Monthly Mystery: Porridge please – oats and medieval agriculture from Shrewsbury to Wales
- 1st April 2016
If you were to imagine the medieval farming landscape along the western borders of England and Wales, you would probably not think of fields of oats. Wheat is more likely to spring to mind, and probably sheep too. However, recently Worcestershire Archaeology has excavated an archaeological site at Mytton Oak on the west side of Shropshire, where samples of soil have revealed burnt oats across large areas of a medieval settlement. This is not the normal pattern for the West Midlands, and it’s prompted me to ask some questions about what we have found.
At Mytton Oak we uncovered a sunken stone building next to a kiln, and it seems that the building and kiln were joined. We found thick burnt deposits in the kiln and the building and so brought samples of this back to the office, along with similar samples from pits and ditches from across the medieval settlement.
We found large quantities of burnt cereal crop waste in the kiln and the deposits relating to the construction of the building. Radiocarbon dating of oat grains showed that the building was constructed in the 11th to 13th centuries and that the last firing of the kiln also fell within this time period. About 95% of the charred crop waste was made up of oat grain, with only occasional wheat grains and crop weed seeds, showing that these remains were residues of mainly oat crops, which had been cleaned and processed. The kiln would have been used to parch or dry the cleaned grain, but judging by the frequency with which we find burnt crop residues in kilns and corn driers, obviously accidents sometimes happened, and it’s clear that the crop burnt rather than parched. Someone obviously didn’t burn the cakes this time – just the grain before it was milled into flour.
We found similar oat-rich burnt waste in pits and ditches too, even where iron working seemed to be the main activity. It was the main cereal in use, so for what purpose was it grown? We often associate oats with animal fodder, particularly with horses, so perhaps it was grown for fodder. However, given the abundance of oats here, unless there were large herds of livestock to provide for, it seems more likely that it was the main food crop. Oatmeal would have been used for oatcakes and the grain in porridges and pottages, for instance.
Whilst we find oats on medieval sites (particularly Saxon or early medieval sites) across England, they are only rarely the dominant crop. Wheat was always the grain of choice for food as it made fine, well-risen bread. Sometimes we find barley-rich material, and in these cases, it may be the residues of malting to produce beer. In areas where soils are mostly sandy, rye can predominate as it grows better on poor soils than wheat.
Since working on this material, I have found that two other sites, excavated several years ago in Shrewsbury, are similarly very ‘oaty’. These sites were at Riggs Hall, adjacent to the remains of Shrewsbury Castle, and the former Owen Owen store in the town centre. Looking further afield, it appears that from the Dark Ages and through the medieval period in Wales, oats were the most important crop. Why so many oats?
Certainly, for Wales the answer may be that oats deal better with high rainfall, cooler, shorter growing seasons and the poor, impoverished soils of the uplands than wheat. Growing wheat successfully in these environments can be more of a hit and miss affair, depending on the weather. For Shrewsbury, the answer may be less clear. The soils are poor (slightly acidic) but the town lies on lower land, so how much could climate and poor soils have affected the crops that people were growing? Could the oat-dominated agriculture be a cultural phenomenon – one more influenced here by Welsh tradition than English? After all, Shrewsbury is only 9 miles from the Welsh border today. These are just a couple of questions that we could ask.