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They dined on crane: bird consumption, wild fowling and status in medieval England

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In this paper the evidence for the use and consumption of wild birds in medieval England is reviewed. Wild bird bones are generally uncommon on medieval sites, how- ever they are more frequently found on high status sites, such as castles, than in towns and villages, suggesting that they were regarded as luxury food. Both zooarchaeological and historical evidence point to an increase in their consumption in the later Middle Ages and the possible reasons behind this phenomenon are discussed. The distribution of wild birds in different areas of the country is also presented to show how geographic, environmental and cultural factors all contribute to their occurrence on archaeological sites.
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Acta zoologica cracoviensia, 45(special issue): 23-38 , Kraków, 29 Nov., 2002
They dined on crane: bird consumption, wild fowling and status
in medieval England
Umberto ALBARELLA and Richard THOMAS
Received: 8 Nov., 2001
Accepted for publication: 18 Jan., 2002
A
LBARELLA U., THOMAS R. 2002. They dined on crane: bird consumption, wild fowling
and status in medieval England. In: Proceedings of the 4th Meeting of the ICAZ Bird
Working Group Kraków, Poland, 11-15 September, 2001. Acta zoologica cracoviensia,
45(special issue): 23-38.
Abstract. In this paper the evidence for the use and consumption of wild birds in medieval
England is reviewed. Wild bird bones are generally uncommon on medieval sites, how-
ever they are more frequently found on high status sites, such as castles, than in towns and
villages, suggesting that they were regarded as luxury food. Both zooarchaeological and
historical evidence point to an increase in their consumption in the later Middle Ages and
the possible reasons behind this phenomenon are discussed. The distribution of wild birds
in different areas of the country is also presented to show how geographic, environmental
and cultural factors all contribute to their occurrence on archaeological sites.
Key words: wild birds, archaeology, medieval, England, fowling, status, consumption.
Umberto A
LBARELLA, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Durham, Durham DH1 3LE, UK.
Richard T
HOMAS, Dept. of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Birmingham,
Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK.
I. INTRODUCTION
Better than any other bird, the Crane Grus grus symbolises the significance of wild fowl in me
-
dieval society. As Y
APP (1981: 13) notes, aside from the symbolic dove and eagle, this species is
“almost certainly the commonest of all birds in English manuscripts”. It is also frequently men
-
tioned in medieval documents and its bones, sometimes bearing butchery marks, are not infre
-
quently found on archaeological sites of the period. The suggestion, however, that medieval people
may have “dined on crane” may seem extremely unlikely if we consider that adult cranes are tough,
gross, sinewy and engender a “melancholique bloud” (M
UFFETT 1655: 91-2). Although young
cranes would have been more tender and digestible, wild birds, in general, were “fussy and awk
-
ward to eat, needing a good deal of attention as well as in terms of preparation and setting out in the
table” (W
OOLGAR 2000). In addition, they would have retailed at a high price (WOOLGAR 2000).
The zooarchaeological evidence for the use of wild birds in medieval times will be reviewed in
this paper and the reasons behind their, somewhat unlikely, consumption will be discussed. Since a
full review of the evidence is beyond the space available, we will concentrate on a few key questions
that can be summed up as follows:
· Who was consuming wild birds and why?
· What evidence do we have for any change in the consumption of wild birds during the
course of the medieval period?
· Which wild species were the most important and did their significance vary geographi
-
cally or temporally?
The area under consideration in this short synthesis is England, with a particular, but not exclu
-
sive, emphasis on the evidence from central England. The period discussed covers the Middle Ages,
as normally defined in Britain (i.e. late 11
th
– early 16
th
century), although some references to the
earlier (Anglo-Saxon) and the later (Early Modern) periods will also be made.
The title of this paper is inspired by the book on the history of acclimatisation societies “They
dined on eland” (L
EVER 1992). The survey of animal bone reports from central England, on which
some of the evidence presented in this paper is based, was funded by English Heritage. We would
like to thank Chris W
OOLGAR, Keith DOBNEY, Dale SERJEANTSON, Jaco WEINSTOCK and Alison
L
OCKER for allowing us to refer to their unpublished work; Derek YALDEN for bibliographic help;
John S
TEWART for helping us with the identification of the parrot bones mentioned in the text; Dale
S
ERJEANTSON, Louise van WIJNGAARDEN-BAKKER and the journal’s editor for comments on an
earlier draft; and Zbigniew, Bo¿ena and Miko³ajB
OCHEÑSKI for their generous hospitality in
Kraków and for organising an excellent and stimulating ICAZ Bird Working Group meeting in Sep
-
tember 2001. This paper is dedicated to the memory of all wild birds that have been – and to some
extent still are – slaughtered in the name of social inequality.
