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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.)

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The Real Story of St. Patrick, the Conclusion, Part IV

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes the real story of St. Patrick with Part IV.

The Amazing Story of St. Patrick

For the last month, we’ve been looking at what really happened in the life of St. Patrick, one of the main characters in my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane. (Click here for Part I. Click here for Part III. Or use the navigation bar on the left to go back.)

The Long Road to Becoming a Bishop

In our last post, Patrick learned from a series of visions that God was asking him to return to the land that had kept him a slave—back to Ireland, back where he’d herded sheep for six, long years, out alone on the cold, rainy moors. He was in comfort at his father’s Roman villa. Yet his heart broke for the people he’d left. They had never heard the good news of Jesus that would pull them out of their spiritual darkness. If no one told them, they would experience an eternity apart from the God who loved them. And this knowledge ate at his soul.

His goal was to spread churches across the island. And to train priests. But he couldn’t do that unless he, himself, became a bishop. So he started at the bottom, as a layman in the local church at Bannaventa Berniae. He was soon appointed a deacon, the lowest ranking member of the church. To go higher he needed religious training. Some believe he received it in the monastery of Lérins, on an island off the southern coast of Gaul, where the gulls would cry and the Mediterranean breezes blew. The minimum age to become a priest was thirty. In Lérins, he studied, all the while hearing the lost, pagan Irish call to him. Eventually, he became a priest, but even more years passed until he was appointed a bishop. But just as he was ready to go, the Pope appointed someone else to go to the land that Patrick thought of as his life’s mission. He was devastated.

His Precursor Fails

The Pope sent the bishop Palladius, a man steeped in the upper levels of church politics. Palladius landed in southern Ireland in AD 431. But by all accounts, within a year his mission failed miserably, and he returned home. Immediately, Patrick was given the charge to go. Thus, in AD 432 he set sail from Britain, most probably landing at Sabhall in Strangford Loch, in the northeast. There, he began to preach.

celtic_cross_spencer_meanssPatrick Was Like One of Their Own

After his long years as a slave, he spoke Irish Gaelic like a native. At first, he would have gained few converts, mostly women. The churches he founded were small, with only a dozen or so people. But the Irish saw something in Patrick that Palladius never had. This man, so full of fire to bring the gospel to this land, displayed the very qualities they most admired. Bravery and courage—he feared them not. He defied druids and kings with a will to bring them his message. Generosity—he’d brought expensive gifts from home to distribute to the Irish kings and princes. Gold and silver, swords, lavishly sewn capes. He gave generously of his time to all. And loyalty—as time passed, the Irish saw his steadfastness and dedication to them.

Yes, Patrick was like one of their own. And he began to make more and more converts. Across Ulster in the North, over to Connacht in the west, and south to northern Leinster, Patrick took the gospel, planted, churches, and brought light into a world of darkness.

Why Did The Irish So Readily Convert?

All their lives the Irish had heard from the druids about the angry, vengeful, and capricious gods and spirits they worshiped. To placate the anger of the spirits, they would take small sacrifices of food to hide in the forest, offerings to keep the crops from being ruined, or the cattle from dying. The pictures of the druids’ gods are enough to give anyone nightmares. The worst was Crom Cruach, before whose altar even children were sacrificed. Yes, they practiced human sacrifice, offering usually adults, sometimes druids, but in the worst cases, children.

Into this world of deep spiritual darkness comes Patrick, speaking of a God who loves, who sent his Son so that that all their sins would be forgiven. The druids taught about an eternal Otherworld. But what kind of place would that be, where Manannán mac Lir, the sea god, ruled. The deities they worshiped were angry, fearsome, always needing to be appeased. Instead, Patrick showed them a God of love and the way to an afterlife of bliss, all for the price of belief. After the dark message of the druids, Patrick’s message of truth was a beam of light and hope.

Hundreds, Maybe Thousands of Churches Planted

By all accounts, Patrick’s ministry focused mainly on the northern half of the island. Ancient Ireland, what they called Ériu, was a pagan land that worshiped the dread gods of the druids and the spirits of trees, streams, and forest. But before he died, he’d brought countless Irish to the message of Christ, and left behind hundred, possibly thousands, of small churches.

