Wednesday, August 05, 2020

A Brief History of Foods: Chickens in Britain

The history of the humble chicken's arrival in Britain remains a bit of a puzzle. Found everywhere today, just where did these birds originate, and do we have the Romans to thank for their introduction?

It is generally agreed that modern chickens (Gallus domesticus) descend from four species of wild junglefowl native to Southeast Asia[1]. First domesticated around 6,000 BC, various cultures spread the chicken, from the bird's origin in India through Southeast Asia to the Philippines and eventually to all four corners of the world via migration, trade, and territorial conquests. Once domesticated, chickens were used for food, fighting, and religious purposes. Ancient Chinese documents suggest chickens were introduced into China around 1,400 BC, they are depicted in Babylonian carvings dating to ca. 600 BC. The chicken reached Europe (Romania, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine) about 3,000 BC. Introduction into Western Europe came much later, about the 1st millennium BC with the Phoenicians spreading chickens along the Mediterranean coasts as far as Iberia. They are mentioned by early Greek writers, notably the playwright Aristophanes in 400 BC[2], and the Romans considered the chicken sacred to Mars, the God of War. Contrary to popular thinking, the Romans were not the first to introduce chickens to Britain.

From recent archaeological evidence, the first chickens arrived in these Islands during the Iron Age long before the Romans appeared[3]. Yet it was due to Roman influence that they became popular and first came to be viewed as "food"[4]. Evidence from chicken remains found in Vindolanda show signs of butchery indicating the birds were prepared for the table and eaten. Further evidence is provided by ancient "shopping lists" preserved in the remarkable writing tablets from the fort. One of these tablets, for example, gives instructions to buy “chickens, twenty…a hundred or two hundred eggs, if they are for sale there at a fair price". Chickens were an important food source (there are at least 17 recipes in Apicius) and clearly egg production was equally valuable during the Roman period.

farmers developed methods to fatten the birds. Some used wheat bread soaked in wine, others swore by a mixture of cumin seeds, barley and lizard fat. Despite an attempt outlaw these methods, practical Roman cooks soon discovered that castrating roosters caused them to fatten on their own, and thus was born the creature we know as the capon.[5] Yet, as the large, organised farms (villas) began to vanish, the feeding of numerous chickens and protecting them from predators became increasingly difficult. As the western Roman Empire implodes, the chicken’s status in Europe diminishes. In the post-Roman period, the size of chickens returned to how they were when introduced during the Iron Age more than 1,000 years earlier.

The value of chickens in the Roman world certainly helped the species on its journey to becoming the most widespread livestock animal on the planet, but as the centuries went by, hardier fowls such as geese and partridge began to adorn medieval tables.[5]


1. Hirst, K.K. (2019), "The Domestication History of Chickens (Gallus domesticus)", ThoughtCo,, retrieved August 1st, 2020.
2. "The History of Chickens", Perfect Poultry, retrieved July 29th, 2020.
3. University of Exeter Archaeology, (2020), "Brown hares and chickens were treated as “gods” not food when they arrived in Britain, research shows", retrieved August 1st, 2020.
4. "What did the Romans ever do for us?..", Cultural & Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions, retrieved August 1st, 2020.
5. Lawlor, A. and Adler, J, (2012), "How the Chicken Conquered the World", Smithsonian Magazine, retrieved July 29th, 2020.

The Chinese Xuan Feng or "Whirlwind"

Until the advent of gunpowder, the trebuchet (French: trébuchet) was a common powerful siege engine that used a long arm to throw a projectile. There are two main types of trebuchets. The first, called a mangonel throughout mediæval Europe, is the traction trebuchet that uses manpower to swing the arm. This type first appeared in China before being carried westward by the Avars. The technology was adopted by the Byzantines (the eastern Roman Empire) in the late 6th-century AD and by their neighbours in the following centuries.

The later, and often larger, counterweight trebuchet[1] uses, as the name implies, a counterweight to swing the arm. The counterweight is typically a box structure filled with earth or stones attached to a pivot at one end of the arm. By elevating the box and then allowing it to fall imparts kinetic energy to the arm that rotates about a fulcrum and projects a missile in much the same way as a staff sling. The counterweight trebuchet appeared in both Christian and Muslim lands around the Mediterranean in the 12th-century, returning to China via the Mongol conquests in the 13th-century[2].

