The Liberal Arts: An Education in Cattle Raiding

Cuchulain in Battle

A few days ago, I was trying to convince the freshmen and sophomores in my Western-Civilization survey to sign up for my upper-level class in the fall. The upper-level class will cover the history of Late Antiquity, roughly the years 250 to 750. We’ll talk about the fall of Rome, the rise of the church, and the formation of the medieval kingdoms of Europe. It’s going to be awesome.

In order to pique their interest, I told the class that we would be reading the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The book recounts an epic cattle raid in Ireland. That’s right, a cattle raid. I like to think of the Táin as the Iliad of the north. The queen of Connacht steals the Brown Bull of Cooley (he’s an exceptionally fine bull), and the men of Ulster have to get him back. It’s epic; it’s heroic, it’s awesome.

I was passionately explaining to these freshmen and sophomores that the History of Late Antiquity would probably be the best class of their entire college career because no other class would give them the chance to read about the world’s most famous cattle raid. To my surprise, some of the students in the class did not actually know what a “cattle raid” is. As I was explaining the mechanics of raiding cattle (it’s a pretty simple concept), one girl on the front row leaned over to her friend and in a stage whisper announced, “I’m a math major; what do I need that for?”

Continue reading