II. WILD BIRDS AS STATUS SYMBOLS
In general, the bones of wild birds are not abundant on archaeological sites of the medieval pe-
riod in England. In most cases Domestic Fowl Gallus gallus and Goose Anser anser represent more
than 90% of the total number of bird bones. It is evident, therefore, that wild birds did not represent a
staple element of the medieval diet or of the food economy. Yet, their relative rarity has the potential
of highlighting differences in patterns of food consumption that may be difficult to pick up through
the study of more common species. Wild birds can therefore be particularly interesting for the un-
derstanding of our medieval past and are worthy of careful investigation.
Though they never were a major resource of food, wild birds are unevenly represented on Eng-
lish sites. They are much more common on sites of high status (mainly castles) than in towns or rural
sites of lower status (Fig. 1). These data are based on a survey of animal bone reports from central
England carried out buy one of the authors (UA) (see below for more details).
Among these birds, the one that provides the clearest and most interesting distribution pattern is
probably the Swan Cygnus sp. The swan is one of the largest European birds, whose bones are un
-
likely to be overlooked on archaeological sites, even where a sieving programme is not carried out.
U. ALBARELLA,R.THOMAS
24
Fig. 1. Frequency of different categories of wild birds in medieval sites from central England (compared to domestic fowl = 100%).
0%
20%
40%
60%
80%
100%
Swan Other wild birds Waders
RURAL URBAN HIGH STATUS
In addition, this bird is typically associated with the English aristocracy and even nowadays is com
-
monly kept in royal parks and in other areas surrounding castles and palaces. Fig. 2 shows a
Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus at Leeds Castle (Kent, England), though the most common swan
kept in royal parks was likely to have been the Mute Swan Cygnus olor.
The selection of wild birds represented in the central part of the bar chart in Fig. 1 includes the
following species: Gannet Morus bassanus, Stork Ciconia sp., Heron Ardea sp., Sparrowhawk Ac-
cipiter nisus, Grey Partridge Perdix perdix, Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, Capercaille Tetrao uro
-
gallus, and Crane Grus grus. These species were chosen because they occur on some of the sites
under consideration and their bones are generally reliably identifiable (though pheasants can be
confused with domestic fowl). With the exception of the Sparrowhawk, these birds also have rea
-
sonably large bones, which should reduce the bias caused by possible differences in recovery effi
-
ciency between sites. As in the case of the Swan, these wild birds are more frequently found on high
status sites.
Waders, illustrated on the right hand side of the chart in Fig. 1, are as common in towns as they
are on high status sites. This may indicate that this group of birds is not as good an indicator of status
as the other species mentioned above. However, the fact that they are uncommon on rural sites –
generally peasant settlements – suggests that they can still help in discriminating between different
levels of wealth, though probably not to the same extent as other species such as swan and crane.
In this paper all the species noted above were considered as potential food items. The Sparrow
-
hawk is, however, an exception. This species was included not on the assumption that it would have
been eaten, but because it is one of the raptors commonly used for falconry – an activity almost ex
-
clusively confined to the upper classes. Criteria for the identification of falconry have been dis
-
cussed elsewhere (P
RUMMEL 1997), and will not be repeated here. It is worth mentioning, however,
that hawking can also help us in identifying various levels of status. Different hawks were used by
people of different status, for instance Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrinus and Gyrfalcons Falco
rusticolus would only be used by people of highest status, whereas Sparrowhawks Accipiter nisus
Bird consumption, wild fowling and status in medieval England
25
Fig. 2. A tamed Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus at Leeds Castle, Kent, England. Photograph by Umberto ALBARELLA.
and Goshawks Accipiter gentilis could also be used by the lower nobility and by wealthy common
-
ers (P
RUMMEL 1997: 335). Raptor bones found in urban contexts – such as the partial skeleton of a
Goshawk found in early medieval levels in Norwich (A
LBARELLA et al. 1997) (Fig. 3) are likely to
reflect the social diversity of the town population therefore, but not necessarily the presence of the
highest aristocracy. Unlike other raptors found in towns (see M
ULKEEN and O’CONNOR 1997), spe
-
cies of the Accipiter and Falco genera are unlikely to have acted as scavengers. For more details on
falconry in England see C
HERRYSON (2002).
Castle sites provide the best opportunity at our disposal to obtain archaeological evidence per
-
taining to the diversity of wildfowl exploited in medieval England. For instance, at Okehampton
Castle in Cornwall large numbers of Woodcock, Partridge and other wild bird bones (including
Heron and Crane) were uncovered (M
ALTBY 1982). A similar range of species was found at the
nearby castle of Launceston (ALBARELLA and DAVIS 1996), but in this case the more extended
chronology of occupation provided a greater opportunity to investigate the close relationship exist
-
ing between status and bird abundance. At Launceston Castle, a gradual decline in the status of the
site occurred between the mid-medieval (13
th
century AD) and the post-medieval period due to the
fact that the nobility were visiting the castle less frequently. This decline was paralleled by a steady
decrease in the proportion of bird (and fish) bones, which become a negligible element of the diet by
the late post-medieval period (A
LBARELLA and DAVIS 1996: 10). It is clear that in the heyday of the
castle the inhabitants could afford a diverse diet, however this gradually became more monotonous
with the loss of status.