Traction Trebuchets As mentioned above, the earliest type was the traction trebuchet, developed first in China by the 5th- or 4th-century BC. Probably used by the Mohists, descriptions of it can be found in the Mojing compiled in the 4th-century BC. The trebuchet consisted of an arm and sling mounted on a wooden frame, sometimes with wheels. Those mounted on wheels were said to have needed 200 men to manoeuvre each of them[3]. To operate the trebuchet, a team of men pulled on ropes attached to the end of the shorter segment of a long wooden beam that rotated round an axle fixed to a base framework. In so doing, the longer segment of the beam was propelled in a forward arc until its sling released a missile.

As defensive weapons, traction trebuchets were positioned behind city walls and guided by an "artillery observer" on the walls. Range was determined by the strength and number of men pulling. Increasing and decreasing range meant adding and removing men from the pulling ropes[3]. In Chapter 14 of the Mojing, the traction trebuchet is described hurling hollowed out logs filled with burning charcoal at enemy troops[4].

The “Whirlwind” "Four footed" and Xuànfēngpào (旋风炮), or "Whirlwind", trebuchets appeared during the Tang dynasty[3]. Essentially the same as previous weapons, the design of the four footed trebuchet offered good stability and thus these weapons could be made much larger. By contrast, much emphasis is made of the Whirlwind's smaller size and lighter weight to aid transportation. All of which reminded me of a Discovery Channel episode of the Ancient Discoveries series that looked at Chinese warfare[5]. If remembered correctly, then mention was made of the Whirlwind and its capabilities.

In the early 2000's China was becoming much more open to the West and in particular western scholars. Consequently, there were a spate of documentaries revealing hitherto little known Chinese innovations to a wider audience. Sadly, such programmes gave the impression that the Chinese were technically superior to western societies in pretty much all respects. This point of view is often expounded today and, frustratingly, it ignores the rich history, wisdom and technological advances made around the Mediterranean.

The Whirlwind is an example of this imbalance. The documentary described this traction trebuchet's operation, including its 360 degree rotational ability, and revealed it could propel a missile 150 yards. Wait, what? Did I hear that right, one hundred and fifty yards? That is just a little over 137 metres and, if correct, means the Whirlwind would have to be positioned well within contemporary bowshot[6] of its intended target. The several operators needed to pull the ropes to launch a missile would be extremely vulnerable to arrows. Presumably the Chinese would have used some form of defensive breastwork or shield-like structure, but this still does not detract from the weapon's poor performance. As a comparison, in the 4th-century BC the ancient Greeks were deploying weapons like the gastraphetes ("belly bow") and even more powerful torsion catapults that could easily shoot more than double the Whirlwind's vaunted range.

Descriptions are seemingly based on images such as that shown
right. Accordingly the basic Whirlwind described as using a single vertical pole mounted on a base with two legs, which would be driven into the ground to provide stability[7]. Confusingly, the same anonymous source then states it could be rotated 360° for an exceptional field of fire. Presumably the weapon had some form of swivel not evident in the image right.

Such contradictions are indicative of an awful lot of bumpf that can be found on the web. Descriptions of the Whirlwind are frequently repetitive as if drawing on a single source and most are unreferenced. In other words there are a lot of claims made that are difficult to corroborate.

As one example, according to Nixon (2015): "like a sniper rifle, the whirlwind catapult was a one-shot, one-kill form of attack."[8] If you want corroboration of the weapon's accuracy, then go no further than McBride (2015): "This catapult was generally used like the sniper version of a rifle. It wasn't the power of the punch that mattered, but the accuracy of the shot."[9] These two "sources" seemingly provide corroborating evidence for the Whirlwind's sniper-like accuracy. Except, of course, that neither on-line author cites any references to support their claims. What we are left with could be the author's fiction, simple supposition or more likely a form of hearsay as it is suspected that both sources are drawing on each other creating circular reporting. And this is the real crux of the issue. Given the evidence as presented, the Whirlwind does not seem the wonder weapon. It would be useful if better, referenced material could be provided to evaluate this ancient weapon more objectively, but perhaps it does not exist.


