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In medieval Ireland, everybody – from low-ranking commoners to the noble classes – had to provide hospitality to those who dropped by.

Early Irish law tracts such as the Críth Gablach (Branched Purchase), which is thought to date to the 8th century, describes the customary hospitality laws that governed everyday life.

Anyone travelling throughout the country was entitled to food and lodgings, it says. Every householder had to step up and provide it, regardless of their rank in society. What guests were granted depended on each guest’s rank.

The Críth Gablach refers to the minimum hospitality that commoners and nobles should expect as guests when visiting another’s home. If guests were not served a certain food that they were entitled to, they could accuse their host of failing legally in their obligation. In other words, of breaking the law.

The lowest ranking commoner could, for instance, expect milk and cheese, or something made from cereals, perhaps a type of bread. But not butter, presumably since butter was made from cream, the richest part of the milk.

Photo by Maeve L’Estrange

The next graded commoner was to be fed the same items, but with a few extras such as a twelve-inch wooden mug full of thickened sour milk and a loaf of bread. This bread was quite likely to have been made from barley or oats, since wheat was considered a luxury cereal.

As the grades of commoner progressed up the social ladder, so too did the amount and range of food they could expect to be offered. The more important one became, the more foods they got. Eventually vegetables and meat were plated up, even butter, if it was a Sunday.

At the higher end of the scale, salt was offered, salt being a condiment usually only consumed by the nobility. Salted onions are mentioned, as are salted meats, such as venison or pork, which seem to be the meats commoners ate.

Pork may refer to both wild boar and domesticated pig: suckling or mature. Shoulder of pork was particularly favoured. Pork was cooked in rich spicy sauces and for a lavish feast, hosted by a member of the nobility, it was sometimes garnished with bands of gold and silver foil.

Pork in Pepper Sauce


  • 900g/2lb joint pork shoulder, or loin, trussed
  • 225g/8oz small onions, peeled
  • 600ml/1pt sweet white wine
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • Pinch of ground clove
  • Pinch of mace
  • ¼ tsp ground pepper


Cover the pork joint with cold water, bring to the boil, and simmer for 1½ hours. Put the onions into cold water, bring to the boil, and simmer for 10 minutes, then drain. Simmer the white wine and cinnamon for 5 minutes, remove the cinnamon and add the onions, cloves, mace and pepper.

Drain the pork, remove the fat and cut into cubes, add the wine, onion and spice mix, and simmer for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Maeve L'Estrange

Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by...

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