If you’ve been looking for facts about chickens in medieval times, you’ll find little has been written about them, mostly because they weren’t a prominent feature on farms and demesnes. But I had unique interest in them as I crafted a novel set in a world patterned after the era of the Magna Carta. I wrote about an heiress who worked on her own fief, raising and butchering her own animals. I needed to know facts about chickens such as what they ate back then and what they looked like. The process took a bit of digging through academic publications.
Here’s an interesting fact about chickens: all chicken breeds originated from Indonesian red jungle fowl, a theory introduced by Charles Darwin and later proven through genetic science. After domestication 4,000 to 5,000 years ago they traveled through India to ancient Egypt. Greeks and Romans took an interest in selective breeding and experimented with what to feed chickens for the heaviest birds, activities that sparked laws to curb excessive indulgence. Since new rules banned overfeeding of the birds and serving more than one chicken per dinner table, cooks discovered how to capon the roosters so they would fatten naturally.
The Romans brought chickens to England, including the five-toed Dorking which brags a heritage dating back to Julius Caesar. But along with the fall of the Roman Empire came the decline of the chicken. Within a short time, chicken breeds regressed to the small birds they were about 1,000 years before. People no longer focused on breeding or raising meat chickens. Roosters were primarily used for cockfighting within manor houses and castles. Hens were kept for eggs and not eaten until they stopped laying due to old age. At the dinner table, hardier fowl such as geese and partridge reigned.
Most medieval literature and artwork features larger livestock: oxen and horses for pulling carts and plows, goats for milk, hogs and geese for meat. Sheep were “cash crops” for wool and mutton. But the chicken still had its place in the world.
Farmers didn’t have to worry about what to feed chickens because they grew the food anyway. The birds ate the same wheat, beans, and lentils raised for human consumption. Oats fed larger livestock as well as poultry. Chickens ate the same insects and rodents they hunt today.
On the larger demesnes, or lords’ lands, chickens dwelt in lean-to additions of the main grain-storing barns. Sometimes they lived in dovecotes with the lord’s pigeons. Peasants worked the land as serfs, non-free people living their entire lives working one fief, or as cottars, poor peasants who owned no land and had to find employment. Each peasant had his own job and minding the flocks would have been one of them. Overlooking matters and inventory of the demesne was the reeve, a very well-reimbursed peasant, with his assistant the hayward.
On the smaller farms, more prosperous land-owning peasants kept hens and geese, a few razor-back hogs, a couple sheep, and maybe a pair of oxen or horses to pull a plow. Chickens scratched around outside the house, in a farmyard area called the messuauge. They lived in domed structures made of wattle and daub: interwoven sticks and branches covered with a mixture of mud, straw, and animal hair. The best backyard chickens were those laying the most eggs. The peasants took some hens to market and kept others to provide eggs for food. If the peasants owed scutage (rent) to a landlord, they paid in hens and grain, in addition to military service, before currency became more widespread in the 1300s.
Here’s an interesting fact about chickens. Chickens used as currency was common in the early to high Middle Ages. Tithe barns housed payments made to monasteries and convents. “Woodhens” were chickens paid at Christmastime in trade for dead, dry timber from the lord’s wooded land.
Three main cooking techniques of the time included soups and stews, spit-roasting, and baking into pies. Peasants ate eggs in many forms until the hen reached end of production and was boiled in a soup along with pot vegetables such as turnips and greens. Wealthier nobles enjoyed chicken, goose, heron, and even swan roasted over massive stone hearths. Wildly popular meat pie recipes can be found today, such as one made with chicken, leek, and traditionally cured bacon.
About the same time the Renaissance period began, Europeans once again took interest in selective breeding. This is proven by recent studies using DNA from bones of 81 chickens taken from archaeological digs. The bones dated from 200 to 2300 years old and the scientists focused on two traits: the one which causes yellow skin and a thyroid gene which most likely determines year-round laying cycles. From the bones the scientists discovered that, prior to the last 500 years, most chickens had white skin; the yellow skin, more common in gray jungle fowl, entered chicken genetics sometime after Marco Polo’s travels. The prevalence of the year-round laying traits also burgeoned after the Renaissance, suggesting that breeders wanted more than just a few eggs a week.
Some chicken breeds that survived medieval times include:
Old English Game Fowl: Originally bred in various colors with a focus on cockfighting, Game Fowl became a favorite of poultry enthusiasts when cockfighting became illegal in England in the 1850s. The bantam version only reaches about 22 ounces when fully grown.
Nankin: It’s unknown where this ancient bantam actually originated, but it made its way to Europe before the 1500s. When selective breeding again gained popularity, this breed was left behind and is now listed in critical numbers by the Livestock Conservancy.
Polverara: Roman statues featuring crested chickens date back to the first or second century A.D., but it’s unclear if those were Polveraras or their ancestors. The first written reference to the crested chickens of Polverara, Italy, is from Bernardino Scardeone between 1478 and 1554.
La Fleche: Its name means “the arrow” and this breed is said to have been first produced in Le Mans, France, in the fifth century A.D. The breed fattens well but was not hardy enough to gain popularity in America in the 1850s.
Lakenvelder: The Dutch/German breed we know now has only been documented as far back as 1727, but its ancestor dates all the way to Mesopotamia. It then traveled to Palestine, then up into Holland and Germany with Jewish immigrants in the first century A.D.
Minorca: This breed has two origin stories. The first holds that it came to Spain from Africa with the medieval Moors, and is thus sometimes called the “Moorish chicken.” The other claims it came from Italy with the Romans. Either way, the Minorca descends from old Castilian fowl.
The best backyard chickens have emerged from those, though poultry owners argue which is supreme. Since then breeders focused specifically on raising meat chickens and novelty breeds of chickens for pets and show. But though modern strains have taken many forms, history and genetic research tell the story of the humble backyard chicken.
- “How the Chicken Conquered the World,” Smithsonian
- Daily Life in Medieval Times, Frances and Joseph Gies
- “Establishing the validity of domestication genes using DNA from ancient chickens”