The evidence discussed above clearly indicates that the importance of wild birds in the medieval
diet is not to be found in their contribution to subsistence and economy, but rather in the meaning
that the consumption of wild birds implied. Some of the birds consumed were unlikely to have been
particularly tasty, but, being expensive and difficult to obtain, they played an important role as a
Fig. 3. A Goshwak Accipiter gentilis skeleton found in 11
th
century levels from the site of Castle Mall, Norwich, England.
Photograph by Graham N
ORRIE.
U. ALBARELLA,R.THOMAS
26
symbol of status and wealth. In some respects wild birds fulfilled the same role as that played by
deer and freshwater fish (see DYER 1989b). This assumption is confirmed by the historical evidence
(W
OOLGAR 2000) and is certainly not unique to England. For example, a similar scenario has been
suggested for medieval Flanders, where wild birds were also uncommonly eaten and expensive to
buy (E
RVYNCK 1993: 118).
III. CHANGE OVER TIME
In Fig. 4 the frequency of wild birds on sites of different type and period is plotted. The higher
occurrence of wild bird in castle sites is noticeable for most periods, but interestingly, not for the
Fig. 4. Proportion of ‘high-status’ bird species out of the total number of bird bones collected for a range of medieval and
post-medieval sites. Key: black=castle; speckled=ecclesiastical/manorial; white=rural; light grey=urban.
Bird consumption, wild fowling and status in medieval England
27
early Middle Ages. An explanation for this situation can be found through an analysis of Fig. 5,
which plots the average occurrence of wild bird species in sites of different periods. It is possible to
note that wild birds are more commonly found in late and post-medieval sites than in the earlier pe
-
riod. These data confirm and explain the pattern evident in Fig. 4, namely that there is a trend to
-
wards an increase in wild bird consumption in the late medieval period. When the analysis of this
trend is carried out on individual taxa (Fig. 6) further interesting evidence comes to light. It is possi
-
ble to observe that, with one exception, all taxa under consideration increase in frequency in the
later medieval period. The bird that probably signifies the highest status namely the Swan in
-
creases most, while the Grey Partridge is the only species to decrease in frequency. The analysis of
historical documents supports the view that wild bird consumption increased towards the end of the
Middle Ages (see W
OOLGAR 2000).
Fig. 5. Number of wild bird species per site in medieval and post-medieval central England.
Fig. 6. Frequency of different wild birds in early and late medieval times in central England (compared to domestic fowl = 100%).
0
0,2
0,4
0,6
0,8
1
1,2
1,4
1,6
1,8
9th-14th cent. 14th-early 16th 16th-17th
0
5
10
15
20
25
30
35
40
45
50
Swan T eal Partridge Woodcock Pluvialis sp. Pigeon/dove T ur dus sp.
%
9th-14th cent. 14th-early 16th cent.
U. ALBARELLA,R.THOMAS
28
Considering the significance attached to the consumption of wild birds in medieval society, such
a trend is intriguing. Why did the upper classes feel the need to express a higher statement of status?
In order to answer this question it must be first remembered that eating any kind of meat – let alone
‘fancy’ meat, such as that of wild game – was, in medieval times, something of a luxury. The peas
-
ant diet was mainly based on cereals and meat would only be eaten on special occasions. The upper
classes however, ate meat on a much more regular basis, and this would have presented a strong
statement of status, differentiating themselves from ordinary peasants and town dwellers. The late
13
th
and early 14
th
centuries, in particular, were hard times for smallholders, but although exceptions
occurred, there appears to have been a general improvement of peasant living conditions in the late
14
th
and 15
th
century (DYER 1988; DYER 1989a: 184). This led to a general increase in meat con
-
sumption (D
YER 1989a: 159), which is also attested in the zooarchaeological record (ALBARELLA
1997; THOMAS in prep).
The increase in the occurrence of wild birds in archaeological assemblages can be explained in
this context: in the late medieval period meat consumption in itself had become an insufficiently
strong marker of status. The eating of more expensive meat, such as that of wildfowl, could there
-
fore contribute to maintain the same level of difference in food consumption between the higher and
the lower classes.
IV. MOST COMMON SPECIES
In this section the most abundant wild birds used in medieval banquets will be discussed. This is
not as easy as it might seem, because the reading of the archaeological evidence is complicated by
several potential pitfalls. Table I illustrates the occurrence of wild birds as derived from a survey of
153 sites of Anglo-Saxon, medieval and post-medieval date in Central England. Since many of
these sites are divided into different periods of occupation and each different period is regarded as a
different entry in the table, the total of ‘period-sites’ taken into consideration is 275. The table
should not be read at face value because small birds, which are often overlooked on archaeological
excavations, are underrepresented. The same is true for species that are difficult to differentiate and
which are often lumped into wider taxa groups such as ‘Goose’, ‘Duck’ and ‘Pigeon’.
