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.

Roman
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]

Notes:

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.

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