing the livestock available in early medieval northern Europe, Pearson quotes from King Ine’s law code on hide (land) rents. From every 10 hides of land, King Ine demanded “2 full-grown cows or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens”. A wether is a male castrated goat (I had to look it up). That is a lot of goats. Makes me wonder if a wether couldn’t have referred to castrated male sheep as well. At first I had to wonder what the king would do with all these livestock, especially if the male goats/sheep, and poultry were substituted for cows. He can only eat so much and host so many feasts. It’s true that some of these livestock will be redistributed within the kingdom, including to monasteries and standing armies.
Trying to put this into perspective. one of the only contexts we have is the tribal hidage, listed to the right, that dates to about the same century as King Ine who ruled from 688-726. Its function has been argued over for at least a century. Is is a tax sheet, a tribute list, a military roster, or an even more general use? Most scholars seem to believe that its written from the point of view of Mercia (though there isn’t consensus on this either). Regardless it is an assessment of the English lands south of the River Humber.
Some believe that the Wessex assessment is either exaggerated or punitive. At 100,000 hides King Ine would have been collecting 20,000 cows a year (or 100,000 wethers, 100,000 geese, and 200,000 hens!). Ok, so lets assume that the Wessex assessment does not reflect reality.
Lets consider this rental fee applied to a smaller area like Lindsey (Lindes-ferona), assessed at 7000 hides it would owe 1400 cows. Even with redistribution including to monasteries, that is a lot of cows to cope with and come up with from watery Lindsey. With these kinds of numbers, it’s not too hard to see where the hides came for manuscripts. It’s also hard to imagine the industry needed to butcher and process this many animals for meat, leather, bones and sinews, and what would he do with the birds? Of course, the king can export some of the leather and some of the livestock may have been paid to a greater king than himself. Some may have been sold back to the people for other goods. He still has to cope with a lot of meat.
How would this rental fee have been applied. Did it only apply to estates of more than 10 hides? In that case, smaller land holders would be exempt, or charged lesser fees per hide. These also were not all of the rental fee. Pearson notes that King Ina also demanded one cheese per hide (of unmentioned size) and collected butter as a form of rent has well. Cheese and to a lesser extent butter would have been important nutrients and long-term storage for dairy products. Most European rentals were also included eggs, but as these are perishable and delicate, it seems likely that these were paid to the most local officials or monasteries. Pearson notes that cheese and eggs are written about as though they were a primary means of currency for the peasants rather than a regular food stuff. As a side note, cheese and eggs would probably have been women’s products and the types of goods that women would barter for household needs or services.
Pearson suggests that these high rental demands may have allowed the king to store foodstuffs away for times of famine. While this is true for some things like cheese and some crops, I’m not sure that livestock would have been much of a bulwark against famine. The cost of maintaining this much livestock would have been a considerable expense. In times of famine, fodder for cattle would have also been lean. It might have been some insurance for the elites and monasteries who could maintain as much livestock as their estates could hold. I just really can’t see the king sending beef out to hungry peasants. How early medieval communities would have survived famines is still an open question, still food for thought.
Reference: Kathy Pearson (1997) “Nutrition and the Early Medieval Diet” Speculum, 72, 1-32.