What Value Cattle?

This post appeared first last year in a blog that I have since abandoned. I reissue it here with no updating, as I intend to expand on this topic later.

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]


5 responses to “What Value Cattle?

  1. I’ve never seen a cow that looked like that. I grew up in a farm state, so I’ve seen many different breeds, but that looks almost like bison/buffalo genes. Thanks for the Irish lesson too! I only know a bit of the Welsh, and no Scottish at all except some surnames and brands of whiskey.

    • Yes those are the ever lovely but very hairy and pointy highland cows. The nice thing is that they are still the usual cow up in the highlands of Scotland, although they are properly black and not the orange colour you often see these days. The further back you go, the more you would see something that looked like a bison. One of the earlier words for ‘cow’ in Norse referred to the Auroch, a now extinct relative of both the modern cow and the yak. Apparently, there are several attempts now to bring back the Auroch, though the only one to actually produce an animal was the breeding program that led to the Heck Auroch. (I totally just pulled this from Wikipedia, so here is the article.)

      For anyone who doesn’t know, Invisible Mikey posts on a variety of topics involving politics, religion and popular culture (along with more personal observations) at his blog by the same name. There are some excellent conversations in the reply posts, so check it out if your interested!

  2. The early cow would have been a good draft animal too, as well as meat, hide and milk. I think that the development of specialized types of cows, as well as other things, is symbolic of the problems that led to the current economic and general survival issues we have today. Sustainability has given way to profit with no regard to over all survival.

    • Yes, I always forget the draft-animal possibility, mostly because (I think) that I presume any animal larger than I would be good for hauling! I go back and forth with the sustainability issue, though I completely agree that the specialization of animal-use is tied to the development of our current society. Sometimes I think that a completely interdependent society could be sustainable, but most of the time I think that the loss of independent sustainability = death at all levels in the long run.

      For anyone who does not know, Saigh runs a Gaelic heathen blog at Dùn Sgàthain, posting on the practical necessities of homesteading and the involved issues of reconstructing a faith based on our far ancestors. She can explain it better than I (though she has no patience for BS), so check it out!

      • I have a particular interest in the whole farming thing, even if I have no interest in going back to ancient ways I do like to investigate them. Oxen fascinate me. The possibility of cows in our future is something we discuss…it does remain a hefty investment so it’s just talk at this point.

        I think that sustainability is probably best achieved by a balance, being able to work with neighbors to have a wider variety of talents and materials, but at the same time if that interdependence breaks down for some reason it’s good to have a broad enough range yourself to survive that. Over specialization creates too much dependence. As for animals from a homesteading pov, the more one species can provide, the more economical for the small farm that has only a few. Specialized breeds can only create a profit for those establishments which can market what they specialize in such a way that, well, I think disrupts sustainability for all in the long run.

        Thanks for the blog props. ~;)

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