Friday, May 29, 2009

Some Latin Measures

This is more for me than for any other reason but as long as I’m making a crib sheet, I might as well post it in case it is useful for someone else. I will add to this as needed.

Hectare -- a modern measure of area, equal to 2.471 acres or 107,639 sq. ft.

Roman Modius -- a measure of volume, often used to measure grain. I will use 8.73 liters as the size of this unit. It is interesting to note that it is often translated as “about two gallons”.

Carolingian Modius -- According to Verhulst and Grierson-Blackburn, it is suspected that in 793-4, Charlemagne increased the size of the official modius by 50%. This would make the new modius equal to about 13.1 liters.

Bonarius (aka Buonarius, pl. b(u)onarii) -- a measure of area used in the Carolingian Empire, given as 1.38 hectares (or 3.41 acres) in The Carolingian Economy (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks)
, by Adriaan Verhulst. “The normal occupancy of a mansus is one tenant [family] and it’s legal size is 16 bonarii.” p. 45. 16 bonarii is 54.56 acres.

Iornales (aka Iurnales) -- this word appears not to be a unit of measurement, but rather a vague word meaning “plowlands”.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

And Another

I got my other shipment of books from Kalamazoo today, this time from The University of Chicago Press. I got The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England, but I probably won’t get a chance to read that one for a while, and it’s not quite appropriate for this blog.

The other one though, is quite pertinent to what goes on here: Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome. It contains over 150 recipes reconstructed for the modern cook.

With a quick glance I’m both very impressed and disappointed. The recipes appear to very weak. They do not give good quantities and measurements (though they are better than the original latin), nor do they give good substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients, like garum. On the up-side, there is a lot of good additional information and detail both on the recipe, the ingredient and its relation to Roman culture.

There was one recipe that stood out and grabbed me and I may try it out over the weekend. Called Libum it is a flat bread simply made by combining white flour with ricotta cheese, then baking the cheese dough. It sounds simple and it sounds good. I’ll post how it turns out.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Two 15th Century Cookery Books

While I was at K’zoo I ordered three books and the first one arrived today -- Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books. It is the re-print of a copyright-free text available online here.

I guess I didn’t pay too close attention at the con, because it was quite a surprise that it is in Middle English. That’s not a major problem to translate, but I was taken a bit aback. It makes me happy that I found this website a few weeks ago:

If I get really into this, I could see myself translating and adding modern measurements to many of these . . .

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Planting Wheat - 7 weeks in

After my last post I was really going to try to post every weekday. As you can tell, that hasn’t happened. I’ve got four separate entries half-written and I just need to find time to finish them.

I spent another hour plus weeding yesterday and the field looks good.

The big surprise is my pot of winter wheat:

I don’t know if you can see it in this pic, but most of the tall stalks have ears of seeds. Yes they do! I have grown grain!

In this close-up you can see the sheaf and and the spiky awns coming off of each grain. They are still quite green and the other stalks don’t have nearly as many rows of grain as this one, but I am very pleased.

Yeah, wheat!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Carolingian Economics

[And he manages to get the post in on Monday with 18 minutes to spare. Phew!]

Charlemagne ruled over the Kingdom of the Franks from 768 to 814 AD. He was crowned Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day in the year 800. His reign saw a number of reforms and steps toward civilization. He standardized coinage, standardized writing scripts, and encouraged his underlings to be organized and efficient.

Part of this latter effort led to the creation of polyptychs (or polyptyques), theoretically standardized books of accountings and inventories of the royal and ecclesiastical estates of the Empire. While they aren’t standardized or organized by modern standards, they do list things like: how much land they control, how many people work that land, what sort of obligations to they own to the estate, are they free or slaves (or in-between), what is grown on those lands, etc. They bear some similarity to the Domesday Book of 250 years later.

The University of Leicester has a wonderful website that details ten of these documents, both in the original medieval Latin and translated into English. A truly stunning resource that likes of which one does not expect to find for free on the internet.

One of my purchases at Kalamazoo, The Carolingian Economy by Adriaan Verhulst, has led me through them quite nicely, reading every nuance to get as much information as possible out of their sparse words. Reading them myself I’m left wanting more. In places they are so precise, listing tenants off by name, for example, or counting off exactly how many animals people own. Yet at the same time they are so vague, using words like “plowlands” instead of acres or similar unit of actual measurement.

They do often say something like “enough land to sow 20 modii of grain”, which could be used to get some raw numbers. I think in the future, I’ll play with some of these and see what I can come up with.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trencher Denying

If there’s one thing that people know about Medieval bread is that people used to use bread instead of plates and eat off of it.

This is a great bit of SCA theater that really draws you into the era. I mean, it’s great to be able to do something so very easy that is also very alien to our modern sensibilities that it pulls us into that fantasy world and out of the modern. And eating your stew off a stale slice of bread does this very well.

