• Tastes Of History

A Brief History of Foods: Chickens in Britain

Updated: Apr 14

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, and they are depicted in Babylonian carvings dating to ca. 600 BC. By contrast, 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. The first depictions of chickens in Europe were pressed into Corinthian pottery dated to the 7th-century BC. According to the later Greek author Athenaeus, the mid-5th century BC poet Cratinus called chickens ‘the Persian alarm’ because they came from the East and would not let you sleep past sunrise. In Aristophanes' comedy ‘The Birds’ (414 BC) a chicken is called ‘the Median bird’ again pointing to an introduction from the East [2]. Although the island of Delos in the Cyclades seems to have been a centre of chicken breeding in ancient Greece, chickens were still rare and were a rather prestigious food for symposia [3].

The Romans considered the chicken sacred to Mars, the God of War, and used chickens in augury the practice in ancient Roman religion of interpreting omens from the observed behaviour of birds when, for example, in flight (Latin: ‘ex avibus’) or when feeding (Latin: ‘auspicium ex tripudiis’. The latter practice was known as ‘Alectryomancy’ and according to Marcus Tullius Cicero (Cic. de Div. ii.34), while any bird could be used, normally only chickens (‘pulli’) were consulted. These ‘sacred chickens’ were cared for by the pullarius, who opened their cage and fed them pulses or a special kind of soft cake when an augury was needed. If the chickens stayed in their cage, made noises (‘occinerent’), beat their wings or flew away, the omen was bad; if they ate greedily, the omen was good.

All well and good, but 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 [4]. Yet it was due to Roman influence that they became popular and first came to be viewed as 'food' [5]. 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.

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 chickens. Some used wheat bread soaked in wine, others swore by a mixture of cumin seeds, barley and lizard fat. Fattening the birds with bread soaked in milk was thought to give especially delicious results. When, in 162 BC, the LexFaunia forbade the eating of fattened hens to conserve grain rations, Roman chicken breeders neatly avoided this sumptuary law by castrating cockerels, which resulted in a doubling of their size and weight. In doing so the Romans effectively introduced the world to capons [6]. Scroll forward in time and 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 imploded, the chicken’s status in Europe also faded. As the centuries went by, hardier fowls such as geese and partridge began to adorn medieval tables [6]. The humble chicken returned to a size more akin to when they were first introduced during the Iron Age more than 1,000 years earlier. Yet, because chickens were highly prized in the Roman world the species was certainly helped on its journey to becoming the most widespread livestock animal on the planet.

 

Endnotes:


1. Hirst, K.K. (2019), ‘The Domestication History of Chickens (Gallus domesticus)’, ThoughtCo,, (accessed August 1st, 2020).

2. 'The History of Chickens', Perfect Poultry, (accessed July 29th, 2020).

3. In ancient Greece, the symposion (Greek: συμπόσιον meaning ‘to drink together’) was a part of a banquet taking place after the meal when drinking for pleasure was accompanied by music, dancing, recitals, or conversation.

4. University of Exeter Archaeology, (2020), 'Brown hares and chickens were treated as “gods” not food when they arrived in Britain, research shows', (accessed August 1st, 2020).

5. 'What did the Romans ever do for us?', Cultural & Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions, (accessed August 1st, 2020).

6. Lawlor, A. and Adler, J, (2012), 'How the Chicken Conquered the World‘, Smithsonian Magazine, (accessed July 29th, 2020).


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