Gododdin: where’s the beef?

Edinburgh Castle

The Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle

The Old Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) is a series of elegies on an army of Britons who died at the battle of Catraeth. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Scotland’s oldest poem’ because it was probably composed at Edinburgh. The battle it commemorates took place in the late 6th or early 7th centuries at a time when Edinburgh and adjacent parts of Lothian formed the heartland of the kingdom of Gododdin. In the poem, the Gododdin warriors are given a sumptuous feast by their king in his royal hall at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) before setting out on their fateful journey to Catraeth. We know enough about the rituals of feasting in early medieval times to guess that the main item on the menu was beef from the king’s own cattle-herd. Beef, of course, had high-status connotations in this period. Ownership of cattle was a key indicator of wealth and status, hence the many references to cattle-reiving in the heroic poetry of Britain and Ireland.

A recurrent theme in Y Gododdin is the link between the generous feast provided by the king and the burden of debt this placed on his warriors. The beef they consumed at Din Eidyn came with a hefty price-tag at Catraeth: they paid for it with their lives. But they fought courageously, fighting hard until all were overwhelmed. The poem gives vivid portraits of individual heroes in the thick of battle, highlighting their skill and bravery. Among them was a warrior called Edar who, with his sharp sword and white-washed shield, went to war ‘after the feast’.

Cynydyniog, calchdrai, pan grynied grynai,
nid adwanai, rywanai, rywaned.
Oedd mynych gwedi cwyn i esgar ei gyflwyn,
oedd gwenwyn yd traethed.
A chyn ei olo o dan dydwed daear
dyrllyddai Edar ei fedd yfed
.

‘Unyielding, with shattered shield, when pressed he thrust forward,
the man that he had struck did not strike back.
Frequent after the feast was his gift to the enemy,
he was cruelly treated.
Before he was buried beneath the cover of earth
Edar deserved his drink of mead.’

Before riding off to war, Edar and his companions would have chewed their way through an impressive amount of beef during the banquet in the royal hall, high up on the crags where Edinburgh Castle stands today. But where did the meat come from? Where was the royal cattle-herd kept, and where were the animals slaughtered?

Archaeological excavations at the castle between 1988 and 1991 found traces of human settlement from the time of the Gododdin kings but didn’t turn up any indication of cattle being butchered there. The evidence, or rather the absence of evidence, suggested instead that the beef for the feasting-hall must have been brought up to the fortress from below, as ready-to-cook carcasses. Presumably the king maintained a cattle-pen and slaughterhouse somewhere close by, on the lower land near the base of Castle Rock, and sent his servants down to fetch the meat. Pinpointing the exact location wasn’t going to be easy. Centuries of building and development in the heart of old Edinburgh made it unlikely that anything of significance would be found.

Remarkably, it now looks as if the site in question may have been discovered. According to an article in the latest volume of PSAS, a recent excavation in the Grassmarket (an old part of the city below the Castle) found evidence of a settlement with a long history. It was clearly of lower status than the royal citadel but seems to have been occupied continuously throughout the early medieval period (c.300-1100) and beyond into the time of the first burgh. The site was used for various purposes, ranging from crafts such as metalworking and leatherworking to food processing (of fish, shellfish and cattle). The remains of certain species of dung-beetle imply a lot of manure such as would be found in a holding-area for cattle or horses. Specific evidence for cattle came from a foot bone and a jawbone, the latter with cut-marks indicating a butcher’s blade.

Although the data cannot confirm that this is indeed where cattle were slaughtered for the feasts of Din Eidyn the hints do seem fairly strong. If butchery wasn’t being undertaken on the summit of the Rock it must have been happening somewhere. To quote from the excavation report, maybe it was being done ‘at a nearby site, such as the Grassmarket, established to service the high status site above.’ Perhaps the place where Edar and his fellow-warriors got their beef has at last been found?

* * * * * * *

Notes & references

* The full details of the PSAS article are:
James McMeekin et al, ‘Early Historic settlement beneath the Grassmarket in Edinburgh’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140 (2010), 105-128. The excavations took place between September 2007 and November 2008.

* The extract and translation from Y Gododdin is from A.O.H. Jarman (ed.) Aneirin: Y Gododdin (Llandysul, 1988), p.64-65 except for the penultimate line which uses John Koch’s translation from his book The Gododdin of Aneirin (Cardiff, 1997), p.17.

