A little while ago, I promised a friend I’d write a blog on unexpected birds that have been found in archaeological assemblages from medieval York. I’m currently revisiting the glories of my past (and sort of my present) as a commercial archaeologist working mainly on York assemblages, so it seemed like the time to make good on this promise. For the most part, the birds that you find in urban assemblages are no great cause for excitement – mostly they went “cluck”, sometimes they went “hiss” (geese, for those who don’t live in York), and every so often they went “quack”. If it didn’t, it was probably the kind of thing that you’d see on your bird feeder or in a sad feathery heap by the side of the road. However, for every 50 or 100 bones of chicken, goose, duck, pigeon, crow and blackbird, something else crops up which – to those used to the modern city – is rather more unexpected. Something like…
Cranes, Snipes and Peacocks
What did people eat before turkey was the posh bird of choice? The answer, apparently, is everything. From the 10th century through to the 19th, game birds show up on a fairly regular basis in the archaeological record. Snipe are just the tip of the iceberg – from Hungate alone, we have identified woodcock, black grouse, pheasant, golden plover, lapwing, four types of duck, and a partridge in a pear tree. These are the kind of birds which would be caught in the countryside outside the city, maybe by hawking, and for the most part would have graced relatively well-off tables. Some birds, though, graced posher tables than others. Peacocks were introduced to Britain from India via the Mediterranean in both the Roman and Norman periods, and have always been captive bred birds, valued as much for their plumage and the status of owning or serving one as for their uninspiring taste. Mute swans, on the other hand, were native but subject to legislation designed to keep them from the tables of the common people. From the late 15th century onwards, all unmarked swans belonged to the Crown, with penalties for taking a swan which wasn’t yours. Licenses could be held from the Crown to lay claim to a certain number of swans per year, which was done by marking their beaks or “swan-upping”. If you really want to eat swan today, St John’s College in Cambridge still holds the right to serve swan from the Crown, along with a few other places.
Common crane (Grus grus). Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_crane
The other bird which deserves a mention is the crane, a lanky, heron-like bird which was inexplicably popular over the early part of the medieval period. Unfortunately, a combination of decline of its wetland habitat through drainage of the Fens and its popularity for medieval feasts meant that the crane’s numbers declined sharply and – despite legislation by Henry VIII aimed at its conservation – by the 19th century the British population of cranes was effectively extinct. Happily, efforts by the RSPB to reintroduce them are having some success, with breeding pairs established in Norfolk and the south-west.
Eagles and other Predatory Birds
The archaeological record is unequivocal. In the 10th-11th century, white-tailed eagles scavenged around York. Their bones crop up infrequently, but they’ve been identified from both Coppergate and Hungate, showing that they were about in the city. There are a few things about the past that I still find genuinely mind-blowing, and one of them is that the white-tailed eagle – which is a bird of prey bigger than a swan, which looks like a plank when in flight, which went extinct in Britain in the 20th century and after being reintroduced, is still critically rare – scavenged in cities around the time of the Vikings and the Norman Conquest. Urban areas, of course, were a lot smaller and within easy commuting range of the countryside for the enterprising bird, as well as having more available food and butchery refuse to support a thriving ecosystem. In addition to white-tailed eagles, York supported and attracted buzzards, red kites, owls, and sparrowhawks. A single white-tailed eagle or red kite can consume around 500g of food per day – a thriving population could eat its way through two or three tonnes in a year. Were white-tailed eagles in the city all year? Carrion is a more important part of their diet in the winter months, when other food is scarce, so it’s possible to envisage hunger bringing them to the most likely food source when the weather turned colder. Were they welcome? Later records about red kites are more generally concerned with methods of keeping them away from chickens and other livestock, so attitudes were likely to have been ambivalent at best. A pair of peregrine falcons nests on the Minster today, and has made it into the list of “100 Best Things To Do in York” – a small and welcome reminder of the city’s past.