Table I
Number of sites in central England on which different species of domestic and
wild birds occur
Taxa
Saxon
Saxon/early med.
Early med.
Late med.
Medieval
Early postmed.
Late postmed.
Postmed.
6th-early
11th
9th-12th late 11th-
14th
14th-early
16th
late 11th-
16th
16th-17th 17th-18th 16th-18th
1 23456789
Podicipediformes
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
(P
ALLAS, 1764)
1
Procellariiformes
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus
(B
RÜNNICH, 1764)
1
Bird consumption, wild fowling and status in medieval England
29
Table I cont.
1 23456789
Pelecaniformes
Gannet Morus bassanus
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
1
Ciconiiformes
Stork Ciconia sp. 1
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
L
INNAEUS, 1758
11121 1
Heron, Ardea sp. 1111 111
Anseriformes
Swan Cygnus sp. 1 1 4 7 5
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
(G
MELIN, 1789)
1115
Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
1
Goose Anserinae 17 15 37 23 9 20 9 3
Goose (domestic) Anser anser
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
10 3122
Goose (wild) Anserinae 5 1 2 1
Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus
B
AILLON, 1833
1
White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
(S
COPOLI, 1769)
1
Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis
(B
ECHSTEIN, 1803)
1111
Brent Goose Branta bernicla
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
1
Duck Anatinae 18 12 19 17 6 14 6 8
Duck (domestic) Anas platyrhynchos
L
INNAEUS, 1758
2 1111
Duck (wild) Anatinae 2 1
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
L
INNAEUS, 1758
5312
Pintail Anas acuta L
INNAEUS, 1758 1 1 1
Gadwall Anas strepera L
INNAEUS, 1758 2 1
Shoveler Anas clypeata L
INNAEUS, 1758 6
Wigeon Anas penelope L
INNAEUS, 1758 1 1 1
Teal Anas crecca L
INNAEUS, 1758 3 2 4 3 2 2 1
Garganey/Teal Anas crecca/querquedula 142 111
Pochard Aythya ferina (L
INNAEUS, 1758) 1 2 1
Tufted duck Aythya fuligula
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
111
Pochard/Tufted duck
Aythya ferina/fuligula
2
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
1
Scoter Melanitta sp. 1
Smew Mergellus albellus (L
INNAEUS, 1758) 1 1
Goosander Mergus merganser
L
INNAEUS, 1758
11
Accipitriformes
Goshawk Accipiter gentilis (L
INNAEUS,
1758)
21 1
Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
221 1
U. ALBARELLA,R.THOMAS
30
Table I cont.
1 23456789
Buzzard Buteo buteo (L
INNAEUS, 1758) 2 1 2 3 1 3
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus (L
INNAEUS,
1758)
1
Red Kite Milvus milvus (L
INNAEUS, 1758) 1 1 3 1 2 3
Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus
L
INNAEUS, 1758
11
Galliformes
Domestic Fowl Gallus gallus
L
INNAEUS, 1758
33 18 44 25 12 22 9 4
Turkey Meleagris gallopavo
L
INNAEUS, 1758
1 131
Peacock Pavo cristatus L
INNAEUS, 1758 1 11111
Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
L
INNAEUS, 1758
1 311
Grey Partridge Perdix perdix
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
2731312
Grouse Tetraonidae 2
Willow Grouse Lagopus lagopus
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
1
Gruiformes
Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
11 1
Coot Fulica atra L
INNAEUS, 1758 1 2 2
Crane Grus grus (L
INNAEUS, 1758) 7 1 1 2 1
Charadriiformes
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
L
INNAEUS, 1758
1
Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
12231
Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
22
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
11
Golden/Grey Plover Pluvialis sp. 213311 1
Godwit Limosa sp. 2
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
11
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
1
Curlew Numenius arquata
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
112
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
11
Woodcock Scolopax rusticola
L
INNAEUS, 1758
41863743
Snipe Gallinago gallinago
(L
INNAEUS, 1758)
22
Gull Laridae 31
Common Gull Larus canus L
INNAEUS, 1758 1 1 1
Herring/Lesser Black-back Gull Larus
argentatus/fuscus
1
Columbiformes
Pigeon/Dove Columbidae 4 3 4 62531
Rock Dove Columba livia G
MELIN, 1789 2 1 3 1 2 2
Stock Dove Columba oenas L
INNAEUS, 1758 1 1
Bird consumption, wild fowling and status in medieval England
31
Table I cont.