1. Also known as the counterpoise trebuchet.
2. By the 9th-century a hybrid of the traction and counterweight trebuchet, employing manpower and a pivoting weight, was used in the Middle East, Mediterranean Basin, and Northern Europe. By the 12th-century, the full-fledged counterweight trebuchet was developed under the Ayyubid dynasty of Islamic Syria and Egypt (described by Mardi bin Ali al-Tarsusi) and used in the Third Crusade. By the 13th-century, the counterweight trebuchet found its way into Song Dynasty (960 to 1279) China via the Mongol invaders under Kublai Khan (r. 1260 to 1294) who used it in the Siege of Xiangyang (1267 to 1273).
3. Turnbull, S. (2001), Siege Weapons of the Far East (1) AD 612-1300, Osprey Publishing.
4. Liang, J. (2006), Chinese Siege Warfare: Mechanical Artillery & Siege Weapons of Antiquity, Leong Kit Meng, Singapore.
5. Discovery Channel (2007), Ancient Discoveries, Series 3, Episode 7 "Chinese Warfare", originally aired March 6th, 2007.
6. The author has shot a 50 lbs draw weight recurve bow further than 150 yards. Warbows were of much greater power.
7. Arms & Armor of the Three Kingdoms, Anonymous Tumblr account, retrieved July 17th, 2020.
8. Nixon, E. (2015), “10 Insane Ancient Weapons You’ve Never Heard Of”, Listverse, retrieved July 17th, 2020.
9. McBride, G. (2015), “What was Siege Warfare in China like around the year 1BCE?”, Quora, retrieved July 17th, 2020. Interestingly, George McBride, who “knows about History” according to their biography, has provided 130 answers on the Quora website but “has not filled out their profile”. Typically the mysterious “George” fails to cite any references for the answer provided.

Dispelling Some Myths: Ancient Britons

In AD 60/61, after appalling treatment by the Romans, Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe declared war on the oppressors. The Britons sacked Camulodunum (Colchester), destroyed several Cohorts of Legio IX Hispana[1], laid waste to Londinuim (London) and Verulamium (now St Albans) before meeting the Roman force hurrying to stop them. The final confrontation, known today as the Battle of Watling Street, took place somewhere in the Midlands along the route of the Roman road after which it now named.[2] There are a number of theories on where this battle actually took place but as yet no direct archaeological evidence has been unearthed confirming its location. What we know of the battle is derived from a handful of paragraphs written by the Roman author Tacitus[3].

He tells us that the Roman governor of Britannia, Suetonius Paulinus, "had already the 14th legion, with a detachment of the 20th and auxiliaries from the nearest stations, altogether some ten thousand armed men."[4] The size of Boudica's army, however, is unclear. Tacitus simply says there were "unprecedented numbers" of Britons, while a later author, Cassius Dio, claims Boudica had "an army of about 230,000 men"[5].

Regardless of the numbers quoted, a much smaller force of heavily armed, and armoured, Romans formed their battle lines ready to face thousands of proud, naked, Woad-painted Celts. At least that is what many populist historians or commentators will tell you in documentaries or in print. However, those three highlighted words, used so frequently to describe the ancient Britons, are a bit of a problem. What evidence we have simply does not support the scandalous nature of such salacious claims.

Just over one hundred years earlier, Gaius Julius Caesar mounted what is best described as a "reconnaissance in force" on two occasions, first in 55 BC and a year later in 54 BC. While not really an invasion, or indeed particularly successful, Caesar gives us our first written description of the Britons he encountered, and their tactics, in his "Commentaries on the Gallic War" (Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō)":

"Their manner of fighting from chariots is as follows. First of all they drive in all directions and hurl missiles, and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels they generally throw ranks into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops of cavalry, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile the charioteers retire gradually from the combat, and dispose the chariots in such fashion that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the host of the enemy, they may have a ready means of retirement to their own side. Thus they show in action the mobility of cavalry and the stability of infantry; and by daily use and practice they become so accomplished that they are ready to gallop their teams down the steepest of slopes without loss of control, to check and turn them in a moment, to run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and then, quick as lightning, to dart back into the chariot."[6]

By Boudica's time, the use of chariots other than a form of transport was largely outdated as a battlefield tactic. Cassius Dio mentions the Briton's use of chariots in the battle but other than having Boudica standing in one to address her warriors, Tacitus does not.[7]

Naked Warriors Notice that at no point does Caesar (nor indeed do Tacitus or Dio) mention warriors going into battle "naked". Caesar does, however, describe the typical Briton as having long hair, and shaving every part of the body save the head and the upper lip[8]. Might this be the root of the popular belief in naked warriors?

Before Caesar, the Greek historian Polybius described, in his "Histories", the events of 225 BC when the Gauls of northern Italy marched on Rome. Despite initial success and the defeat of a Roman army at Faesulae, the Gauls were later trapped by two Roman armies and defeated in turn at the Battle of Telamon. Polybius' description is significant because it includes one of the earliest references to warriors fighting naked[9][10]:

"The Insubres and Boii wore their trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae[11] had discarded these garments owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked, with nothing but their arms, in front of the whole army".

