A Year on the field in Irish and Welsh medieval testimony

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

Part 1: Seed, Sowing and a Dash of Soil, in a Food Systems Context


Medieval testimony can show us agricultural cycles for grains like wheat through interesting sources such as law texts and literature, including poetry in Irish and Welsh traditions on seeds and sowing, as well as how wheat fit into a broader food system.


Medieval testimony, be it from iconography or texts, is just as pleasantly full of ambiguities as most other older sources can be at times. Talking about wheat raises the question of what the name for it might have been and what we mean ourselves by the word, not to mention the recurrent use of a single term, as English “corn”, in many languages for whatever is the principal cereal crop (McClatchie 2016; dtv-Atlas zur deutschen Sprache; 1985, 202-203). So, is it bread-wheat (alias “common wheat” Triticum aestivum, subspecies vulgare), einkorn (Triticum moinococcum L.), one of the emmers (Triticum turgidum L.), or perhaps a spelt (Triticum aestivum, subspecies aestivum or others) (Taxonomy of Wheat-Naming; Pl@ntUse)? In a food system using grain, wheat may not be the main cereal crop and, if not, for what reasons? Can we even find the answers to this from texts or might archaeological remains help us?

Left: Bread wheat (Weber); Right: Triticum aestivum subsp. Aestivum (Culos)

In medieval Irish and Welsh texts, the focus here, we find a series of cereals couched, so to speak, in a variety of foodstuffs, with a focus on dairy products – whisked whey, skim and whole milk, diluted milk, rennet-thickened milk (bainne clabair, anglicized as bonnyclabber, Kelly 1998, 324) – and cheeses from curds to hard cheeses, often listed as the hallmarks of the beginning of summer, when grain stocks were running out before the cows came into milk. This meant that cereals and milk products had a particular relationship in these food systems. If they did not “join up” smoothly, spring hunger in April and May often killed the most vulnerable members of a community – the old, the very young, and their vulnerable mothers.

Cereal grains were set in the overall food system, much of which was influenced by the practices of monastic gardens, so that Irish farms in medieval times usually had an enclosed garden and cultivated a range of vegetables, including peas and beans, onion, chives, garlic and leek, celery, cabbages and root crops such as carrot, turnip, and parsnip. N.B. common names in Old Irish and their translations into English, not to mention the variety of plant, are treated with great caution by the leading expert on early agriculture in the island (Kelly 1998, 219-228, 248-258). There is ample testimony to cultivation of apples and plums (ibd. 1998, 259-263), as to gathering of edible seaweed varieties, wild fruits such as blackberries, bilberries, strawberries and many others, as well as hazel nuts, which were an object of a lively trade. There was a plethora of gathered kitchen such as watercress, sorrel, nettle (eaten young) or brooklime. All these were supplemented by stockraising, hunting, fishing and gathering, from wildfowl to shellfish (ibd. 1998, 272-315).

As for cereals, they were the object of prestige hierarchies corresponding to human rankings in Irish society, running from noble to commoner (as did trees) with bread-wheat at the top, then on to rye, spelt, two-row barley, emmer, six-row barley, common and pilcorn oat. A striking point is that nearly all cereal grains bore Latin-origin names, while all terms for livestock and the attendant vocabulary of raising and appraising, training, and processing them for food were of native origin in the isle (ibd. 1998, 222). This does not mean that wheat-growing was introduced to the British Isles by the Romans, and emphasizes the differences in testimony and practices between Ireland, never occupied by Roman legions, and its neighbour to the east. The pre-Roman account by the Greek explorer Pytheas noted he found much wheat in southeast Britain when he visited around 330 BCE and described the huge barns for threshing it in, the first indication in literature that Britain specializes in unpredictable weather. Certainly, the Romans propelled production to the point that by 360 CE, wheat was being exported from Britain to feed the Army on the Rhine (Davidson 1999, 843-845). As for Ireland, recent archaeobotanical studies indicate that emmer wheat and barley were the most important early cereal crops there, dating back to just after 3750 BCE. (Flax is attested at about the same time, with oats and rye several millennia later) (McClatchie 2016a and 2016b).

