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The Decline of the Cow: Agricultural and Settlement Change in Early Medieval Ireland

The Decline of the Cow: Agricultural and Settlement Change in Early Medieval Ireland

By Finbar McCormick

Peritia, Vol. 20 (2008)

Abstract: This article considers cows and dairying as the basis of value system in early societies, particularly in Ireland. In a very few instances is it possible to demonstrate that such systems existed. Where this occurs cows and dairying are imbedded in the social or religious institutions of these cultures. Cattle had a value and meaning much greater than their economic worth (food, hides, tallow, etc.). Such systems, however, do not allow economic development because dairy produce does not easily lend itself to the production and accumulation of significant surplus nor is dairy produce particularly suitable for economic expansion based on trade. Its perishable nature militates against both roles. To develop political power that is based on economic power and wealth it is necessary to change the emphasis from livestock to cereal production.

Introduction: Evidence for the livestock economy of early medieval Ireland is derived from two main sources, zooarchaeology and historical documents. The large body of documentary material, particularly that dating to the seventh and eighth centuries, provides a wealth of detail on the agricultural and social basis of society that is unparalleled in the contemporary western world. Indeed, prior to the high medieval period, agricultural information of comparative detail is available only for early Mesopotamia and Rome. Information is available, too, for Indian Vedic society but it is much less direct, being for the most part derived from religious texts. These latter sources, however, are important in the context of the present discussion because they reflect the only society, besides that of early medieval Ireland, where cows and dairying played such a central role.

Data concerning early Irish agriculture are found primarily in legal sources. Supplementary information is supplied by hagiography, ecclesiastical legislation, and literature. The laws, however, provide the clearest and most detailed evidence for the structure of the agricultural economy since much legal material deals with issues concerning land, crops, and livestock. The core legal texts reflect life in Ireland during the seventh and eighth centuries AD. They mirror a society that is rural in character and one in which livestock played a particularly important role. Settlement was based on dispersed farmsteads, i.e. the ringfort, a settlement form designed primarily to protect livestock.

Cattle, more specifically cows, were of exceptional importance in the lives of the early medieval Irish. The cow was the basic unit of wealth and one’s social status in this rigidly hierarchical society was to a large extent based on the number of cows that one had at one’s disposal. Giving and receiving cows formed the basis of many contracts between members of different social ranks, and these contracts ensured stability within society. Fines, tribute, and marriage prestations were generally paid in cows and cattle raiding was regarded more as a form of political competition than criminal activity. There was a certain flexibility in that some payments could be made in either cattle or silver but the authors of the law tracts assume a consistent value for cattle, thus acknowledging their position at the core of the value system.

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