Speaking of Meat in Post-Conquest Britain


Dear Reader Arkein from the land of the Freedom Fries and EuroDisney set me a-thinking about Medieval barns, butcheries, kitchens and dinner-tables. I've got a story about that, and I believe it's far more likely to be true than that slanderous yarn about Louis XIV's pinkie.

The English language has different words for livestock species and for their meat. Cow -- beef. Pig -- pork. Sheep -- mutton. And there's a pattern to the linguistic descent of these words: the live-animal words were there already in Old English, whereas the meat words are French loan words appearing from the Middle English period onward.

Middle English (and Modern English, I might add) has been called a product of Anglo-French creolisation. After the Norman Conquest from AD 1066 onward, much of the UK had its social elite replaced by French-speaking Normans or at least culturally re-orientated to a French template. The members of this elite liked feasting on meat, and they talked about meat in French at the dinner table. Boeuf. Porc. Mouton. But the people who worked in the barns, butcheries and kitchens spoke English. Cow. Pig. Sheep. And so the language still preserves an ethnic and social distinction between people who eat meat and people who tend livestock.

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By the way, this is not a particularly new observation. Sir Walter Scott discussed it in "Ivanhoe."

Sounds plausible. However, in Swedish we also have separate words for the live animals and the meat (gris/fläsk for pig and pork; ko/nöt for cow and beef), and in this case they are not loanwords. Having separate terms for the animal and the meat product is thus not at all unique - in Japanese too there were separate terms (still seen in the use of "sakura" for horse meat and the use of the "gyuu" stem for beef and milk).

So the origin of beef and so on is most likely French, but it's not at all impossible that they just replaced other, older separate terms for the meat.

I think it's odd that there is no English word for a member of the bovine species, with no sex specified. "Bulls" are male, "cows" are female, "steers" are neutered males. City slickers get laughed at when they mistakenly refer to a bull or stter as a "cow." Compare to boar/sow/pig or ram/ewe/sheep. I once heard on the radio a rancher talking about bovines, and he referred to them as "beef animals." How awkward.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 21 May 2007 #permalink

Well, I never said that Ivanhoe was a good source document for the 12th century. I said that the observation had been made by Sir Walter Scott (that is, that particular observation was not particularly new). Hrmmmph.

By the way, a "beef" used to be a perfectly good singular noun that covered both sexes, with "beeves" as the plural. Somehow it just dropped out of use.

Dear friends, I shall order my reeve to send you a pair of fine beeves each. And I will never keep you for very long in my donjon.

My late father, who grew up on a ranch, still used the word "beeves." I think the word might still have some life as a regional dialect in the rural American West.

Another observation on the class use of a different terms for an animal and its meat: in the case of small game and fowl, which are foods the lower classes would have eaten, the name for the live animal and its meat are the same, e.g., chicken, rabbit, fish.

You forgot deer/venison and chickan/poultry. Also, a boef, was "cow" and not "cow-meat", likewise a peurc or whatever, was a hog and not hog-meat. Myself, I eat deer-meat and hog-meat, and that's how we say it. Likewise, in Choctaw, you say issi, deer, issinipi, deermeat, etc. hey how about kine? Nobody uses that anymore, but it was a word for cowses, made like ox/oxen, child/chirren, shoe/shoen, eye/eyen.

By mary.e.starr (not verified) on 21 May 2007 #permalink

Then there's porre-leek, ayren/eyren-eggs, funges-mushrooms, noumbles-entrails, veau/veal-calf, connynges/connies-rabbit, chevre-goat, civet/cyuee-stew, payn/pain-bread... These examples are from the first few pages of "Forme of Cury", a manuscript written around 1400. The word cury of course has nothing to do with Indian food but comes from the latin and french verb cuire-to cook.

The fun really begins with apples which are apples unless they are pippins (fr. word pepin-a seed or pip), so presumably pippins came from unnamed seedling trees and apples from named grafted varieties. Then there are dishes like pommedorry (french for apples of gold), which do not contain any apple but are meatballs formed in the shape of apples and gilded with egg yolk and saffron.

Wow guys, I'm learning!

That pomme d'or thing reminds me of the word for potato, pomme de terre. It seems the French named anything vaguely round and apple-sized une pomme.

As my proudly Gallic rant about pinkies seems to have inspired this latest blog entry I feel compelled to add my grain of salt (served with a clean - though non-aristocratic - pinky, of course). In French, the word 'porc' is the 'proper' term for pig in literary contexts, but the word is more commonly used to refer exclusively to the meat. The animal itself (but rarely the meat) is more colloquially referred to as 'cochon'. 'Boeuf' designates both the meat (be it from a male or female animal), and more technically, the castrated male bovine which usually provides it. The un-neutered male we called 'taureau' and the female, 'vache'.

