Friday, July 22, 2011

Foods in Celtic Britain

One of my interests in real life is cooking. I'm definitely not a recipe cook- I think of what I want to eat, and I may look at a few recipes for that item to get ideas for proportions, but I generally switch out or add ingredients to make the dish more "me" or to make it satisfy my extremely picky hubby.

So, one thing I've wondered a lot about is period cooking. For the Celts, that can be a difficult subject to find information on. For one thing, we still have only scant archaeological evidence for those peoples known as the Celts compared to other time periods and places. For another thing, ingredients that may have been popular and/or easily available there and then may not be available here and now.

So where should I start my search? It seemed to make sense to me to begin with finding out a few things:
  • What is the primary method by which Celts acquired their food?
  • Which foods were available readily, and which foods were used but rare?
  • Which foods were not available at all?
  • How did trade and travel influence food availability? 
First, it should be noted that the term "Celtic" covers many different tribes in different regions of Europe. My primary interest is the British Celts, as my maternal family comes primarily from Wales, with some Scotch-Irish mixed in. So, for my purposes, I will focus primarily on foods available in Iron Age Celtic Britian.

The  I came across is at this website has excellent information, and decent sources. It includes quotes from several period historians as primary sources, however, the author failed to include any secondary sources that may have been used.

What is the primary method by which Celts acquired their food?
Based on the information in this article, the Celts began farming around 5,000 years ago. Through their Bronze and Iron Ages, they saw a great number of advances in farming techniques and tools, and during the Iron Age, the Celts in Britain were primarily settled in communities that farmed and tended livestock. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that with meat readily available from livestock, hunting was limited to sport, specialty meats, or special occasions and  was used to supplement the food supply, though I can't find any confirmation on this at this time. Likewise, with many plants and crops being cultivated, it is reasonable to assume that the Celts were not dependent on gathering foods, but rather used gathering as a way to supplement their diet with items they were not cultivating (berries, some herbs, etc). The author indicates that period historians regarded the British Celts as skilled arable farmers, and that archaeological evidence shows a mixed bag of arable and pastoral farming, but the author fails to make note of which archaeological find this information is based on.

Which foods were available readily, and which foods were used but rare?
According to the aforementioned article and this one, the known crops produced by the British Celts include einkorn, emmer, spelt, oats (cultivated and uncultivated varieties), rye and millet.
As far as livestock, the first author indicates that archaeological evidence (again, he doesn't say which evidence specifically) shows that the Briton Celtic meat diet would have been about 2/3 beef. Additionally the, second author (S. Applebaum) indicates evidence from Barr Hill and other settlements, and the first author supports it, of the butchering of sheep for meat after their usefulness in producing wool was finished. The second author also indicates evidence throughout the country of the rearing and butchering of Goats and pigs. Of course, milk producing animals would have been used for dairy as well as meat.

According to the first author mentioned, "Few vegetables were known in Britain prior to the Roman Invasion of the country. However, Celtic beans and fat hen were grown and a kind of primative parsnip was found in Britain at that time. Herbs would probably have been the main way to get your 'greens'."

According to this article by the same article, the list of vegetables introduced to Britain by the Romans includes garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, bay, basil and savoury mint were also introduced to Britain by the Romans, as well as herbs used for brewing and medicinal purposes. A variety of fruits such as apples, cherries, mulberries and grapes were also introduced by the Romans.

Which foods were not available at all?
The practical answer to this question is "new world foods". These include tomatoes, corn (maize), potatoes, peppers, squashes and any other foods that were not imported, traded, or native to the island. 

How did trade and travel influence food availability?
Strabo wrote that Britain:
"produces corn (cereal wheat), cattle, gold, silver and iron. These things are exported, along with hides, slaves and dogs suitable for hunting."

Unfortunately, at this point in my less-than-extensive research, I have not yet found a more thorough answer to this question. However, learning and research are a process, and the point of this blog is to share that process with you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Women in White Explained

Women in White Explained
Reprinted with Permission

This narrative was developed by Anubh and Etaine of Preachain to accompany these pictures. Many people ask about the origin and history of Women in White, so I am reprinting it here for your enjoyment!


Early in 1995 while doing some light reading on ancient celtic mysteries, I read an account of Gallic women preceding their warriors onto the field of battle. The women wore white dresses and copper belts, were barefoot with hair unbound, they brandished weapons and hurled curses at the enemy. The image really impressed me and I figured, except for the barefoot part,we could reenact it at Pennsic. I asked our founder and then-headwoman Aes to issue a call to Preachain’s women, saying, "Stitch up your old bedsheets!" --and I assured the feminists (okay mostly this was me reassuring myself) that it wouldn't be cheerleading.

Before the procession we paint each other with woad, an intimate act that serves to bless and beautify. We walk all the way from the lake to the battlefield, fighters and women singing together. We don’t take the straightest road to the battlefield; we wind through the marketplace so that our friends and kinfolk there can be a part of our celebration.

Wearing the same color creates the sense that we are there for the same purpose (and white at the end of a dirty week at Pennsic is pretty striking). Our dresses, the singing and the shouting build community and identity: a sense of tribe is fostered as we proclaim loudly to the world who we are, how mighty, noble and great.

Once on the field, the women circle the fighters and dance to lift the hearts and spirits of fighters, to get them ready for the big fight in the field battle. [The fighters are from Preachain, and from our allies—we hire other fighters to strengthen our numbers, and once we know them well, we offer them the chance to participate in this ritual with us. The dance is a Kore dance learned by some of Preachain’s northern Virginia contingent at a goddess workshop years ago—it links the dancers and encircles the fighters, pulses inward and outward, dips to earth and rises to the sky. It originally represented the goddess’s descent into the Underworld and subsequent rebirth.

