Dr Aidan Breen Memorial Lecture, 2015, given by Dr Margaret Murphy

The North Wexford Historical hosted the third annual Dr Aidan Breen memorial in Gorey Library on Thursday the 26th November. This year’s lecture was given by Dr Margaret Murphy, a lecturer in History at Carlow College. She has published widely on various aspects of Social, Economic and ecclesiastical history of the later medieval age. She is both a co-editor and contributor to the recently published “Agriculture Settlement in Ireland. She is currently secretary of the Group for the study of Irish Historic Settlement. Both her parents are from the North Wexford area.

The theme of her lecture was “From Farm to Table- Agriculture and Diet in Medieval Ireland”. As the late Dr Breen’s main areas of research was in the area of medieval history, the Society decided at the outset that the commerative lectures would be in this specialised area of study. We have been fortunate to date that the content of previous lectures by Professor Donnchadh O’Corrain and Philip Casey were in keeping with this theme. Dr Murphy’s lecture covered the early medieval period from 400 AD to 1100 AD and the later medieval period from 1100 AD to 1550 AD. The lecture commenced with Dr Murphy outlining the nature of research material available for the former period including law tracks, literary sources such as poetry, Lives of the Saints, Monastic Annals. They are a very important source of yearly accounts of agricultural activity.

She went to outline the documentary sources for the later medieval period from 1100 AD to 1550 AD including Manorial accounts, judicial proceedings, household accounts, Monastic accounts and Murage (from the Latin for wall) accounts. Murage are defined as accounts kept by Walled Towns, wherein taxes were levied on goods sold within the walls. Dr Murphy then dealt with the importance of livestock, particularly cows. She also dealt with the nature of archaeological evidence, such as seeds found in excavations, corn-drying kilns, watermills and the evidence for the existence of a of a tidal mill at Nendrum, Co. Down for an “explosion” in framing.
The change brought to farming by the Normans was covered in extensive detail, e.g. crop rotation, (moving from a two-year to three year cycle), heavier ox-drawn ploughs, haymaking, dovecotes and rabbit warrens. They also introduced the “Manorial “system into Ireland. Manorial accounts detail the active management of manorial resources over the year, as they comprised accounts for receipts, expenses and stock account which included the numbers of various farm stock. Land was measured in term of the number of cattle it could sustain.
A small number of Manorial accounts survive, including two from County Carlow namely, Feenagh and Forth. Dr Murphy referred to The Old Ross Manor accounts showing a steep percentage rise in the numbers of sheep kept in a period from 1281 to 1289. This account showed the amount of cheese sold for a two year period from 1283 to 1284 was 231 stone bringing an income of £7 14s. A sum of 6 shillings 3 pence was expended on salt, presses and linen cloths for the diary.

Dr Murphy also drew our attention to the very “fine dining” enjoyed by the monks of the priory of the Holy Trinity, Dublin in the mid 14th century. Among the items purchased from abroad were almonds, ginger, mustard figs, wine. She also noted that Ale was a very important part of the medieval diet due to the unsatisfactory nature of drinking water. Grain was used for bread-making and in brewing. Wool was very “exportable” commodity as it was in much demand in the Low Countries.
This is a brief summary of a very excellent lecture, well-illustrated with slides, including a painting of a figure from a Dublin Hospital, from either the 13th or 14th century, who was suffering from “ DISH” ( Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis, a degenerative disease caused by over-eating) graphs and an excellent handout. She concluded her lecture with a very appropriate quotation from the French medieval historian, George Duby who said that “Show me what someone eats and I will show you who they were.”

Dr Murphy is to be commended on the work that she put into this lecture. It was clearly appreciated by the large attendance. The night was who rounded off in the best possible manner with the audience asking some very interesting questions.