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

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

By Umberto Albarella and Richard Thomas

Acta zoologica cracoviensia, Vol. 45 (special issue) (2002)


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, however 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.

Introduction: Better than any other bird, the Crane Grus grus symbolises the significance of wild fowl in medieval society. As YAPP 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 mentioned in medieval documents and its bones, sometimes bearing butchery marks, are not infrequently 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”. Although young cranes would have been more tender and digestible, wild birds, in general, were “fussy and awkward to eat, needing a good deal of attention as well as in terms of preparation and setting out in the table”. In addition, they would have retailed at a high price.

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