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‘Feoh’: Old English Cows, Wealth and Etymology

Written by Amelia Spanton

Hana Videen’s The Word Hoard: Daily Life in Old English contains intriguing etymological insights interwoven with old English history. When reading it earlier this year, I was immediately interested in the curious Old English words it held within its pages. 

The term ‘Old English’ itself encompasses the language in Britain from around the 5th century up to the late 11th century. With a range of influences, from Latin to Old Norse, it also incorporated runes.

Standing out in this book’s fascinating web of words, phrases and etymology is the language relating to wealth. We now typically associate ‘wealth’ with designer fashion and expensive cars. However, looking back to the Old English conception reveals a different story. 

feoh, n.n: cattle, livestock; property, wealth, money; value, price, fee; name of the F-rune ᚠ. (FEH-oh / ˈfɛɔx)

In the case of feoh, cattle and livestock are distinctly identified with ‘property, wealth, money’ as well as ‘value, price, fee’. This interesting combination of meanings suggests the centrality of livestock to not only individual wealth but the economy at-large.

Ashmole Bestiary. England (Peterborough?), early 13th century. Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, f. 30v. [bestiary.ca]

Britain’s Economy 

Notably, by 1086, as recorded by the Domesday Book, the English economy was “fundamentally agrarian” with at least 90% of the population living rurally. As Videen explains, cattle and livestock were key for the provision of milk and meat as well as essential physical labour such as ploughing fields. Livestock were essential resources for individuals and Britain’s economy in the period. Not only did cattle symbolically represent value, but they were the value itself.  

Archaeological Insights 

What other evidence is there for the value of cattle and livestock? The archaeology of this period can tell us more. 

Terry O’Connor delves into the topic in Livestock and animal husbandry in early medieval England. O’Connor states the “magnitude of animal bone deposition clearly shows that cattle were managed and butchered on a large scale”. It is also stated that we must look beyond a “utilitarian” approach to cattle and that, “they were more than just meat”.  

So beyond the linguistics, evidence shows the management of large numbers of cattle and livestock and also that they held value beyond simply their meat. 

‘Cattle economy’ 

Similarly, Andrew Margett explores cattle and livestock and the resulting ‘cattle economy’ in early medieval England. He investigates this in-depth, particularly the concept in the South East region in his text “The Wandering Herd”: the medieval cattle economy of SE England, c. 450-1450 and in a talk for the British Agricultural History Society. He points out that throughout that region there are a number of place names that feature cattle-related elements from Old and Middle English, for example, ‘Cowshot Manor’, indicating the centrality of the cattle economy. Yet again we see the importance of cattle in the language and place of the period. 

Fascinating Feoh

These perspectives indicate a clear early medieval ‘cattle economy’ and the centrality of cattle to wealth in economic terms. Ultimately, as Videen concludes in her exploration of feoh, “Cattle were so important to the economy that linguistically they were equated with riches.”

These kinds of insights into the past we can glean from etymology and linguistics are fascinating. Would you like us to explore more old English language? Let us know and we’ll share more in the future! 

Further reading 

Discover more about Hana Videen and her book: https://oldenglishwordhord.com/about/ 

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