The Highland Cow is a relatively old breed but not to be identified as the kind of medieval cattle mentioned in the Irish law tracts. There are some medieval breeds left, but they are increasingly rare. One thing is certain, the medieval cow would have been a good all-around animal: offering lots of meat, a workable hide and substantial milk production.
In his Guide to Early Irish Law, Fergus Kelly (1988) provides the following list of currencies mentioned in the law codes. The relative values differ in many contexts from those he provides, but these are the most common by far.
- dartaid (a yearling bullock): 1/8
- dairt (a yearling heifer): ¼
- colpthach (two-year-old heifer): 1/3
- samaisc (three-year-old dry heifer): ½
- bó inláeg (in-calf cow): 2/3
- bó mlicht (milch cow): 1
- sét (standard object of value): ½
- cumal (female slave): 3
- screpul (scruple of silver): 1/24
- ungae (ounce of silver): 1
To these we might also add:
- grain (a grain of corn/barley):1/576
- pinginn (a penny of silver): 1/72
These two values need some explanation, though, as they are entangled with the use of minted silver coinage (airgeint) in Ireland. As such, a grain is properly a value of weight rather than monetary currency, but the value of precious metal is often tied to its weight so I feel justified in including it here. My real interest in this post is to speculate on how this economic system translates into the monetary currency of our own day. Just from the above figures it should be clear that the legal tracts were operating within a rather artificial framework based on thirds and quarters. The rather significant number 72 shows up as the number of silver pennies needed to equal the worth of a milch cow, and thus also a full ounce of silver. As noted below, this means that silver in Ireland was worth far more than it is today.
Based on recent (2010) market-activity in the U.K., an in-calf, Friesian / Holstein cow over the last year has sold at about £1400, with differences of about £200 between a heifer (.i. a cow that has not calved before) and a cow (DairyCo 2010). Bull-calves vary enormously according to breed with Friesian / Holsteins bringing in about £46/head over the last season, but Hereford cross-breeds bringing in £144/head over the same period of time. If we were to take the average price of an in-calf cow as the basis for the above table, the following numbers would result:
- dartaid (a yearling bullock): £262.50 (1/8)
- dairt (a yearling heifer): £525 (1/4)
- colpthach (two-year-old heifer): £700 (1/3)
- samaisc (three-year-old dry heifer): £1050 (½)
- bó inláeg (in-calf cow): £1400 (2/3)
- bó mlicht (milch cow): £2100 (1)
- sét (standard object of value): £1050 (½)
- cumal (female slave): £6300 (3)
- screpul (scruple of silver): £87.50 (1/24)
- ungae (ounce of silver): £2100 (1)
- grain (a grain of corn/barley):£3.65 (1/576)
- pinginn (a penny of silver): £29.17 (1/72)
If anything, the only conclusions to be drawn from this are that the economy of early Ireland was very different from that of today and that in many ways cattle are a more stable unit of value than modern currency. The flexibility of modern monetary denominations unfortunately also implies a proclivity towards devaluation through inflation. The uses of cattle as a source of food and material resources is undermined to a certain degree by modern post-industrial culture, but it could never be devalued as greatly as most modern currencies that only have relative value as a basis. If anything, the values here should indicate the usefulness of the legal tracts’ artificial system. With some further analysis, the numbers above might just indicate that a more practical economy is represented in the tracts than what is in place today’s world where it is cheaper to fly across North America in five legs than directly.
Kelly, F. (1988) A Guide to Early Irish Law. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Gerriets, M. (1985) ‘Money in Early Christian Ireland According to the Irish Laws’ in Comparative Studies in Society and History 27, 323–339.
DairyCo (2010) DairyCo Datum — UK Cow and Heifer Prices [online]. Available at http://www.dairyco.org.uk/datum/farm-inputs/cow–heifer-prices/uk-cow–heifer-prices.aspx > [31 May 2010]