A few years ago, we added a chant to the dance, invoking our tribal power, the strength of our blood, and calling to the Morrigan. It serves to unify, to raise and focus the women’s wishes for the fighters (protection and honor, glory and safety). Like any ritual, it also fixes us in our place and time, fixes in memory *this* battle, *this* Pennsic, *this* day. The dance and chant begin slowly, gathering energy, faster and faster; the chant becomes a shout, the fighters catch the energy and their excitement feeds ours, and the dance crests in a great blessing.

This whole process works to integrate the fighting with other aspects of the life of the clan. It links fighting to our spirituality and emphasizes the value we place on the women in our group. Traditions like this reinforce the sense that we have all chosen to come together in this place to support each other, to share goals. Every group has community-building traditions; this one just happens to be visible to the rest of the world (we even got photographed by NPR!).

Ten years later I can't really deny the cheerleading part any more, okay it sort of is cheerleading...but the postfeminist I have become realizes that if the honor, beauty, grace and strength of the women in the clan inspires our fighters to great deeds or adds to their experience of fighting, that's not oppressive, that's good for everybody! Any mixed feelings I had in the beginning were very quickly put to rest that very first year by the attitude of the fighters, whose respect and appreciation for the procession and for us are humbling. The fighters raise us up as much as we raise them.

Please don't ask where the account of this procession can be found, it's from a pan-cultural less-than-scholarly goddess book and no primary sources are cited. I knew that, at the time--I was finishing up an MA in Cultural Anthropology so it wasn't through ignorance that the research is slack. Maybe the serious student in me actually sort of liked the rebellion and romance of ignoring Tacitus and Pliny in favor of a half-baked feminist's fancy. Throughout history many glorious traditions have been based on dreams and half-truths. If the tradition is strong enough it gains a life of its own eventually, independent from the initial impetus. In retrospect, as I've learned more about Norse traditions I suspect the author of the book may have confused the Gauls with the Norse, whose white-robed Valkyrie showed up at battles to act as "choosers of the slain"...if anybody thinks I'm a Valkyrie instead of a Celt, I won't be offended. But we're Celts, and proud.

Anubh na Preachain
and Etaine na Preachain

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Busy Pennsic Bees

I know we haven't been posting a lot, but we've been busy hosting couchsurfers and getting ready for Pennsic!! If you don't know about Pennsic, check out their website to learn all you want to know. Pennsic is the biggest event in the SCA, and people come from all over the world to participate. It is two weeks of friends, fun, arts & sciences, and battles of all kinds.

Here are some pictures of Clanne Preachain and our camp and previous Pennsics:

In order to get ready for such a big event, a lot of preparation must be done. Unfortunately, we're a little behind this year and haven't gotten as much done as we'd like. But, we have gotten a few things done!

For one, I finally jumped outside my sewing-box-of-comfort which generally consists of t-tunics and chitons, and I made a viking apron dress that consisted of multiple pieces. Surprisingly enough, it fit with very little adjustment. You can find out more about viking apron dresses in this article. Here's a pic of the dress (with hand sewn hem and straps):
To finish off the top of the dress, I used some awesome hand woven trim made by my Anglesey friend Yzzy. She gave it to me months ago to cut in half and use as leg ties. But I thought it was so beautiful, I never could bring myself to cut it, hoping that another more suitable use could be found for it. Viola! It perfectly compliments the color I dyed the dress fabric (with no foreplanning!). See?

I also sewed another plaid dress and tackled a huge pile of mending and alterations. Here's a picture of the pile:

On other fronts, the Celts loved the mead I entered in the A&S at Novice Tourney so much, they asked for more for Pennsic. So, today I brewed two gallons for the Bar-Bar. It is a short mead, and the last time I used this particular recipe, it was perfected right around three weeks of fermentation- which would be just around the time of Bar-Bar! Here's the recipe I used, from this website:

Syr Michael of York Mead


1 Gallon Water 2 1/2 lbs Honey
1 Lemon 1/2 tsp Nutmeg
1 pkg Ale or Champagne yeast
Syr Michael of York, raised in the East Kingdom, wrote the original article in the Knowne World Handbook on brewing. He has won East Kingdom brewing competitons several times with this recipe.
Boil the water and honey. Add the juice of the lemon and the nutmeg. Boil, skimming the foam that rises to the surface, until it stops foaming. Let cool to blood temperature, actually under 90 degrees F, then pitch the yeast.
Let it work two and a half weeks, bottle it and let it age two weeks.
Drink at your leisure!

Instead of using commerically purchased honey, I bought honey from some beekeeper friends in Tennessee. Also, instead of the lemon and nutmeg called for in the recipe, I substituted orange, clove and cinnamon for a different flavor. I'm really excited to see how it turns out, and it is my first brewing experiment (deviating from a recipe). That beautiful Tennessee honey made a rich amber color! Here's a picture of the fermenting bottles:

As you can see, we've been busy little Pennsic Bees. I still have some more sewing and banner making to do, and Murdiagean still has to finish the slat bed he's making for our War Lord. I also have to plan our menus for Peace Week and can all of that food. I'm thinking hamburger helper, chili, goulash, and ravioli, as these are things that have canned well for us before. They also mean less food taking up cooler space, which means more room for drinks, ice, and of course, booze! Plus, it's easy enough to slop the canned food into a pot and throw it over the fire.

We still have lots to do, but we'll keep you updated.