Despite being "very terrifying", the Gaesetae quickly discovered that their nakedness was no defence against Roman javelins. As Polybius writes: "the Gaulish shield does not cover the whole body; so that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were, the better chance had the missiles of going home." Like many ancient authors, Polybius often includes examples such as the Gaesetae because they deviate from the norm and thereby he is drawing the readers attention to something unfamiliar. The Gaesetae, therefore, were unusual, and it is probably reasonable to conclude that Iron Age warriors did not go in to battle naked, Britons included.

Manuscripts, like those of Polybius, were frequently written in ancient Greek and this can create some interesting problems with translation. The Greek word γυμνός (gumnós), for example, can be translated as "naked" but it can also mean "without armour" or "defenceless" (see right). So, when an author such as Polybius uses γυμνός to describe someone going into battle, does he mean actually "naked" or merely without armour or some other form of protection? If we accept Polybius' example of the Gaesetae represent the exception, then the latter translation seems more likely. Moreover, at a time when wearing the best armour you can afford was symbolic of your wealth and status, why would anyone choose to dispense with it. Going in to battle is neither a healthy or safe thing to do, so wearing any form of armour offers both a physical and psychological protection. Naked - I think not.

Woad So, if Boudica's warriors are unlikely to be fighting au naturel, what about the belief that all Briton were covered in swirling patterns of Woad? The evidence often quoted for Britons painting (tattooing?) their bodies with Woad also has its origin in Caesar's "Commentaries "[8]:

"...All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with Woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible."

The argument for this being yet another fallacy can be found here. Suffice to say, in his "Commentaries", Caesar penned the phrase: "Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem". Unfortunately, this makes little sense since it roughly translates as: "All the British dye themselves with glass, which produces a blue colour."  The word "vitro" is derived from the Latin word "vitrum" meaning a type of blue-green glass favoured by the Romans.  Perhaps Caesar was making the analogy between the Briton's body decoration and the blue-green colour of a familiar type of glass. We cannot be certain, but it is only much later that scholars began to equate "vitrum" with Woad (Isatis tinctoria), an indigenous plant that produces an indigo/blue dye from its leaves.  Sadly, many modern lexicons now assert this as a fact so that now "vitrum" is given a subsidiary meaning relating to Woad that is both incorrect and misleading. Once again, like fighting "naked", the idea of Woad-painted Britons is unlikely[12].

Britons not Celts Ancient Britons are often referred to as "Celts" but even this is not entirely true. The ancient Greeks have given us the terms Κελτοί (Keltoi) or "Celtae" for a group of people spread across Europe and the Iberian Peninsula from the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and from the North Sea and Denmark down to the Mediterranean. Unlike today, the Greeks did not mean Keltoi to be used as definitive and collective term knowing full well that the different tribes across Europe maintained their own distinct identities. More significantly, classical writers did not apply the term Keltoi to the inhabitants of Britain or Ireland. This has led a number of scholars to question the use of the term "Celt" to describe the Iron Age inhabitants of these islands.[13]

The first historical account of the islands of Britain and Ireland was by
Pytheas, a Greek geographer and explorer from the city of Massalia, who around 310-306 BC, sailed around what he called the "Pretannikai nesoi", which can be translated as the "Pretannic Isles".[14] In general, classical writers referred to the inhabitants of Britain as Pretannoi or Britanni.[15] Strabo, writing in the Roman era, clearly distinguished between the Iron Age tribes of mainland Europe - the so-called "Celts" - and Britons.[16]

Trying to maintain this distinction is problematic, however. From about 300 BC onwards, the ancient Briton's are noted as having similar art and cultural practices to the peoples nearest them on the continent. In the past this was explained by a migration, in the Iron Age, of "Celts" from continental Europe who brought with them their languages, culture and genes. More recently, in the 20th-century, the idea of cultural exchange began to replace this traditional view. The La Tène style, which is taken to define what is called "Celtic" art in the Iron Age, no longer needed an "invasion" to explain its arrival in Britain; simply trade and a wider exchange of ideas. Any observable differences in artistic styles might support the idea of Britons being distinct from their continental "cousins", and yet the cultural similarities are so apparent that confusing British with "Celtic" or assuming the Britons were "Celts" is completely understandable.