As for freedom fries, we frenchies call them 'pommes frites', literally 'fried apples' -- and we were not particularly impressed by the taxonomic shift on the other side of the Atlantic since fries are in fact a Belgian invention (http://www.stim.com/Stim-x/9.2/fries/fries-sidebar-09.2.html).

Ironically, given the plausibly Gallic origins of the word 'beef', we call the British 'les rosbif' (from their putatively favourite dish of roast-beef) -- an admittedly lame come-back to the label 'froggies'.

I have never seen "cattle" used in the singular. But then, there are a lot of things I haven't seen.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 22 May 2007 #permalink

On the apple theme, there's pomegranate - pomme granade or apple of granada.

Tomatoes are listed in John Gerard's Herbal published 1596, as Apples of Love. He gives Pomum Aureum, Poma Amoris, Golden Apples and Pommes d'amours as alternative names.
On the previous page, he has Madde Apples which he also calls Raging apples. Based on the description they might be capsicum (sweet or bell peppers) or they might not be.

English also has the wonderfully confused pineapple, a fruit, not an apple, which looks like a pinecone and is not related to either. We could get even sillier and add custard apple and prickly pear.

And you keep telling us you're a bums man!

Expand out to food, after all you started this post with a discussion about meat. I'm sure you'll think of a few.

BTW did you know that in the middle ages meat was commonly served with fruit, where now in English cooking there's really only apple sauce with pork or cranberry with turkey. The old manuscripts are full of roasts with fruit sauces - cherry, strawberry, rosehip, pomegranate, the petals of various flowers... and stews and pies had raisins, currants, figs, dates, apples, pears, chicken was cooked in wine and oranges...

I had some vague notion, yes! Moroccan and Tunisian cuisine is still a lot like that, raisins and apricots all over the place.

My dad used to make pork roulades filled with dried plums and slivers of apple. In fact, traditional Swedish cooking has lingonberry jam, apple sauce and rowanberry jelly in some weird places. And my Chinese wife gladly eats fried herring with lingonberry jam and ajvar relish...

Lingonberries I have heard of, but never seen. I've never heard of rowanberries, and as for ajvar relish - what on earth is that?
The roulade sounds good.

Lingonberries are a bit like cranberries, deep red with a tart taste, growing on low forest plants. Rowanberries are orange tart berries that grow on rowan trees in great amounts and keep several Swedish bird species alive through the winters. (See my blog entry about flying rowan.)

Ajvar relish is a Hungarian condiment made principally from bell peppers. Having it with either herring or lingonberry would be innovative: my radical wife combines all three.

The pork+fruit roulades were OK, though I used to dig the fruit out and leave it. But my dad's best roulades are beef ones filled with onions and a strange Swedish fish preserve called ansjovis. It's a bit like anchovies, and many cook book authors get them mixed up, but ansjovis is heavily seasoned with, among other weird things, sandalwood! Yum.

You hear me, Swedish cook book authors? Anchovies are sardeller, and there is no English word for ansjovis!

Sandalwood is used in quite a number of medieval english dishes, as were sangdragon, alkenet, turnsole, and of course saffron.

Latin name is Alkanna tinctoria, it's also known as dyer's burgloss, and it belongs to the family Boraginaceae. The dye is extracted from the roots and is used for colouring fibres, especially wool, red. My modern herbal also mentions using the leaves for dressing wounds, but has no mention of culinary uses. I suspect that it is one of the many things they added to food which are now considered poisonous or otherwise dangerous. According to "Wild Colour", a book on natural dyes, the name "comes from the arabic "al hinna", which means "like henna"", but the plant originated in Europe.

All, right. You are all making me hungry. And that picture is not helping! I have to know. Where did the photo come from? It looks like a fruit-stuffed pork roast. I'll do that sometimes with either dried apricots or prunes. (different spices for different fruits)

Just take a long-handled wooden spoon and shove it through the pork, then use that same handle to shove the fruit into the hole you just made. (after, of course, soaking the fruit in a hot, alcoholic liquid like brandy or rum and mixing with the spices like ginger or mace) Roast it and enjoy. Not your dad's fruit-filled meat. :-)

By AbsolutelyNoFaith (not verified) on 24 May 2007 #permalink

I nick most of the pix I use from Google Image Search. This fine piece of meat came from The Monarchist. "Defending the British Crown Commonwealth and the English-Speaking Peoples - Splendour without Diminishment"!

Your M.O. regarding pork is a lot like my method of stuffing mutton roast with garlic slivers.