A Monthly Look at some Husbandry Books: Chaucer’s Chickens

This blogpost is long overdue. I spent the beginning of this month viewing some actual husbandry books in the British Library and I took part in the London Rare Books School. Expect a blogpost about my ventures into printing in due time. First things first, let me introduce you to my new avian acquaintances.


Meet Pertelote.

Last month, we finally decided to buy chickens for our newly built chicken run. I did not hesitate long before I picked a hen (no pun intended) and named her Pertelote, after one of the main characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest Tale. It is one of my favourite tales, not in the last place because it reminds me of Aardman’s Chicken Run. Sadly enough, my family were not pleased with my choice of name and forbade me to christen the rooster Chauntecleer. The poor creature is now named Poldark.

“This insomnia is killing me. I keep seeing roosters in the trees!”

While I watched the chickens scurry around I started to ponder their medieval predecessors. What struck me is the notable absence of chickens in husbandry books. The most logical answer I could come up with is that there was simply no need to waste valuable parchment on the most ubiquitous piece of fowl. In the middle ages, you needed only to ask your old nan for advice on, say, clipping wings. As Walter of Henley briefly mentions, chickens were the responsibility of dairymaids. So, even though the widow who owns the chickens in the Nun’s Priest Tale has some large farm animals, she is described a sort of dairywomen: “For she was, as it were, a maner deye” (NPT l. 2846). Come to think of it, this would make John Skelton’s Elynour Rummynge a dairywoman too. Sort of.

The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummynge: A Movie About Chicks and Beer.

The fact that chickens were female territory could explain the lack of chickens in husbandry books, which are generally aimed at a male audience. There are exceptions such as of Robert Grosseteste’s Rules, but this text deals with household organisation rather than husbandry. Thomas Tusser also attempted to write something for a female audience: A Hundred Pointes of Good Huswifery. Yes, this exists and it is is, in the writer’s own words, married to A Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandry.

It comes as no surprise then, that the first animals to appear in Tusser’s Huswifery are chickens. Unfortunately enough, there are no instructions for the keeping of chickens but instead we find a patronising lesson in timekeeping featuring a rooster who takes the role of alarm clock. Thus, it would seem, roosters did not only hold sway over their hens but they also ruled the lives of maidservants:


No comment here. For applicable advice on chicken-keeping we better move into reliable territory: Gervase Markham’s farm.

As usual, Markham is the first to provide well-informed instructions for the keeping of hens: “Some small thing hath beene written of this nature before [Markham refers to another, unknown printed treatise], but so drawne from the opinions of old Writers, as Italians, French, Duth, and such like that it hath no coherence or congruitie with the practise and experience of English customes, both their rules and climbes being so different from ours, that except we were to live in their Countries, the rules which are Printed are uselesse, and to no purpose” (Cheape and Good Husbandry, 1614). As we might expect from the ever-critical Markham, he provides ample examples of the silliness that pervades continental husbandry books: “To set Hens in the winter time in stowes or ovens is of no use with us in England, and though they may by no meanes bring forth, yet will the Chickens be never good nor profitable, but like the planting of Lemon and Pomegranate trees, the fruit will come a great deale short of the charges”. Remember how in the treatise I discussed last month, grafting exotic trees was seen as the pinnacle of sophistication? Well, Markham is only concerned with English agriculture and will have none of your fancy figs. He is more concerned with the wellbeing of livestock, and devotes most of his treatise to veterinary medicine. There are quite a few interesting remedies for chickens, such as the following three:

  • If your hens have sore eyes, chew on ground-ivy and spit it into their eyes
  • If your hens crow [this is very “vnnaturall” according to Markham] you much pull their wings.
  • If you do not want your hen to sit [sitting hens? inconceivable!], bathe her in cold water and thrust a small feather through her nostrils.

I just checked on my Pertelote: she looks zo fit als een hoentje (please forgive my desire to use Dutch expressions that do not translate well into English) so no need for the ground-ivy or cold water bath just yet…

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