Things that I should know: according to Deirdre Larkin at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the people who runs the marvellous blog there on their medieval garden, in Spain and Portugal the acorns of the holm oak, which are sweeter than regular acorns, are still sometimes used to make meal for bread, and presumably have been for a long long time. Given that a lot of the scenery in my much-beloved subject area looks like this…
Scenery around the hills south-west of Sant Hilari Sacalm
… which is basically holm oaks and the little local pines, that’s probably not a bad extra source of food in times of poor harvest or poor lords.
The reasons I should know this are twofold: firstly, you know, I’ve been there a bit and have family and friends who live there. Secondly, one of the most interesting articles I ever read about early medieval Catalonia, and by extension about medieval life generally, was one that I’ve talked about before by a man called Peter Reynolds who did reconstructive medieval farming, about what else than the main cereal crops there was that grew which medieval people could have eaten, what he called the ‘third harvest’. He was pretty cynical about lords and renders, and figured that almost all the wheat and oats that the average peasant could grow, in his autumn and spring harvests respectively, would go to the lords as renders, for human and for horse feed respectively. I think that probably they did get to eat wheat bread usually and oaten bread in the slack times, even if I’m sure that they did have to give a lot of it up. But Reynolds really came into his own pointing out how many other plants that grow in hedges and so on were known to early modern peasants, especially a thing called Fat Hen or goosefoot, which grows leaves that are not unlike cabbage and seeds that can be ground for a reasonable bread, but many others too, and would presumably have been known to their forebears too.
Goosefoot, or fat hen, growing in the wild
I had just become aware of the whole ‘weapons of the weak‘ school of thought about lord and peasant relations at that point, and was quite taken with the extra independence in the face of a dogmatic oppression this gave my poor pre-Catalans, even if I didn’t agree that these alternatives probably made up most of the actual diet. I guess only phytolith analysis and so on would settle this, and it’s sadly now too late for Dr Reynolds to care. But, now I have a copy of this article in PDF, I can say: it’s right there in his text, along with the sweet chestnut that I do remember him mentioning it. Just didn’t stick for some reason. I should have known this because I’ve read it before. Dammit, brain.
Referring here to Peter J. Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351 with English abstract p. 352, esp. pp. 345-346; it’s online unpaginated here, from where also much more about Dr Reynolds’s work in both Catalonia and England.