But I’m going to call shenanagins. At least for the common folk.

It just doesn’t seem practical to me, and practicality matters to people living in a marginal environment. Certainly people used bread to soak up and mop up every last bit of soup, porridge, pottage or broth. Certainly, soup, stew or broth (or even milk, ale or water) were used to soften and flavor stale or fresh bread. A lack of waste would be the goal.

Trenchers seem wasteful to me. Or at least you have to be very careful to not be wasteful. If you pour soup or stew that is going to be liquid enough to soak into the whole trencher, some is going to soak through onto your table/eating board/bowl. If it is thick enough to not soak through, there are going to be large parts of the bread (ie. the edges and corners) that don’t get softened.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, in her book, The History of Food, claims, “Soup, in fact, derives from ‘sop’ or ‘sup’, meaning the slice of bread on which broth was poured.”

My Webster’s (Third New International Unabridged) Dictionary says for the etymology of Sop: “a piece of food (such as bread) dipped or steeped before being eaten” and “the liquid into which food is dipped before being eaten”. For Sup, it gives several different meanings: From the Old French soupe meaning “a piece of bread soaked in broth, soup” but under another definition, from the Old English, Old Norse, Old High German and Middle High German, “to sip, to drink, to swallow”.

Even going with the Old French definition I don’t think that proves that Soup = Trencher.

Now we know that trenchers were used by the nobility and maybe even during festivals, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Everyday, common usage by everyday, common folk is what this blog is about and how this look at trenchers should be taken.

I'll post more evidence for this as I find it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Planting Wheat - Weeding (6 weeks+)

I spent an hour and half weeding the rest of the plot. It’s not the most fun I’ve ever had, but it has a certain charm that is growing on me -- assuming the weather is right. It could be hard on the knees (but I have knees pads) and it could be hard on the back (less so if it was planted properly in rows).

One thing it did give me was a very close-up look at what is happening at the ground level. There are spots where seeds just didn’t germinate. I can still see the seeds lying there on the soil. There are spots where they grew quite well and taller than in other areas. I have no idea how to explain the difference nor did I see any patterns.

Here’s a picture of the garden (compare it to yesterday’s pictures):

All of the green visible in this picture is wheat.

And here is a patch that grew well:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Planting Wheat - 6 weeks in

I just got back from the medieval congress at Kalamazoo. It was a fun time, an educational time and an exhausting time. I met good people (though not as many as I wanted to) and I can’t wait to go again, although that night not be for a few years if my daughter really does go to Germany as an exchange student.

If anyone is interested in my experience at Kzoo 2009, it can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. It’s mostly not about living history, so I didn’t feel like I should post directly here. Over the next few days though, I should get the specifically food, mead and daily life bits and post about them here.

I also visited my parents who live in an RV but who spend some of their summer visiting my aunt in rural Indiana. There I got to see mile after mile of corn fields (maize, that is), still filled with the stubble of last year’s harvest. I was told it was still too wet to plow and plant this year.

But that means that I haven’t even looked at my own wheat field in two whole weeks, and what a lot has happened in those days!

The weeds have taken over! The wheat is still there but definitely needs help. I spent nearly an hour today pulling them out, and that is a pretty tedious job. I did about a third of it in that hour and the results are obvious.

My little planter of winter wheat has really taken off. The picture's not great, but these stalks are now over a foot long.

I’m going out right after this to finish up since it is supposed to rain this evening.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


I just got an email from Bountiful Gardens advertising some of their new items up for sale. Among them was this book:

Booklet #33: Grow Your Own Grains by Carol Cox, 2008, 28 pp

Ecology Action Research Papers,

At last! Basic grain raising and harvesting on a small scale, appropriate for a home garden. How to grow and use barley, oats, cereal rye, triticale, wheat, amaranth, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum and teff. Carol Cox is the Garden Manager at our Ecology Action Research Mini-Farm in Willits, and has been growing all kinds of grains for many years. A working paper.

I think I’ll put in an order for that one . . .

Friday, May 1, 2009

Planting Day, 2 weeks later

I have shoots!

The weeding has gotten more difficult now since I can’t reach across the garden to reach all of the weeds I need to get to without trodding in the garden. But I don’t want to step on my nice little sprouts, so I’m treading carefully, leaning farther out than I should and straining my back in interesting and unexpected ways. Planting in orderly rows with paths between them definitely has its merits!

One thing I do notice is that there are some patches that are putting up a high density of little shoots, and there are other patches that seem devoid of wheat. I am very curious to know whether this represents poor sowing or some other effect. Maybe some patches are growing faster than others due to light or soil? Maybe some areas got more water than other? Unlikely that one. But I’m curious.