1 23456789
Woodpigeon Columba palumbus
L
INNAEUS, 1758
122 1
Strigiformes
Barn Owl Tyto alba (S
COPOLI, 1769) 2 2
Tawny Owl Strix aluco L
INNAEUS, 1758 2
Psittaciformes
Parrot Psittacinae 1
Piciformes
Green Woodpecker Picus viridis
L
INNAEUS, 1758
1
Passeriformes
Thrush Turdus sp. 124222 1
Blackbird Turdus merula L
INNAEUS, 1758 1
Redwing Turdus iliacus L
INNAEUS, 1758 1 1 1
Songthrush Turdus philomelos
B
REHM, 1831
11
Fieldfare Turdus pilaris L
INNAEUS, 1758 1
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
L
INNAEUS, 1758
1
Raven Corvus corax L
INNAEUS, 1758 5 1 2 2 5 1
Crow Corvus corone L
INNAEUS, 1758 1 2 2 1 1
Rook Corvus frugilegus L
INNAEUS, 1758 2
Crow/Rook Corvus corone/frugilegus 3255162
Jackdaw Corvus monedula L
INNAEUS, 1758 2 5 51411
Magpie Pica pica (L
INNAEUS, 1758) 1 1
Jackdaw/Magpie 1 1 2 2 2 1 1
Jay Garrulus glandarius (L
INNAEUS, 1758) 1 1
Birds are morphologically much more homogenous than mammals, and include a larger number
of species. Consequently, the identification of bird remains from archaeological sites can be diffi-
cult and always requires extensive reference collections. Identification criteria highlighted for par
-
ticular taxonomic groups such as Columbidae (F
ICK 1974), Ardeidae (KELLNER 1986) and
Podicipediformes (BOCHEÑSKI 1994) are particularly valuable, but uncertainties are bound to re
-
main. A promising avenue of investigation for the future is represented by biomolecular work,
which has proven to be successful in discriminating between some of the goose species (B
ARNES et
al. 1998 and 2000). Meanwhile we have to be content with the level of identification accuracy pres
-
ently available, which means that lists of bird species from archaeological sites must be critically
evaluated.
In Table II the six most common wild birds recorded on medieval archaeological sites in Eng
-
land are listed. Due to the problems discussed above, these lists may not represent a true reflection
of the birds that were most commonly eaten. Wild geese and wild ducks (with the exception of the
Teal) are not included due to the problem of separating them from their domestic counterparts. Pas
-
serines of medium size, such as Thrushes and Blackbirds, Turdus sp., are likely to have been among
the most commonly consumed wild birds, however their absence from the list probably reflects re
-
covery biases. Conversely, large birds like the Swan are likely to be over-represented. Having said
this, such biases should apply to all periods and geographic areas equally, therefore the data in Table
II can be used on a comparative basis.
As expected, Woodcock and Grey Partridge feature strongly in the list for central England, par
-
ticularly in the early medieval period. These species are also relatively small and therefore their
abundance does not reflect a recovery bias. Following a comparison of the early and late medieval
U. ALBARELLA,R.THOMAS
32
periods two phenomena are noticeable. The first is the increased frequency of Swan remains and the
other is the disappearance of the Grey Partridge among the most commonly recorded birds. If the in
-
crease in Swan remains can be interpreted in light of the greater concern in the consumption of
‘fancy’ food items that typifies the late medieval period, the decrease in Partridge numbers is more
puzzling. In Britain this species has been subject to a marked decrease (S
NOW and PERRINS 1998:
464-5), but this is a phenomenon probably no older than a century. In the 18
th
and 19
th
century Par-
tridges seem to have been on the increase, perhaps as a consequence of changes in agricultural prac-
tice (C
RAMP and SIMMONS 1978). Further fluctuations may have occurred in the more distant past
and it is therefore not impossible that in the 14
th
and 15
th
century the Partridge population had
shrunk. An alternative explanation is that Partridges were not as highly prized as other wild fowl
and had therefore become less popular with the increased sophistication of aristocratic banquets.
The list of the most common wild birds in southern England is broadly similar to that which was
found in the central part of the country (Table II). The absence of corvids can be explained by the
fact that the southern list only includes food species also mentioned in the historical record
(S
ERJEANTSON 2000). Jackdaws Corvus monedula, Crows Corvus corone and Rooks Corvus fru
-
gilegus are likely to represent the accidental introduction of scavenging species in an anthropogenic
assemblages and they are therefore unlikely to feature in these documents.
In the north of England (D
OBNEY unpublished data), the range of most common birds appears to
be rather different. Woodcock, Plovers Pluvialis sp. and Jackdaw are well represented, but other
species, like Raven Corvus corax, Guillemot Uria aalge and Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix, which
were not so common in the rest of the country, feature strongly. Although none of these three spe
-
cies are exclusively distributed in the north, they probably have their strongholds in that region.
