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Food in the Early Middle Ages, Celtic Ireland—Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues examining the early medieval era, looking at food in the early middle ages, specifically in ancient, Celtic Ireland.

We all take for granted going to the cupboard for some potato chips or opening the refrigerator for a dish of ice cream. (Okay, now you know two of my favorite food groups.) But what if you lived long before all that? What if you called ancient Ireland your home and the year was A.D. 400? How and what would you eat? We’re going to look mainly at ancient Celtic culture, since that’s where I did the most research for my book, The Bonfires of Beltane. (To be released June 20.)

A Celtic Roundhouse

Food in the Early Middle Ages — The Central Fire

Most early Celts lived in large, community roundhouses, each of which had a central fire—no fireplaces yet. Fires were kept going day and night. A hole in the thatch above, perhaps with an outside thatch tent to keep out the rain, let out some, but not all, of the smoke. The rest hovered up at the roundhouse ceiling. If you stood up, you might be sucking in a lungful of smoke. In a roundhouse, there was no “non-smoking” section.

Cauldrons or Meat on a Spit

The center of the dining experience was likely the bronze or iron cauldron and the roasting spit. Diners would gather around the fire where the pot simmered or the joint of meat cooked. If someone had butchered or brought home game that day, then meat might be skewered on a spit, dripping fat into the fire. The Celts kept domesticated cows, pigs, and sheep. Cattle, of course, was the basis of the ancient Irish economy, so beef topped the list of desirable meats. Pork was also prized. Since the early sheep were smaller and goat-like, they were valued more for wool and milk than for meat. Besides this domestic threesome, some hunter might bring down a deer, a game bird, or catch a fish. Vegans in early Ireland?—you’d starve.

Killing Your Supper


Iron Age Cooking

One thing we’ve lost in our modern age is an understanding of where our food comes from and how it’s procured. In ancient times, those who consumed meat lived the best and healthiest lives. It might surprise some to know that meat comes from hunting and killing deer, partridges, or boar. Or from stabbing a fish with your spear. Or from slaughtering a cow, goat, or chicken. Indeed, every person in ancient times was intimately familiar with animal death. Nearly everyone had personally killed or hunted an animal. Few, if any, of us today, unless we’re hunters, have ever done so.

And once you’ve swung the axe on the ox and watched it bleed to death, is it not an easier step to swing the axe against your enemies, those you despise, or those who have something you want?

Barley and Wheat

Meat was important, but grains were an essential part of the early medieval diet—specifically barley. Easy to grow and nutritious, it made its way into barley bread and porridge. It’s also easily fermented into beer. Wheat was harder to grow in Ireland and wheat bread was highly prized. It was mostly for the nobility and upper classes.

Peasant Pottage

The typical “peasant” breakfast, lunch, and possibly dinner in early Celtic Ireland might have been pottage. How do you make it? Throw some barley and water into the cauldron and let it simmer all day. Someone caught a rabbit? Skin it, cut it up, and throw that in too. Your lady harvested some onions, leeks, turnips, or carrots? Ah, those too make good additions. Your uncle killed a deer? Even better. Cut up some venison for the pot. Meanwhile, you’re eating from the cauldron at all times of the day. In fact, you can keep eating from and adding to it for days on end. A bit boring, maybe, but then the ingredients did keep changing.

Next time, we’ll continue our discussion of the early medieval dining table, with Part II. But we’ll add the question: What did they drink? (Click here for Part II.)