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Newsletter Blast from the Past: Gallic Dining through Greek Eyes

Originally published March 2013

Of course we have to take writings of foreigners with a grain of salt, but I thought some of these Greek quotes describing dining/feasting habits of the Gauls might be of interest. One of the last ones brings up a question in my mind.

“The Celts sit upon dried grass and have their meals served up on wooden tables raised slightly above the earth. Their food consists of a small number of loaves of bread together with a large quantity of meat, either boiled or roasted on charcoal or on spits. They partake of this in a cleanly but leonine fashion, raising up whole limbs in both hands and biting off the meat, while any part which if hard to tear off the cut through with a small dagger which hangs attached to their sword-sheath in its own scabbard. Those who live beside the rivers or near the Mediterranean, or Atlantic eat fish in addition, backed fish that is, with the addition of salt, vinegar and cumin. They also use cumin in their drinks” -Poseidonius first century B.C.

“The drink of the wealthy classes is wine imported from Italy, or from the territory of Marseilles. This in unadulterated, but sometimes a little water is added. The lower classes drink weaten beer prepared with honey, but most people drink it plain. It is called corma. They use a common cup, drinking a little at a time, taking no more than a mouthful, but they do it rather frequently.” -Poseidonius.

When they dine the all sit upon the ground, using for cushions the skins of wolves or of dogs. The service at the meals is performed by the youngest children, both male and female, who are of a suitable age; and near at hand are their fireplaces…and on them are cauldrons and spits holding whole pieces of meat…

They invite strangers to their feasts, and do not inquire until after the meal who they are and of what things they stand in need.” -Diororus Siculus writing between 60 and 30 B.C.

When a large number dine together they sit around in a circle with the most influential man in the center, like the leader of the chorus, whether he surpass the others in warlike skill, or nobility of family or wealth. Beside him sits the host and next on either side the others in order of distinction. Their shieldsmen stand behind them while their spearmen are seated in a circle on the opposite side and feast in common like their lords. The servers bear around the drink in terracotta or silver jars like spouted cups.” -Poseidonius.

The Celts sometimes engage in single combat at dinner. Assembling in arms they engage in a mock battle-drill and mutual thrust and parry, but sometimes wounds are inflicted and the irritation caused by this may lead even to the slaying of the opponent unless the bystanders hold them back…and in former times… when the hindquarters were served up the bravest hero took the thigh piece, and if another man claimed it they stood up and fought in single combat to the death. Others in the presence of the assembly received silver or gold or a certain number of jars of wine, and having taken pledges of the gift and distributed it among their friends and kin, lay stretched out face upwards on their shields, and another standing by cut their throat with his sword. -Poseidonius.

I am curious about the last sentence. The book where found this quote briefly implies that it may have been some sort of death pact/pledge, but offers no details. Are they dispersing the gifts and then offering themselves up for some sort of sacrifice for some sort of honor, or to save face for kin or clan?

It seems the stereotype for Celts as hard drinkers is nothing new:

The Gauls are exceedingly addicted to the use of wine and  fill themselves with the wine which is brought into their country by merchants, drinking it unmixed and since they partake of this drink without moderation by reason of their craving for it, when the are drunken the fall into a stupor or state of madness. Consequently many of the Italian Traders, induced by the love og money, which characterizes them, believe that the love of wine of these Gauls is their own godsend. For these transport the wine on navigable rivers by means of boats and through the level plain on wagons, and receive for it and incredible price; for in exchange for a jar of wine the receive and slave, getting a servant in return for the drink. -Diororus Siculus

One historian suggests this trade of jar of wine for a slave must have seemed like a great deal for the merchant. But that for the Gaul buying the wine, it may have represented bragging rights in purchasing a luxury commodity that would increase his prestige and show his generosity by sharing the drink with his friends, followers and guests at his next feast.

Groomporter

Blogger for The Celtic Croft and owner of MacGregor Historic Games http://historicgames.com

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