Black Grouse typically live in habitats transitional between forest and open heath (S
NOW and
PERRINS 1998: 438), which are more common in the north. Their area of distribution partly covers
central England, but the species is absent in the south. Guillemots are mainly distributed in the north
and south-west of the country, where there are plenty of sea cliffs, upon which these birds gather in
spring for nesting. During the rest of the year the species is predominately pelagic and can occasion
-
ally be seen anywhere in the country, however the birds are unlikely to be caught in this period. Ra
-
vens have a similar distribution and also tend to nest on cliffs, although they can also use tall trees
(S
NOW and PERRINS 1998: 1483). Overall therefore, it appears that the distribution of birds in me
-
dieval England was strongly affected by geographic and environmental factors. Although this is not
surprising, it is still worthy of note that in a period in which trade must have played a significant role
in the distribution of foodstuffs, regional differences can still be identified. These are likely to have
been determined by a combination of environmental and cultural factors.
Table II
Most common wild bird species found in different regions of England (in ranking
order from top to bottom). Species whose identification is problematic, such as ducks
and geese, have not been considered. Data for the south are provided by
S
ERJEANTSON (2000) and for the north by DOBNEY (unpublished). The data from the
south are not entirely comparable since only food species also encountered in the his
-
torical record are mentioned (hence the absence of corvids)
Central South North
early medieval late medieval medieval medieval
Woodcock Swan Woodcock Raven
Grey Partridge Woodcock Teal Woodcock
Teal Grey/Golden Plover Swan Grey/Golden Plover
Swan Teal Grey Partridge Guillemot
Crow/Rook Crow/Rook Snipe Blackgrouse
Jackdaw Jackdaw Grey/Golden Plover Jackdaw
Bird consumption, wild fowling and status in medieval England
33
V. MORE COMMENTS ON INDIVIDUAL SPECIES
Bird remains from English medieval sites may not be common, but they certainly indicate that a
large variety of species was exploited. This is consistent with the evidence from historical sources.
C
OSMAN (1976: 40-1) mentions, among other species, Bittern, Bustard, Crane, Heron, Partridge,
Plover, Swan, Teal, Woodcock, as birds hunted for the aristocratic table. A similar list of birds is
provided by W
OOLGAR (1999: 114) in his account of the food served at the great household table.
This includes Partridge, Lark, Bittern, Crane, Heron, Swan etc. In the context of monastic diet
which would also have been of a high status H
ARVEY (1993: 52) refers to game such as Teal, Snipe
and Swan. At a series of feasts for the enthronement of the Archbishop of York in the late 15
th
cen
-
tury a formidable amount of wild birds were provisioned. These include: Swans (400!), Quails,
Mallards, Teals, Cranes, Bitterns, Pigeons, Pheasants, Partridges, Woodcocks, Curlews, Egrets and
other species whose names are more difficult to identify (W
OOLGAR 2001).
The frequent mention of the Swan in historical documents suggests that its common occurrence
in the archaeological record is not just an artefact of a recovery bias. It is likely that this was genu
-
inely one of the most common wild birds eaten by the medieval upper classes. Indeed from the tar
-
iffs of the London Company of Poulterers between 1274 and 1634, it is apparent that Swan was
always the most expensive bird (W
ILSON 1973: 118). This bird did not enjoy a fully wild status
however, and should probably be regarded more as tamed. Together with Herons, Pheasants, Bit
-
terns and Peacocks, Swans were kept in parks in, what seem to be, controlled and closely managed
conditions (MacG
REGOR 1996; WOOLGAR 1999: 14).
Of the species mentioned in historical sources, the Bustard Otis tarda and the Bittern Botaurus
stellaris have proven to be rather elusive in the archaeological record. The bustard is particularly in-
teresting. This species became extinct in Britain in the 1830s (S
NOW and PERRINS 1998: 529) and is
now confined to restricted areas in southern and central Europe. E
ASTHAM (1971: 390) mentions
that the last breeding pair was recorded in Suffolk in 1832. It is a large, largely terrestrial bird, which
would have certainly made an impression at the aristocratic table. We are only aware of a single me-
dieval finding of this species in England. This derives from early 16
th
century levels at Baynard’s
Castle, London (B
RAMWELL 1975). The only other post-glacial record of Bustard bones known to
the authors is represented by seven specimens of this species recovered from Fishbourne Roman
Palace (E
ASTHAM 1971). Bustard bones are large and distinctive and their uncommon occurrence
on archaeological sites probably indicates that the species was always rather rare in England.
The only published medieval record of the Bittern, that we are aware of, is from the site of Flax
-
engate, Lincoln, and was identified by Don B
RAMWELL (O’CONNOR 1982: 44). There are, however,
unpublished records of this species in kitchen deposits dating from the 12
th
-13
th
and 13
th
-15
th
centu
-
ries at Scarborough Castle (W
EINSTOCK pers. comm) and in post-medieval levels (1538-1682) from
Nonsuch Palace, Surrey (L
OCKER pers comm). It is interesting to note that at least two of these sites
are of a high status (this is more difficult to establish for the urban site of Lincoln). W
OOLGAR
(1999: 114) does indeed mention that Bitterns and Cranes were used for great feasts. Bittern bones
are unlikely to be confused with those of other herons, and although the species is frequently men
-
tioned in historical documents, its rare occurrence in archaeological sites indicates that this bird
may have been as uncommon and localised in the past as it is today.
