Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Animals of Cottage and Castle: Chickens

by Katherine Ashe

What could be found in the poorest of cottages and the richest of manors? Chickens of course. The poor cottager might have only three or four hens, a manor with a large household and frequent guests might have two-hundred. But the number would not be stable as older hens past their careers as egg layers would go to the soup pot, and the young cockerels hatched would be roasted before they could become trouble makers for the resident cocks.

Chickens have been domesticated for at least five thousand years. Interestingly, the wild progenitor of domestic chickens, the Red Jungle Fowl, is still going strong in the forests of Thailand, India and Indonesia.

Golden Sebright Cock
And there are modern breeds that look very much like them, though plumper, and given to more frequent egg laying or more determined fighting. These birds have been bred for sport for as long, and possibly longer, than they’ve been bred for food. The cock can be an utterly fearless adversary, yet extraordinarily gallant toward his hens – an apt model of chivalry well recognized from ancient to modern times.

If chickens had not reached England before the Roman invasion, they certainly would have come with the legions, for all their uses. Breeding for beauty, meatiness and flavor, prodigious year-around egg laying and combat-readiness was pursued by the Romans. Augustus’ reign particularly focused on encouraging virtuous agrarian interests, perhaps to dislodge the patrician class from city life in hope of converting decadent pastimes to more constructive ones.

Virgil’s Georgics canvases country life from the fertility of soil to the care of livestock – and does it in a long, long poem. He influenced not only the Romans of his own times, but Latin readers in monasteries and lordly manors ever since. In far more detail, the Roman writer Columella’s De Re Rustica provides instructions on the raising of chickens that is still apt for the non-industrial flock.

Derbyshire Redcap Cock
Let’s look at the chickens of cottage and castle – and the home farm to this day. In this age-old domesticated life-style the chicken ideally lives in a community of four or five hens per cock if a high rate of chick-hatching is the aim. But one cock for the whole flock will suffice, which is, in my observation, what the hens prefer. Most hens flee screaming from amorous advances; the cock is only successful if he can grab one by the neck feathers and pin her down. But then there is the flirtatious hen who will stamp her feet, press her breast to the ground and raise her tail if she thinks the cock might be looking her way.

And some cocks are more popular with their hens than others are. Gallantry. It’s a common behavior of cocks, on discovering the arrival of food, to crow a summons to the hens then stand aside and let them eat first. The cock of my flock could count his hens as they came into the barn in the evening. I thought this was absurd until, one evening, a hen was missing. (I hadn’t missed her and had closed the barn’s side door.) The cock went up the steps opposite the door, flew at the door feet first, swung the door open, flumped on the ground outside, picked himself up and went searching for his missing hen. In a few minutes he was back, herding her along ahead of him.

Jungle Fowl
Hens, for the most part, are prudent creatures with a sense of proprieties. Is it anthropomorphizing when behaviors similar to humans are considered fictions – false ascriptions to animals a deliberateness that is proper only to mankind – or is not an example of mankind’s arrogance to refuse the truth of intentional animal behavior when we see it is like our own?

I refer to chickens in their natural domestic habitat, not the hen who provided your store-bought breakfast egg or the cockerel in your chicken sandwich. Those are the closest thing to animals reduced by breeding and experience to mere machines. The hen lives isolated in an individual cage in which she cannot stand up. The cockerel grew to slaughtering size in a pen with fifty to several hundred of his age-fellows – a pen that had plenty of room when all were chicks but which, by the time his last day arrived, was so crowded he could barely move.

But we’re considering the chicken of the cottage and the castle.

Hens observe a social order of precedence (the much documented “pecking order”) and will peck the hen who presumes to eat before her betters, or to push or use the favored nesting box to which her status does not entitle her. Age is a major factor in precedence, but dignified and justified aggressiveness will be the selecting factor among age mates. The over aggressive hen aren’t popular. And a hen may move up socially if the hens above her rank permit her to stand beside them – to “hang out” with them, if you will.

Japanese Bantam
Vegetable kitchen scraps and bread crumbs would augment the flock’s diet of seeds, grass, weeds and insects most of the year. In the medieval three-field system the spring field of oats, peas, beans and barley provided dried feed for the winter, and tattered cabbage leaves would bring joy to the flock as each hen grabbed her leaf and ran off with it waving like a flag.

In winter’s harsh weather the flock would be confined to the byre, the barn or, in the case of the cottage, to a small hen house and fenced run. With the early warmth of spring the flock would be released to peck insects and sprouting weeds, and the hens would be so giddy that they wouldn’t return to their nests but would lay eggs wherever they happened to be – which no doubt gives rise to the Easter egg hunt as a custom of springtime.

