Extra notes on ‘rowen’ cheese

Yesterday, I posted about the autumn-produced cheese known in the Middle English cookery book, Forme of Cury, as chese ruayne (‘rowen cheese’). I had some really interesting responses, both on the blog comments and on social media, about the meaning of this word ruayne, for which I thank everyone. It’s really good to get such great feedback.

I thought it might be helpful to explain in a little more detail why ruayne/rowen cheese does indeed refer to cheese made from the milk of cows who have been grazing on the second growth of grass during the pasture season or, perhaps more pertinently, on the hay made from this. This second growth or crop was known as ‘rowen’.

To do this, I’m going to look at the word I’ve translated as ‘rowen’ a little more closely and show you how it is used in Middle English, Anglo-Norman and Latin, the three core languages used in the late medieval period of England.

A modern hand-crafted autumn cheese, from September millk. © 2019 Stonebeck Raw Wensleydale Cheese/Andrew Hatton.

Ruayne, etc…variant spellings

Probably what makes things a little confusing is the lack of standardised English spelling during the medieval period. And variation also affects Anglo-Norman and Latin spellings of this word, too.

So, let me just write here some of the variant Middle English spellings for ‘rowen’ I’ve come across:

rewayn (inserted into a Latin survey, see below)

roweyn (in a poem by Lydgate: ‘What doon hors than to speke in wordis pleyn? The secunde crop thei carie hom roweyn.’ Note how it is called the ‘second crop’.)

rewaime (referring to cheese ‘facti de rewaime’ ‘made from rowen’, inserted into a Latin accounts document)

ruayne (in the John Rylands manuscript of Forme of Cury in connection with cheese)

ruayn (in the British Library roll of Forme of Cury in connection with cheese)

It should be pointed out, here, that all of these variants sound very similar, almost identical, when spoken. This is the problem with Middle English: often the way a word sounds can be captured in a variety of spellings, which can be bamboozling to us moderns.

What I also need to point out is that from examining the various contexts, none of these spellings match the Middle English word meaning ‘rowan’ (as in the tree and berries), i.e. raun (or rawn) which apparently is of Scandinavian origin.

Alas, then, I will have to say to those of you who made the marvellous suggestion that perhaps our ‘chese ruayne’ was made using rowan berries to curdle the milk, that this seems very unlikely.

Etymology

As far as the direct route into Middle English of the word rewain, and all its variants, goes, my understanding is that it is a loan-word from Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French. The two spellings in the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary are regain and rewain: ‘g’ and ‘w’ often being interchangeable in Old French.

As far as I am aware, there is no analogue word in Old English, what we call the English language before the Norman Conquest in 1066 (and surviving for some time after this event), so this backs up the idea of the Middle English borrowing from the Anglo-Norman, something extremely common in the evolution of English at the time.

It may be that the early medieval folk (the Anglo-Saxons) didn’t have a specific term. I checked what specialists in farming scholarship Debbie Banham and Rosamund Faith have written and they do not appear to refer to ‘second growth’ or ‘second crop’ of grass in their discussions of pasturing and hay during this earlier period (Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming, Oxford University Press, 2014).

An Anglo-Norman document

That rewain is something cattle feed upon, and results in the production of milk for a particular seasonal cheese named after it, can be deduced from a thirteenth-century collection of treatises on husbandry, written in Anglo-Norman, reproduced online as Walter of Henley’s Husbandry, etc .

In there, the question is asked how much milk one’s cows should yield. The response is that ‘three cows ought to yield a wey of cheese and half a gallon of butter a week between Easter and Michaelmas without rewain [‘rewayn’]’. [26, 27]

Presumably, with rewain the yield would increase.

And under the section, ‘the office of cowherd’, the instruction is given ‘that no cow be milked or suckle her calf after Michaelmas [September 29th], to make cheese of rewain [‘pur fere formage de regain’]; for this milking and this rewain [‘rewain’] make the cows lose flesh and become weak, and will make them mate later another year, and the milk is better and the cow poorer.’ [112,113]

So the making of rewain cheese came with a proviso and caution: if you are going to make it, make sure you do so before Michaelmas!

Latin documents

I should point out first that, like Middle English, the Latin word for ‘rowen’ borrows from Anglo-Norman. The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) seems to make this clear: see rewainum.

Perhaps the clearest evidence for understanding that there was both ‘rowen’ pasture and ‘rowen’ cheese is found by looking at Anglo-Latin texts of the thirteenth and fourteeth centuries (a number of these are cited in the DMLBS reference, above).

In Bishop Hatfield’s Survey (c. 1382), which is a record of the possessions of the See of Durham, we find an entry that refers to ‘pastura prati, post asportationem feni de Rewayn’ ‘meadow pasture, after the carrying away of the hay of the rowen’ (170).

Here, the Middle English word has been inserted into the Latin text, and it seems that ‘feni de Rewayn’ may either mean the hay of the second crop of grass itself, or what this rewayn when fed to the cows produces, thus meaning ‘the hay of Rowen cheese’.

More precisely, we have another text, which appears to be some king of custumal, which refers to a rent of 86 caseis de rewanno, ‘rowen cheeses’, which were owed the Lord at the feast of St Martin (November 11th).

Finally, we have a text where both rowen cheese and rowen butter are mentioned: xxxvij caseis factis de rewann’ et … de una lagena buturi de rewann, translating as ‘37 cheeses made from rowen and one gallon of butter from rowen’.

Conclusion

It is always interesting to explore possibilities, and I thank everyone for making their suggestions about rowen cheese. Please keep your comments coming. One way or another, I always end up learning a great deal.

From these notes I do hope it is clear that ‘rowen cheese’, chese ruayne of the Forme of Cury, refers to cheese that was made from the milk of cows feeding on rowen pasture, that is, pasture with its second growth of grasses, or indeed, fed on the hay made from this second growth.

I think we now need a picture of cows:

Shorthorns. Picture attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shorthorn_bull,_cows_%26_calves.jpgCavalryman / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

2 thoughts on “Extra notes on ‘rowen’ cheese

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