The Grey Partridge Perdix perdix has already been mentioned above particularly in relation to
its intriguing decline in the later Middle Ages. The species is regarded as “delicate and exquisite” in
a20
th
century gastronomy book (SIMON 1944) and, along with the Woodcock, would have probably
been a staple element of wild bird dishes. It is the only wild bird together with miscellaneous
“small birds” – to be mentioned by C
OSMAN (1976) in a series of medieval recipes. Perhaps one of
the reasons for the popularity of this bird in the earlier medieval period was that it could be kept in
cages, alongside poultry and piglets (W
OOLGAR 1999: 114). Grey Partridge bones (but not Wood
-
cock) are also found in some abundance at the castles of Manzano (Italy, 11
th
-13
th
century AD)
(B
EDINI 1995: 346) and Moncalieri (Italy, 13
th
-17
th
century AD) (PAVIA 2000: 350). Their associa
-
tion with high status diet is therefore not confined to England.
U. ALBARELLA,R.THOMAS
34
Falconry (or hawking) has already been briefly mentioned as a practice restricted to the upper
echelons of medieval society. The presence of the bones of certain raptors, as well as those of their
prey, can be used as a way to identify falconry and consequently the high status of a particular site.
Indeed some of the wild birds already mentioned would have been hunted by trained birds of prey.
Herons and Cranes could be caught by Gyrfalcons and Teals by Sparrowhawks (W
OOLGAR 1999:
115). Since the larger falcons Gyrfalcon and Peregrine were exclusively used by the highest aris
-
tocracy, some of the very large birds that they caught would find their way to the table of people of
similarly high status. The same cannot be said for smaller game, such as ducks however, which
would normally be caught by birds of the genus Accipiter, which, as has already been mentioned,
could be owned by rich merchants and representatives of the gentry.
Seabirds like Guillemots and Razorbill Alca torda are relatively common in the north of Eng
-
land, but overall the zooarchaeological evidence does not suggest an intensive exploitation of ma
-
rine resources in medieval England. Sea ducks are occasionally found, such as the bones of the
Scoter Melanitta sp. from King’s Lynn (B
RAMWELL 1977), but in general they are rare. Gannet is
recorded, among a few other sites, at Hereford (B
RAMWELL 1985), Exeter (MALTBY 1979), Oke
-
hampton Castle (M
ALTBY 1982) and Launceston Castle (ALBARELLA and DAVIS 1996), but, sur
-
prisingly, at no locality in the north of the country (according to D
OBNEY’s unpublished data).
Interestingly, all these sites are located inland, and Hereford especially, is a considerable distance
from the nearest coast. The other three sites are located in the south-west of the country. The meat of
the Gannet was highly prized and until the end of the 19
th
century was sent to London and many
Midlands towns (such as Hereford) (S
IMON 1944). For the medieval period, this species is almost
certainly an indicator of high status, at least when found in inland localities.
The most interesting seabird present on English medieval sites is arguably the Manx Shearwater
Puffinus puffinus. This is a strictly marine species that nests exclusively on islands. To date this spe-
cies has only been recorded at castle sites, such as Baynard’s Castle (B
RAMWELL 1975), Bristol
Castle (B
RAMWELL 1975), Launceston Castle (12 bones all from hind limbs, ALBARELLA and
D
AVIS 1996) and Dudley Castle (THOMAS in prep.). Once again there are no records of this species
from the north of England (D
OBNEY unpublished data). The Launceston remains are all from the
13
th
century (with one exception from the 15
th
century), whereas single specimens from Dudley and
Baynard’s Castle date from the 14
th
and early 16
th
century respectively. No date is provided for the
finding from Bristol Castle. The presence of the Manx Shearwater on inland sites would suggest
that some trade in this species occurred in the medieval period, and the bird may well have repre
-
sented a symbol of high status. Fourteenth century accounts from the Scilly Isles, which were a ma
-
jor source of young Shearwaters, discuss their exploitation. According to these documents, the birds
were hauled from their burrows in August when fat and heavy, they were then salted, barrelled and
later boiled to be eaten (A
LBARELLA and DAVIS 1996: 27). The fact that at both Launceston and
Dudley Castle only the bones of the hind limb were recorded might provide independent evidence
for this practice.
