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“Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”*…

Mosaic of a boar hunt from the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, fourth century. Photograph by Laur Phil. Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the early medieval West, from North Africa to the British Isles, pigs were a crucial part of both agriculture and culture…

Pigs were the consummate meat of the early Middle Ages. Horses and oxen have pulling power, cows and goats and sheep make milk and manure (and skin for parchment and packaging), sheep grow wool, and poultry lay eggs. But domesticated pigs were only destined to be butchered. It took them less than two years to reach their maximum weight, so efficient were they in converting whatever they found or were fed into meat. The osteoarchaeological record shows that farmers slaughtered almost all their pigs before they reached their third birthday, and many of them much earlier, with the exception of breeding sows and stud boars.

But pork was not the meat that everyone ate most. That distinction generally went either to beef or to mutton. Some people did not keep pigs at all: Greenlanders, for instance, and Jews and Muslims, as far as we can tell. There were also some Christians who did not own pigs—or at least, there were Christians who drew up wills that listed their livestock but did not mention any pigs. But because pigs were only ever raised for their flesh, they were a kind of metonym for meat more generally. Pork inspired rhapsodies, and even miracles; in Saint Brigit’s Ireland, tree bark was turned not into fishes and loaves but bacon in order to feed a crowd. And when the scholar al-Jāḥiẓ wrote a massive collection about animals at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, he had plenty of faults to find with pigs, both as a Muslim and as a naturalist. But he had also heard so many paeans to pork that he was fascinated by what it might taste like…

On the singular beasts of the Middle Ages: “Ubiquitous Medieval Pigs,” adapted by Jamie Kreiner from her new Yale University Press book Legions of Pigs in the Early Medieval West, in @laphamsquart.

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we ponder the porcine, we might recall that today is National Canadian Bacon Day.

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