As with many ancient societies, the early Irish did not use coinage. They still had a complex system of value, which may welll have changed over time or from area to area.
One unit of value was cattle,which were used as currency up to around 1400 CE, long after the introduction of coinage. This could be “exchanged” to a value in sét, “jewels”, ungae, “ounce” (usually of silver), or cumal, “female slave”. The mug, “male slave”, was never used as a unit of value. The cumal seems to have been the basic unit and may have been worth 2 sét,, but if one was being paid reparation for a crime, it would be paid in sét if you were a noble or a poet below the rank of king, and in cattle if you were a farmer.
The most frequent use in the law texts for giving such values is the lóg n-enech, “honour price” (literally, “face value”!). The reparation needed to pay for a crime against someone of a given rank was expressed as a fraction of the honour price. While this is usually given in cumal, there are often equivalents given in ungae, “ounces” of silver, and sometimes gold. The lóg n-enech of the lowest rank of king was 7 cumals.
Here are the types of cattle used for payment and their relative value. It is hard to give a stable value in cumal, as there are many different exchange rates cited in the many law texts.
The basic unit was a milch cow, usually with her calf. The following types are given as a fraction of the value of the milch cow.
In-calf cow = two-thirds of a milch cow
Three-year-old heifer = half of milch cow
Two-year-old heifer = one third of milch cow
Yearling heifer = one quarter of milch cow
Yearling bullock = one eighth of milch cow
In one law text, there is an equal value given for a milch cow, a cumal, an ounce of silver and 2 sét. Another source gives the value of a cumal as 6 or 7 sét. Yet another values a cumal as 40 sét. Since commerce and trade are both ancient and widespread, it may be that there were effectively several currencies in use in ancient Ireland, with a regularly, or even regionally, varying exchange rate. Whatever the case was, cattle were undoubtedly the longest-used currency, stretching right into early modern times.
For a more in-depth account of Irish currency and cattle, read these two fantastic books by Fergus Kelly:
10 thoughts on “Cows as Currency”
Interesting article Im chuffed someone is writing stuff like this in a nice readable style :D
You mention commerce and trade and I think the cow as a unit of currency might tell us something about that. Cattle as movable wealth is a pretty crap system in comparson to coinage. Id say that implies that commerce at the time was limited.
Taking the Set too, it might mean the authors of the day saw a deficiency that maybe they viewed the system as a bit parocial. Its unusual that silver is mentioned as movable wealth when it doesnt appear in the record before Viking Dublin. Maybe the set like a lot of brehon law might represent the ideal more then the common reality and knowing silver was commonly used in other places they related the system they saw here to a more cosmopolitian one.
I think even looking at the society of the day that there might not have been much chance that commerce was thriving in Ireland. With 150 kings at one time everyone was going to be pretty similar, even a king wasnt going to have a significantly better a life style then the common person. It might not have been possible for people to generate a large surplus of any good and since everyone lived similar lives anyway producing the same stuff at home there might not have been much of anything particular in demand. Since irish people didnt live in towns there probably werent many markets for people to sell a surplus of anything they mightve had. Keeping in mind that most of what people produced mightve been perishable waiting til the next oenech to sell it might not have been feasable.
Great article it got me thinkin. Thanks :)
Thanks for the comment!
I would point out in response that a society must have quite a high level of wealth and sophistication if they are to support a learned class. The existence of several parallel currencies reflects the diversity in the society of the time. The fact that honour-prices were expressed in a currecy deemed appropriate to a person’s role in society – cattle for agricultural workers, séts for those with non-productive wealth (nobles, poets etc) and cumals for the many grades of king shows an appreciation of diverse commercial activity.
It is also worth pointing out that the English word, “chattles” (movable property) has the same root as the word “cattle”, so cows as a representation of movable wealth was not restricted to Ireland.
I am no archaeologist, but the archaeological record does show finds in Ireland that can only have come from international trade – not least the Barbary Ape found in Navan Fort!
I think we should not underestimate the mobility and prosperity of our ancestors. They have a deep capacity to surprise us…
Thanks for replying :) I hadnt noticed that the different types of payments were specific to different classes. Its an interesting perspective. A more economically stratified society might have existed.
Though why was the cow so significant in history and prehistory if the people with means were trading by other means? Prior to the 8th c we farmed cows almost excluding pigs and sheep and grazing land existed at the expense of grain crops. You couldnt have more cows then you could sustain no matter how many you could accumulate so to support the herd we limited our agrarian economy. We didnt even have hay so in the winter the dry stock were killed off assembly sites were the sites of huge slaughters. So we were even limited seasonally. We are the only culture in europe to have done it, I think vedic india might be the only culture that had a similar reliance on cows. Its a bizarre thing if we had other ways of accumulating wealth. The cow really is crap as moveable wealth.
The barbary ape, if back in the iron age we had a similar society to the one we see in the Brehon Laws but with that cow focus Id say it was just a presiege item got through a down the line trading system. 150 kings and each tuath being its own state with limited grazing land in each tuath means wealth wise even a king of a province wasnt living much better then his client kings. the main difference was prestiege and a huge importance might have been place on prestiege because of that. An ape would be a prestiege item rather then something like roman dinnerwear that would mean the kings of Ulaid had a better more cosmopolitan lifestyle then the other kings and were able to trade more frequently.
Though if we were supporting a learned class and they werent famers like everyone else with a job on the side that brought them prestiege and if they were being paid in slaves and gold something that would be a measure of wealth for them but not for the majority then that might be hard to see in the archaeology. They wouldnt have ring forts for keeping cattle safe from wolves or raiders so wed never see them and they might not have been buried in the latin/christian style if they were resistant to its influence and they might have been cremated so wed never see grave goods…
Theory kicks bottom anyway! This is the most fun Ive had online in ages thanks again :)
thank you for helping me with my finance PowerPoint. I got a d ;)