By Finbar McCormick
Relics of old decency: archaeological studies in later prehistory, eds. G. Cooney, Katarina Becker, J. Coles, M. Ryan and S. Sievers (Bray, 2009)
Introduction: When Sir William Petty wrote his economic appraisal of Ireland in 1672 it was at a time when the old Gaelic political and social structures, in which cattle were measured as the primary form of wealth, had all but disappeared. He noted in the context of the native Irish diet that ‘as for flesh, they seldom eat it, notwithstanding the great plenty thereof, unless it be of the smaller animals, because it is inconvenient for one of the families to kill a beef, which they have no convenience to save. So ’tis easier for them to have a hen or a rabbet, than a piece of beef of equal substance’. This is a very telling observation because it shows that if one did not have a market economy, a social system for distributing meat or a method of preserving meat, the carcass of a bovine was simply too large to serve as an immediate and efficient source for the consumption of meat on a domestic scale.
The killing of large animals in temperate and warmer climates invariably necessitated the consumption of a large quantity of meat during a short period of time. The slaughter of a bovine, for instance, could result in the production of nearly 200kg of edible meat. Even a sheep can produce a considerable amount of meat, the primitive Soay breed producing a dressed carcass of nearly 10kg. Such circumstances necessitate the development of social institutions that can facilitate the efficient consumption of large quantities of meat. In medieval Ireland a system known as coe provided such a facility. This was a legal obligation to provide ‘winter hospitality for [a] lord’, but it also applied to high-ranking clerics, doctors and judges. Freemen were obliged to provide food, shelter and entertainment for a lord and his retinue for a specified amount of time during the year. The length of stay was usually three days and three nights. The number of people that a lord could bring with him depended on the rank of the freeman. A seventh/eighth-century law stipulates that an aire tuíseo could bring a retinue of 60 persons, but much larger retinues are recorded in later medieval sources. The carcasses of large animals tend to be hierarchical in terms of the quality of meat from different parts of the carcass. Formalised feasting, therefore, needs to be inclusive in terms of the rank of the participants. This is clearly demonstrated in the Irish evidence. The later medieval description of a feast held at Tara, hosted by the king, indicates that a cross-section of society was present. Most importantly, however, the layout of the feast indicated in the Book of Leinster and the Yellow Book of Lecan shows that particular joints were equated with persons of appropriate rank. Thus the king and the judges were provided with tenderloin, while the ‘fort builder’ was given a belly piece and the wall-makers and ditch-diggers were provided with the thick part of the shoulder, i.e. inferior joints. Communal feasting, therefore, would have tended to be inclusive rather than exclusive, as persons of different status would have needed to be present to consume the meat.