Finally, it should also be mentioned that the upper classes would not regard wild birds exclu
-
sively as food items. Trained falcons were valuable pets and exotic birds, kept in cages, would also
provide a great symbol of status (W
OOLGAR 1999: 195). In the early 17
th
century cormorants were
also trained for river fishing and were held in high esteem by James I (MacGREGOR 1989: 313). A
green parrot is illustrated in a medieval manuscript of the early 14
th
century together with a large ar
-
ray of other birds including Wren, Magpie, Bullfinch, Jay, Great Egret, Woodcock and the inevita
-
ble Crane (Y
APP 1981: 108). Although no medieval archaeological findings of exotic birds in
England exist, two Parrot bones were uncovered in a pit dated to the mid-late 17
th
century from the
site of Castle Mall, Norwich (ALBARELLA et al. 1997) (Fig. 7). The bones belong to a mid-large
sized parrot, of about the same dimensions as an African Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus, but it was
unfortunately not possible to identify them at a level any more specific than that of the sub-family
Psittacinae. Since this is the largest and most widespread of the parrot subfamilies, the bird could
have virtually come from any region of the Southern Hemisphere. It probably belonged to a rich
merchant or a sailor.
Bird consumption, wild fowling and status in medieval England
35
VI. SUMMING UP AND CONCLUSIONS
Wild birds were only occasionally eaten in medieval times in England, but, as the zooarchaeo
-
logical evidence indicates, they played a significant role in the definition of economic and social
status. Although many of the species may not have been particularly tasty, they would often make
an impression on an aristocratic table or in the course of an important feast.
Historical and archaeological sources are consistent in suggesting that the upper classes in
-
creased the consumption of wild birds in the later medieval period. It is possible that such increase is
related to the greater availability of meat in this period, which prompted the need to find new ways
to differentiate between high and low status diets.
The most commonly used wildfowl were probably Partridge, Woodcock and various species of
ducks. Large birds like Swan, Crane and Heron, however, were likely to have greater status signifi
-
cance. Waders were probably not equally prized, as they are found as commonly in towns as they
are on high status sites. The distribution of wild bird species seems to be affected by geographic and
environmental factors as well as by cultural preferences. Sea birds have been found in sites located
inland, but species that were likely to have their strongholds in northern England are still much more
common in that region than in the rest of the country.
This analysis shows how limiting it is to regard zooarchaeology merely as an analysis of food
subsistence. Although wild birds did not represent staple food, their investigation provides us with
an important insight into aspects of the medieval world that combine economic, social and symbolic
elements. Medieval people did not live on Cranes but a few of them certainly dined on these grace
-
ful birds. Although economically irrelevant such meals would have been of great importance in re
-
affirming the social and wealth inequality of medieval society.
Fig. 7. Parrot (Psittacinae) carpometacarpus and coracoid found in mid-late 17
th
century levels from the site of Castle Mall,
Norwich, England. Photograph by Graham NORRIE.
U. ALBARELLA,R.THOMAS
36
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The remains of six species of geese are commonly recovered from archaeological sites in Britain dating from the Saxon and later periods. However, identification of this material to species level is hampered by a lack of morphological variation and a large overlap in size. To address this issue we obtained DNA sequence data for a section of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene from modern samples of each species, and successfully identified several DNA markers for Branta species. No markers were found within the cytochrome b gene for the genus Anser. Ancient DNA techniques were then used to recover DNA from goose bones excavated from two archaeological sites. The DNA sequences enabled identification of Barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) from one site and confirmed the presence of Anser species at another. © 1998 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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A survey was undertaken of the occurrence of bones of raptorial birds in Roman and medieval nucleated settlements in northwestern Europe, and the results were compared with a series of a priori predictions as to which species were the most likely to have colonized such settings. The comparison showed that Haliaeetus albicilla, Buteo buteo and Milvus milvus were recovered relatively frequently, and that these three were amongst the species predicted to be the most successful urban scavengers. It is suggested that Buteo lagopus and Milvus migrans are underrecorded, and that records of Aquila pomarina might be expected in the circum-Baltic region. Accipiter species are inherently unlikely urban birds because of their hunting and feeding behaviour, and the numerous records, especially of Accipiter gentilis are argued to be birds kept for hawking. This would be consistent with the observation that Accipiter spp. are commonly found as whole or partial skeletons. The general agreement of observations with expectations is taken to validate the underlying premise that refuse constituted a major environmental factor in Roman and medieval towns. © 1997 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Article
In the later medieval centuries, a whole range of important social, political, and artistic activities took place against the backdrop of the great English households. In this lively book, C. M. Woolgar explores the fascinating details of life in a great house. Based on extensive investigation of household accounts and related primary documents, Woolgar vividly illuminates the operations of great households. He also delineates the major changes that transformed the economy and geography of both lay and clerical households between 1200 and 1500. In this portrait of aristocratic and gentry life in medieval England, Woolgar describes the roles of family members, the situations of servants, the uses of space within the household, food and drink for daily consumption and for special occasions, furnishing, clothing, arrangements for travel, household animals, cleanliness and hygiene, entertainment, the practices of religion, and intellectual life. The author also analyzes the qualitative and social evolution of great households as definitions of magnificence and conventions of etiquette became increasingly elaborate.