So, what can we conclude? Firstly, despite its hold on popular imagination, the practice of entering combat "naked" is rare and appears only in a handful of classical sources. Even then the authors are probably guilty of sensationalism to titillate their readers, much as still happens today. It is more likely that the art of ancient Greece, which established an artistic convention of "heroic nudity" (e.g. "The Dying Gaul"[17] shown right), still colours our perception.

Talking of colour, Caesar seems to be our original source for the myth about Woad (and for druids, but that is a separate topic covered here). Woad is certainly a great source of dye for cloth but it is pretty poor as a body decoration. There are also the problems of translation: Caesar's use of the word "vitrum" has now been conflated misleadingly with Woad, and do ancient authors actually mean naked or simply without armour?

And finally, our classical authors recognised there was a distinction between Britons and "Celts", but too many modern commentators seemingly cannot. Perhaps it is our appetite for simple explanations, for assigning neat labels to complex issues, that has actually created the confusion and in doing so has diminished the Britons and the Iron Age tribes to a homogenised, pan-European collective. All of which fuels a desire to see the tired, stereotypical trope describing ancient Britons as "Celts" who go into battle "naked" after painting their bodies with Woad finally consigned to history.


1. According to Tacitus: "Caesar...sent over from Germany two thousand legionaries, eight cohorts of auxiliaries, and a thousand cavalry. Their advent allowed the gaps in the 9th legion to be filled with regular troops; the allied foot and horse were stationed in new winter quarters; and the tribes which had shown themselves dubious or disaffected were harried with fire and sword." Of note 2,000 legionary replacements, even being sceptical of Tacitus’ numbers, does not lend much substance to the 9th Legion being exterminated as many authors and TV historians habitually report. This is also the same Legion that did not “mysteriously disappear” in Caledonia (modern Scotland). Thanks to Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel “The Eagle of the Ninth”, however, that’s another story.
2. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, Watling Street ran from Dover west-northwest to London and thence northwest via St. Albans (Verulamium) to Wroxeter (Viroconium). It was one of Britain’s greatest arterial roads of the Roman and post-Roman periods. The name came from a group of Anglo-Saxon settlers who called Verulamium by the name of Wætlingaceaster. This local name passed to the whole of the Roman road (Wæclinga stræt) by the 9th-century. The tendency to give the name to other main roads is post-medieval and is often mere antiquarianism.
3. Tacitus, "Annals", Book XIV, Chapters 34-37, Loeb Classical Library (1937), retrieved on July 18th, 2020 from LacusCurtius.
4. Op. cit., Chapter 34.
5. Cassius Dio, "Roman History", Epitome of Book LXII, Chapter 8, Loeb Classical Library (1925), retrieved on July 24th, 2020 from LacusCurtius. Earlier, in Chapter 2, Dio states Boudica "assembled her army, to the number of some 120,000". The strength of armies given by ancient authors are notoriously unreliable.
6. Caesar, G.J, Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō (Commentaries on the Gallic War), Book IV, Chapter 33, Loeb Classical Library (1917), retrieved on July 18th, 2020 from LacusCurtius.
7. Neither is wholly reliable but the author favours Tacitus over Dio. The latter was probably drawing on Tacitus when writing his "Roman History" which, if correct, means one does not corroborate the other. Moreover, Dio is by far the more "tabloid" author and it is from him that the more salacious stories are often quoted.
8. Op. cit., Book V, Chapter 14, Loeb Classical Library (1917), retrieved on July 24th, 2020 from LacusCurtius.
9. Polybius, The Histories, Book II, Chapter 28, Loeb Classical Library (1922-27), retrieved on July 18th, 2020 from LacusCurtius.
10. Born at the beginning of the 2nd-century BC, Polybius probably gleaned his information from official sources and may even have spoken to eyewitnesses to the events of 225 BC.
11. In 225 BC, the Boii and Insubres paid large sums of money to the Gaesatae, mercenaries from Transalpine Celtic territories, to fight with them against Rome. Although we are told they discarded their clothes, many of the warriors would have retained their shields.
12. That is not the same as claiming there was not a tradition of tattooing the skin just that Woad was not the medium used.
13. Pryor, F. (2004), Britain BC, Harper Perennial.
14. Collis, J. (2003), The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions, Tempus Publishing, Stroud, p. 125.
15. Op. cit., p. 180.
16. Op. cit., p. 27.
17. "The Dying Gaul", also called The Dying Galatian or The Dying Gladiator, is an ancient Roman marble semi-recumbent statue now in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. It is a copy of a now lost sculpture from the Hellenistic period (323-31 BC) thought to have been made in bronze.