Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Oat in medieval Ireland

Crescenzi medieval agriculture calendar
The medieval period in Ireland extended from the 12th century to the 16th century, and agriculture was a very important component of the economy at this time. Excavations of medieval archaeological sites in Ireland often uncover the charred remains of cereals, usually in the form of cereal grains; fragile cereal chaff is less often found. Four different types of cereals have been discovered at medieval sites in Ireland: oat, wheat, barley and rye (Monk 1996; McClatchie 2003). This blog entry will focus on archaeological and historical evidence for common oat (Avena sativa L.).

Oat is the most commonly recovered cereal type from medieval archaeological sites in Ireland. Historical documents confirm the economic importance of oat at this time, particularly in areas outside the east and south-east of the country (Murphy & Potterton 2010). Oat is well suited to the Irish humid, wet climate and will tolerate poorer soils that discourage the cultivation of other cereal types.

Oat was used to make bread shaped as a broad, flat cake, and was also widely consumed in the form of porridges, gruels and oatmeal pastes (Sexton 1998). Ale was often brewed using oat rather than barley or wheat, a custom that sometimes offended English travellers of the 17th century: “scarce anywhere outside Dublin and some few other towns will you meet with any good beer or any reasonable bread for your money, only you may have some raw, muddy, unwholesome ale, made solely of oats” (O'Brien 1923).

It is important to understand that ale could have been viewed not just as a drink, but also as food, its nourishing content providing a liquid alternative to what would usually be considered food. Indeed, a 17th century English traveller in Ireland believed that the ale was brewed in this way to verify the proverb: “Good drink is meat, drink and cloth” (O'Brien 1923).

As well as providing an important ingredient for human food and drink, oat was used in animal feed. The chaff and straw of cereals also provided useful bedding and flooring material. Cereal chaff and straw was further used in the manufacture of baskets, mats and hen-roosts, as well as in the construction of houses. According to an Irish early 17th century document, “in the heart of the best walled towns, cities and boroughs, there stand many poor cottages of straw, chaff and clay” (O'Brien 1923).

McClatchie, M (2003) The plant remains. In: RM Cleary, MF Hurley (eds), Cork city excavations 1984–2000. Cork City Council, Cork, pp 391–413

Monk, MA (1986) Evidence from macroscopic plant remains for crop husbandry in prehistoric and early historic Ireland: a review. Journal of Irish Archaeology 3:31–3

Murphy, M, Potterton, M (2010) The Dublin region in the Middle Ages. Four Courts Press, Dublin

O'Brien, G (ed.) (1923) Advertisements for Ireland. Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Dublin

Sexton, R (1998) Porridges, gruels and breads: the cereal foodstuffs of early medieval Ireland. In: MA Monk, J Sheehan (eds), Early medieval Munster: archaeology, history and society. Cork University Press, Cork, pp 76–86

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