* On the lack of evidence for the slaughter of cattle at the royal fortress of Gododdin see Finbar McCormick ‘The faunal remains from Mills Mount’, pp.201-12 in S.T. Driscoll & P.A. Yeoman, Excavations within Edinburgh Castle in 1988-91 (Edinburgh, 1997).

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26 comments on “Gododdin: where’s the beef?

  1. badonicus says:

    Vey interesting Tim. They certainly would have got through a lot of beef if that one year’s preparation were true!

    I vaguely remember other archaeological sites of animal slaughter being away from the actual settlements, which makes sense I suppose.

  2. Buannan says:

    Thats rather interesting Tim, thanks for posting this.

    I’ve always fancied “Hunters Bog” on Arthur’s Seat as a natural enclosure suitable for minding and defending livestock. Lifting cows would be rather tricky from such a spot, Salisbury Crags guarding half from below and the bulk of the hill proper defending most of rest from above. Access is therefore limited to either end. All in all, as natural an enclosure as you could hope for, not sure if the would have been enough water in Hunters Bog it’s self but there possibly was in the past, before drainage became fashionable. There is a loch close by, right by the northern access.

    Also, from the northern side it’s only a hop skip and a jump down to the now Parliament building and off along through the “Cowgate” a couple of hundred yards from the Grassmarket.

    The ancient agricultural credentials and occupation of the hill are well known, could Arthur’s Seat be “the wealthy mountain”? When wealth was measured food and livestock, particularly cows, I rather fancy Arthur’s Seat as the principal Gododdin larder (I also fancy it as being a 50/50 with Traprian as the prime contenders for Koch’s “rock of the people of Llew).

    • Tim says:

      I hadn’t heard of Hunter’s Bog before, but it sounds like an interesting spot. In fact, Arthur’s Seat as a whole has always seemed interesting but I’ve never got around to reading much about it. The little I’ve seen does suggest that it could have been a ‘tribal capital’ of the type envisaged at Traprain Law. Maybe its relationship to Edinburgh Castle Rock was similar to what I imagine happened in Manau, where the Miathi/Maeatae possibly abandoned an ancient hillfort high up on Dumyat in favour of Stirling Castle Rock.

      • Buannan says:

        Hunters Bog is an easy 10min walk from either the parliament building/bottom of the royal mile, or the commonwealth pool and comprises the ground above salisbury crags, a considerable area of prime grazing and as I mention above, an area that would easily lend it’s self as a natural cattle fold protecting stock from reeving warbands. This ground was still grazed by sheep into the 1980’s. The sheep were eventually removed to help ease erosion on the hill, due to a combination of human traffic and over grazing.

        • Tim says:

          Sounds a likely spot for continuity of use reaching back to very early times. This could possibly be confirmed by archaeologists but I’m not sure how much survey work has been done on this part of the hill.

  3. Interesting stuff! It seems likely there would have been one area where the butchering was done. Its a messy, smelly business – dealing with the blood, offal and preparing the hides. Not a great area to keep around your party hall.

    • Tim says:

      Not a pleasant place to have within sniffing distance. Makes me wonder if other royal hillforts had similar slaughterhouses on adjacent low ground. I’m thinking here of Dunadd, Bamburgh and Alt Clut, none of which had much space for livestock on the summit.

      • Better to carry cleaned beef up the hill than have to haul all the mess down the hill. I’m wondering of they smoked some of it or made jerky so that they could store some beef on the summit.

        • Tim says:

          This makes me wonder about the food they had for military campaigns. Smoked beef and jerky would have been useful on a long march involving overnight camps. When I looked at warfare and logistics for my dissertation I homed in on Bede’s reference to the weaponless peasants (rustici) who carried food for the Northumbrian army in 679, and also the mention of a ‘meagre ration’ (stipendium) when St Cuthbert did military service. I didn’t go into much detail about specific types of food such as meat. My main theory was that the tribute system may have been exploited for provisioning an army on campaign. The question of whether or not a stock of preserved meat was carried on the march would, however, be interesting to explore.

  4. […] Clarkson of Senchus asks Where’s the beef? in early […]

  5. Interesting news and a great post, Tim. After all, an army marches on its stomach…

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jon. It’s one of only a handful of posts where I’ve touched on a topic from my dissertation. Makes me think I really ought to start using the dusty old tome a bit more for blogging, even if chunks of it are probably out-of-date by now.