Obviously, the cool and damp climate of Ireland was never very amenable to growing bread-wheat (Triticum aestivum, subspecies vulgare), and plant remains from early Christian sites on the isle show few occurrences of wheat even though it was the highest prestige grain (Monk 1991, 315-28 in Kelly 1998, 220-221). Called cruithnecht in Irish, its figurative sense is for a prestigious person or object, as we might say the “cream of the crop” (LEIA 1987, C-254-255). The term cruithnecht is native, of obscure origin, as is the less frequent tuirenn, which also appears to designate bread-wheat. Most references to beer-brewing are to barley, but there is one for tuirenn in a law text that says a reciter of poetry is entitled to ‘a drink from the juicy drops of wheat’. This may parallel even earlier testimony that the Gauls around today’s Marseilles drank a honeyed wheat beer and that spelt wheat beer was brewed in Roman Britain (Kelly 1998, 334).

It is the Welsh gwenith for wheat, with its many epithets, that provides us with a glimpse of the many wheats that may have been grown there: red Lammas-wheat, white wheat, bearded and beardless wheat, and on to holy wheat (a late-ripening variety grown in Pembrokeshire), more “red” wheats (small, medium and large) and white wheat, among a long list, including the indication that gwenith ysgyfarnog, could also represent an entirely different plant – quaking-grass (genus Briza), which does have edible seeds and leaves (GPC gwenith).

Seed and sowing

The land used for cereal crops was carefully appraised and highly valued when it was level and well-draining. Wheat in particular was sown on earth thought to be especially fertile, qualified as “land of three roots” (tír trí mecon), which may refer to soil depth favorable to root-crops or to wild plants indicating fertility (Kelly 1998, 229 note 72). In any case, it was well recognized that soil quality was paramount – an expression for a pointless endeavor was “sowing seed in bad soil” (cor síl i ndrochithir ) – and cereal crops in general may often have been sown on raised beds. The most prosperous rank of farmer, according to one text, was expected to sow sixteen bushels of seed per year (ibd. 1998, 231-232, 582). This depends on what you think a bushel might be, and the present interpretation of the Old Irish term miach has settled, with much discussion, on around 50 pints, based on the argument for a weight of approximately 22kg, founded on calculation of a weight easily carried by an average adult field worker for grain in a wickerwork recipient. Noting that the bushel of grain was likewise used as currency (as was, even more commonly, the value of a female slave, or a cow-in-calf), this debate is highly expressive of early Irish law, in which hair-splitting was considered both an art and an elite sport.

Moving from debate over how much seed might fit into what sized bushel, it is always refreshing to find some distraction at the heart of a good story, this time across the Irish Sea, in medieval Wales. There, the young hero Culhwch enlists friends in high places to help him win the hand of a giant’s daughter, Olwen, by carrying out seemingly impossible tasks. One of the forty tasks set by the unwilling father of the maiden is to uproot a thicket, burn it all to ash as manure, plough and sow it, presumably with bread wheat, the most prestigious grain at the time, so that it will be ripe to harvest within a single day to provide for the wedding feast. All this will likewise involve mobilizing a legendary ploughman, a mighty smith to set the irons, and four equally formidable oxen. Added to these sowing tasks is the father’s demand for an impressive amount of flax seed to grow the plants that will make the daughter’s wedding veil. Needless to say, elder tales, as we conceive of narrative coherence today, oft-times go astray, and we never find out how the young suitor and his friends manage to accomplish the task of preparing and sowing the field. However, it is the ants in an anthill rescued from a fire that gather the nine bushels of flax seed demanded by the giant father, a typical example of “animal helpers” in popular tales (Jones 1949, 113-114, 127). .