There is so much more to Patrick’s story, more than we can recount here. You’ll find some of his tale in my novel of Christian historical fiction, The Bonfires of Beltane, to be released on June 20. Next week, I’ll review Michelle Griep’s novel, Undercurrent. Following that, we’ll continue our look at aspects of the early medieval world.

(This history was gleaned from a variety of sources: Patrick’s own Confessions, Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland, Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin’s The Course of Irish History.)

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The Real Story of St. Patrick, Part III

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues the real story of St. Patrick with Part III.

St. Patrick, An Amazing, Early Medieval Icon

As we approach St. Patrick’s day, we’ve been looking at what really happened in the life of St. Patrick, one of the main characters in my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane. (Click here for Part I or Part II or Part IV or use the navigation buttons on the left.)

CelticCurraghStarving in a Deserted Country

Last time we saw how God spoke to Patrick, leading him from slavery to a ship on the southern coast of Ireland. Yet the ship didn’t sail for Britain. Instead, it landed its cargo of Irish hounds somewhere on the continent, possibly in present-day Germany. But they’d missed their port and after they unloaded the hounds, captain and crew wandered for twenty-eight days in a barren land until they ran out of food. Then the captain turned to him. “We’re all starving,” he said. “If your God is so great and powerful, why don’t you pray to him to bring us some food so we don’t die?” Patrick did pray, and shortly afterward, a herd of pigs crossed their path. The sailors killed many and their feast lasted for two days.

Under Spiritual Attack

Then Patrick tells us, “That same night as I lay sleeping, I was attacked by Satan. He fell on me just like a huge rock so that I couldn’t even move my arms or legs.” He goes on to say he called upon the prophet Elijah for help.  Then as the sun rose, the weight was lifted. He continues, “I believe that it was Christ the Lord who rescued me that night and that it was his spirit which cried out for my sake.” They wandered for ten more days until, just as their food ran out again, they reached a settlement.

Finally, a Homecoming

It took several years until Patrick finally found his way across the sea to his home in Britain. What must his family have thought when, one autumn afternoon, a ghost walked through the doors of their villa? No one had ever returned after being captured by Irish raiders. When he’d left, he was fifteen. Now he was a young man of twenty-one. Certainly, his family was astonished by the changes in him. On the outside, he’d been hardened by years tending the sheep. But inside, he was a different person. He was home, but he’d been through a great ordeal, and it affected him all his life. His parents feasted him with dinner after dinner, inviting all their relatives. Life began to settle into a routine, and he tried to fit in.

Again, A Vision Comes

His father would have wanted Patrick to renew his education and learn the business of farming, so he could take over the villa. But he was unhappy, restless, unsettled. Then came the dream. A man appeared at the foot of his bed and gave his name as Victoricus. Then he dumped a pile of letters on the bed. Victoricus picked a scroll from the pile, broke the seal, and passed it to Patrick. It was addressed from “The Voice of the Irish.” Then voices began singing, and a heavenly chorus engulfed him. “Holy boy!” they sang, “Come back and walk among us!” When Patrick awoke, his heart broke for the lost people of Ireland, for their spiritual fate. The dream had moved him deeply.

Then a Second Dream

Later, a second dream came upon him. He heard someone saying a prayer, but it was unintelligible. The prayer was so beautiful, he was astonished. Long did he agonize over the meaning of the words. Did they came from within him or from outside of him? The answer mattered greatly. Then the dream came again, and this time, the words became clear: “The one who gave you your spirit, it is he who speaks in you.” At last, he knew. The words came from God, not from himself. And the young man who had only recently escaped from Hibernia knew in his heart, that despite the dangers, he had to go back.

We’ll conclude the story of Patrick next week with Part IV.

(Note that this history was gleaned from a variety of sources: Patrick’s own Confessions, Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland, Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin’s The Course of Irish History.)