  6. esmeraldamac says:

    How curious – to feast before the battle, not afterwards. But entirely pragmatic – go to battle on a full stomach, and they didn’t know who would win, or who would survive for a feast later.

    I guess, perhaps, that a large dinner of beef was very unusual, which makes it more remarkable to them than it immediately sounds to us.

  7. Tim says:

    Feasting seems to have played an important part in the cohesion of a warband on the eve of a military venture. It’s a topic I’m keen to explore in more depth, in which case the first place I’ll look is the published research of Finbar McCormick whose contribution to the Edinburgh Castle report is cited above. Two papers I’d like to get hold of are:

    McCormick, F. 2009 ‘Ritual feasing in Iron Age Ireland’ in G. Cooney, Katarina Becker, J. Coles, M. Ryan and S. Sievers (eds.) Relics of old decency: archaeological studies in later prehistory (Bray: Wordwell), 405-412.

    E. Murray, F. McCormick and G. Plunkett 2004 ‘The food economies of Atlantic island monasteries: the documentary and archaeo-environmental evidence’, Environmental Archaeology, 9, 2004, 179-189.

    The heroic poetry does appear to confirm your guess, Diane. It suggests that a feast where beef was consumed in large quantities was a special treat, an occasional (and conspicuous) display of the high life by the upper classes.

    • You might also be interested Stephen Pollington. (2009) The Mead-Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Books.

      I’m surprised there isn’t more mention of pork. Roast boar would seem like a good feast. I’m sure there would have been wild boar around. Anywhere domestic pigs can escape they become feral and wild (with tusks) very quickly. Its amazing how fast they can transform. You would think that it would be bred out of modern domestic pigs, but its not.

      • Tim says:

        I didn’t know that about domestic pigs changing when they escape into the wild. It’s good to hear of these little victories for Nature (if that’s what they are).

        I wonder if anyone has written about pork/wild boar? It must have been eaten at feasts but maybe didn’t have the ritual potency of beef. Off the top of my head I can think of only one instance of pork being consumed in a high-status setting: Vita Columbae (ii, 23) where a rich man on Islay eats the meat of a fattened sow roasted on a spit. I think the only reference in the Gododdin occurs in the ‘nursery rhyme’ (Dinogad’s Smock) which mentions wild pigs being hunted in the hills.

        I’d either forgotten about the Pollington book or (more likely) failed to spot it at all. So thanks for the ref. This time I’ve made a note of it.

        • Tim says:

          In the comment above I should have mentioned (for Diane especially) that the hills referred to in ‘Dinogad’s Smock’ are probably the Lake District mountains.

          Also, I think Michelle’s reference to the Pollington book might have been meant for Diane.

          • esmeraldamac says:

            Well, we have hills, we had wild pigs of some sort ( I guess, given traditional foods), and we probably had smocks! 😉 That’s very exciting, though, Has the poem been given a date?

            … and thank you, Michelle. So much information, so little time…

        • There are plenty of wild pigs in Celtic folklore like Culhwch and Olwen. Isn’t the wild boar found in either Anglo-Saxon or Welsh art?

          WIld boar are mean. Probably second only to a bear in Britain, more dangerous than a wolf if it decides to come after you. I wonder if they were even able to keep them domestically or if they were fattened in the forest and then caught/hunted for meat? (which is what they did in frontier America) Unlike cows or sheep, pigs can take care of themselves (for food and protection) alone in the woods/wild.

          The only wild pig I can think of in early medieval history is the pig that Patrick and his sailors found in Gaul when they were starving after escaping slavery in Ireland.

          • badonicus says:

            Weren’t the domestic pigs of the time related to what is now the Tamworth?

          • Tim says:

            Michelle, it’s a long time since I looked at Culhwch & Olwen but I remember the fearsome wild pig Twrch Trwyth who was hunted by Arthur himself. Exciting stuff!

            In Vita Columbae the sow cooked on Islay seems to have been fattened in the wild as part of a group of pigs. At least, this is how I’m seeing it.

            Mak, I’m totally in the dark about pig breeds. No doubt somebody has done research on the ones that were around in early medieval times. If so, it’s not an area I’ve ever encountered, although it would be interesting to find out. I saw a few things about different breeds of horses and cattle, probably 15-20 years ago, but I can’t recall reading about other animals.

  8. Tim says:

    Following on from Mak’s comment, here’s a link to a picture of a Tamworth pig. As I said to Mak, I know zilch about early medieval breeds, so if anyone has knowledge of this topic I’d welcome it.

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