An average flock of a dozen hens will have at least four nesting boxes where anyone may lay her eggs. Triumphant cackling follows the depositing of an egg, and the laying process is far from instantaneous, the hen looking thoughtfully constipated until the egg is out. Modern breeds can lay as much as an egg per day, but the hen of olden days was doing well to lay once every two or three days, and less in the winter. Columella recommends giving hens grape marc to get them through cold weather comfortably. My hens got a tablespoon of Scotch or Courvoisier in five gallons of water and seemed quite happy.

At an egg every two or three days it can take several weeks for a hen to accumulate the dozen eggs that inspire her to brood – that is sitting, warming on the eggs to hatch them. Eggs remain viable for at least three weeks and don’t start cell division until brooding begins. So much for anxiety about eggs being very fresh. Once a hen broods she’ll move from the nest only rarely and briefly: to eat, drink and defecate (a proper hen keeps her nest immaculate.) She’ll remain on the nest for at least twenty-one days.

Scotts Grey
The spot of fertility, a white dot with a white circle around it on the side of the yolk, will quickly divide in that time until the chick has absorbed all the yolk and the white of the egg. Terribly cramped in the shell, it will move its head, causing its beak to come in firmer and firmer contact with the shell until a hole is made, a bit of breathing space. Then, apparently encouraged, after a rest the chick will struggle to break the shell away and will emerge wet but warm, snuggled under its mother’s feathers. Not until all the eggs have hatched, or the hen has determined that some are never going to hatch, does she leave the nesting box, with her chicks following. The first to hatch will have lived for two or three days with no food other than what’s stored in their bodies from the egg.

Unlike wild birds, chickens are able to feed themselves and to drink from the moment they have their feet on the ground. Their mother need not even show them how, although they’ll still follow her and nestle beneath her whenever they’re not feeding or exploring their world. Do chicks play? Well, they appear to play King of the Mountain, perching atop a feeder until somebody knocks them off and takes their place. This is probably training for the “pecking order.”

Although the Romans cultivated breeds of chickens, it seems that in the Middle Ages not much attention was paid to the perfecting of chickens through selective breeding. It was not until the late 18th and 19th centuries that, in England, the craze for breeding clubs for everything from dogs to cattle and hogs and fowl took hold, creating most of the pure breeds known today.

There are a few breeds with ancient lineage. The Dorking claims a long lineage, as does the Derbyshire Redcap. Notice the comb on the Redcap, like a frilly bonnet or a fingery red sea anemone. It’s thicker and less prone to frost bite than the more usual thin comb. The comb, like the knight’s plume, is a matter of considerable pride to a cock. Hens usually have tiny combs that barely emerge from their head feathers. A dish of cocks’ combs was a delicacy in the Middle Ages.

Dorking Cock
When Edward in Sense and Sensibility remarks that his ambition is to be a curate, live a retired country life and raise chickens, he’s actually very much in fashion. While the rougher sorts of country gentlemen were perfecting their fighting cocks, aesthetes were creating, importing and improving works of art on two feet. While some look like extreme versions of chickens, some don’t look like chickens at all. The Silkie is favored as a pet, as well as for its willingness to sit on other hens’ eggs and hatch them. These are very docile creatures – a woman I know dresses hers in a vest and pantaloons, of which he seems very proud.

If all of this has inspired you to raise your own chickens, know that chicks are readily available through the mail – those three days of fasting-ability directly after hatching make this possible. But they’re usually shipped in quantities of a dozen – so they can keep each other warm.

A caution, large breeds can be very large, a cock can be two and a half feet tall and have five inch long spikes on his ankles -- and he’ll know how to use them. Fighting breeds, even bantams, can be very aggressive toward people – a Sebright of mine, about seven inches tall and just as pretty as the fellow pictured below, took up residence on the steps of a house a mile from home and terrorized the residence for several hours until I came and trapped him in a basket.

In the U.S. the firm I’ve dealt with, always happily, is the Murray McMurray Hatchery at

The above pictured Silkie comes from the breeder below:

In the UK start perhaps with a visit to: http://www,


Katherine Ashe is the author of Montfort, the four volume historical novel on Simon de Montfort and the thirteenth century.


  1. Who would have thought an article about chickens could be so fascinating? Thank you! Pity I live in a flat, but my nephew keeps some chickens, as does a friend of mine, who has a couple of rescued battery hens. Yes, it's dreadful what they do to chickens, and why I buy free range eggs and never buy chicken sandwiches at ll.

  2. Lovely article, I thoroughly enjoyed it!


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