Still in a narrative mode, wheat fields could at times border on the near miraculous in somewhat later Welsh tradition. When the Puritan Henry Williams (1624-1684) was persecuted for his convictions and imprisoned, his family was saved from starvation by the abundant harvest from a field of wheat sown near their house. (For good measure, several of his persecutors were also said to have dropped dead…) Williams was eventually allowed to live out his life in peace, the field was baptized “Field of Blessing” and the wheat seed taken from it was kept by his family and given to the Welsh Folk Museum (today’s St. Fagans National Museum of History) (Gwyndaf 1995, English 63, Welsh 59).

Most certainly, archaeological remains – that is, remains from wet environments and analysis of charred materials – can certainly tell us much about cereal crops such as wheat, as well as when they were grown and, at times, even in what proportions in the overall food system, although there will be “holes” in the evidence, depending on where excavations were carried out. Nearly the same is true of classic historical documents, which suffer from the vagaries of being preserved or not. This short piece is especially a testimony to the work based on both law and literature, with a pinch of ethnology and environmental sciences, in Fergus Kelly’s Early Irish Farming, that covers nearly all the aspects of farming activity in its environment, from field crops through hunting and gathering, foodways to land tenure, livestock, transport, roadways and still more.

Onwards, next time, to fields and soil, though we already have a glimpse here of the soil it might be sown in, and what the wheat might be carried in, once harvested. As with any question of a crop cycle, the many threads of wheat are often interwoven, and may one day lead us to a ‘juicy drop’.



R. Culos, Triticum aestivum subsp. aestivum, seeds, Collection Muséum de Toulouse, Accession Number MHNT.BOT.2015.2.31, Creative Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Triticum_aestivum_subsp._aestivum_MHNT.BOT.2015.2.31.jpg

Davidson 1999

A. Davidson The Oxford Companion to Food, “Wheat”, Oxford UP (Oxford 1999).

dtv-Atlas zur deutschen Sprache 1985

dtv-Atlas zur deutschen Sprache, dtv Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, (München 1985).

Gouin 2003

P. Gouin, personal note on cheese balls of northern Afghanistan

GPC online

Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru A Dictionary of the Welsh Language: gwenith https://geiriadur.ac.uk/gpc/gpc.html and gwenith ysgyfarnog / “quaking-grass” Briza maxima https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Briza_maxima

Gwyndaf 1995

R. Gwyndaf Welsh Folk Tales, National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Bilingual Edition N°29 (Cardiff, 1995).

Jones 1949

G. Jones and T. Jones, The Mabinogion, London, Dent & Sons (London 1949).

Kelly 1998

F. Kelly, Early Irish Farming, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (Dublin 1998).

LEIA 1987 C

Lexique étymologique de l’irlandais ancien, J. Vendryes by E. Bachellery and P.-Y. Lambert 1987, cruithnecht in Lettre C.

McClatchie 2016a cites 2016b

M. McClatchie, “New study reveals Ireland’s earliest agriculture”, blog post 28 April 2016 http://ancientfoodandfarming.blogspot.com/2016/04/new-study-reveals-irelands-earliest.html

McClatchie 2016b

M. McClatchie et al., Farming and foraging in Neolithic Ireland: an archaeobotanical perspective. Antiquity 90 (350), 2016, 302-318.

Monk 1991

M. Monk, The archaeobotanical evidence for field crop plants in early historic Ireland in New light on early farming: recent developments in palaeoethnobotany, ed. Jane M. Renfrew, (Edinburgh 1991).


Pl@ntUse Triticum multi-lingual bibliography on cultivated wheats in history and today https://uses.plantnet-project.org/fr/Triticum

Taxonomy of Wheat-Naming

Taxonomy of Wheat-Naming https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxonomy_of_wheat#Naming


J. Weber, Blé tendre, INRA, Creative Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bl%C3%A9_tendre_(GRAPELLI)_AO-5-cliche_Jean_Weber_(5)_(23975019962).jpg

Cozette Griffin-Kremer

18 rue Gambetta, 78120 Rambouillet, France

Associate Researcher, Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique, Brest