By Philip Slavin
Anthropozoologica, Vol. 44:2 (2009)
Abstract: The present article studies the place of the chicken within the changing environment of late-medieval England. First, it looks at the seigniorial sector of chicken farming, in terms of size of stocks, patterns of disposal and scale of consumption. It then explores the patchy data regarding the peasant sector. The study shows that overall patterns differed between the pre- and post- Black Death periods. After the pestilence, chicken husbandry started shifting from the demesne to the peasant sector of agriculture. The post-1350 changes reflect larger processes, which occurred in late-medieval society, economy and environment.
Introduction: The present paper explores the place and importance of the chicken within the shifting context of late-medieval English agriculture, society and environment, between c.1250 and 1400. It shows how the history of chicken husbandry reflects larger processes andphenomena connected to this context. During this period, England experienced a long series of profound changes and shocks, which transformed its society, economy and environment.
Perhaps the strongest shock was mass human mortality, known as the Black Death, which ravaged England between 1348 and 1351, killing around forty percent of its population. Besides its profound demographic impact, however, the Black Death represents the line between the “pre-Black Death” period of population pressure and lower living standards, and the “post-Black Death” era of low people-to-land ratio, high real wages and hence rising living standards. The post-pestilence period is also marked by the decline and eventual disappearance of direct demesne agriculture and the expansion of peasant farming.
The research is based on about 3,500 manorial accounts from some 300 demesnes from eastern England (Cambridgeshire, Essex, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Peterborough’s hinterland in Northamptonshire). This region was chosen for two reasons. First, it was an area of particularly high population density and relatively high land values, where chicken production might find a particularly viable niche. Second, the relevant sources, and especially the manorial accounts, are rich for this part of England at the time, particularly in Norfolk.