White-tailed eagle (Image source: https://www.facebook.com/rspbhighlands/)
If the commensal birds of prey weren’t enough, there are a few – like goshawks, and maybe sparrowhawks – which were probably introduced to the city as tame falcons for falconry. And there’s the occasional bird of prey where we really don’t know how it got here. The only identified bone of golden eagle found in York came from medieval deposits at Hungate. Was it a trophy bird, brought back to the city for display or for its feathers? Or was it another unlikely urban scavenger? With its rarity, it’s hard to tell.
Auks: Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin
If you’ve been to Flamborough Head (between Bridlington and Filey on the Yorkshire Coast), you have probably seen guillemots and puffins, together with a few others – cormorants, gannets, razorbills and the like. What these birds have in common is that they breed during the spring and summer and make their nests in large, cliff-top or cliff-side colonies, and spend much of their lives at sea. But for a few centuries, from around the 10th century through to the 14th century, they crop up at various sites in York – Hungate, Coppergate, Tanner Row – and also in Beverley from a similar date. What are these seabirds doing in the city? Butchery marks on the bones suggest fairly unequivocally that they were eaten, a practice which was far from unknown even up to comparatively recently. The community of St Kilda off the west coast of Scotland, famously, maintained their precarious existence on the island by harvesting the populations of seabirds which came to breed in the spring; and the great auk, the large flightless relative of the razorbill, was hunted to extinction by the end of the 19th century for its meat and its feathers. In York, with the breeding grounds at Flamborough nearby, these birds may have been a good cheap option for a low-status diet, particularly since the meat preserved well.
(Below) Puffin – a tasty snack? Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_puffin
Another possible reason for their popularity is the medieval dietary laws. Under Church law, medieval Christians were not permitted to consume meat on “fasting days” – which, including every Wednesday and Friday, the whole of Lent and the whole of Advent, took up about half the year. However, the definition of meat proved to be somewhat flexible, with dolphins, porpoises, and beaver tails designated as “fish” in a sleight of hand which then let you eat them on a Friday. Is it possible that auks were similarly exempt from being meat? The monastery of Le Tréport in northern France argued in the 17th century that puffins were fish, successfully enough to convince their archbishop, and it is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that similar debates had occurred earlier in Yorkshire.
Sadly, however, there’s as yet no evidence from York for a different and rather marvellous use of seabirds – getting cormorants to fish for you. The idea was imported to England in the 17th century from China, and there are both woodcuts and training manuals which describe how you capture, keep and train your cormorant. The manuals do make clear, though, that however well-trained your cormorant, it would still a) smell and b) bite you in the face at any given opportunity, which may explain why the practice was short-lived.
Past Diversity, Present Lives
I’m finishing off writing this blog after a week spent in the Orkney Islands. If you haven’t been to Orkney, the bird life there is astounding. Beyond its multiple types of breeding seabirds, we got used to tripping over oystercatchers, skylarks and curlews on a daily basis. Coming back to the modern city – with its lack of any birds except pigeons, gulls and magpies – has been a shock.
The medieval period is for the most part nothing to aspire to, but it’s worth remembering that the diversity of birds which were on their streets, in their skies and on their plates is considerably different, and considerably greater, than in modern York. Medieval York was smaller, dirtier, and with more available rubbish – altogether a different ecology to the modern city. The past, as they say, is a different country. With white-tailed eagles in the sky.
Bond, J. & O’Connor, T. 1999. Bones from Medieval Deposits at 16-22 Coppergate and Other Sites in York. AY fascicule 15/5. York Archaeological Trust.
Macgregor, A. 2012. Animal Encounters: Human and Animal Interaction in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War One. London: Reaktion Books.
Steel, T. 1988. The Life and Death of St Kilda. Harper Collins.
Watts, S. 2011. Enlightened Fasting. In K. Albala & T. Eden (eds.) Food and Faith in Christian Culture. Columbia University Press.