I wonder what you plan to have for your Christmas dinner this year: a turkey, descendant of wild birds from North America, or perhaps a traditional English goose. I’m pretty sure you won’t be feasting on roast swan, baked bittern or a plate of fried sparrows. Yet these all featured on the feasting menu for our richer forbears in this valley as elsewhere in the kingdom.
I’ve recently been involved in learning quite a lot about the Middle Ages particularly in our local region, in preparation for a U3A course. One aspect of this that is particularly interesting to me as a naturalist is what people – especially well off people – ate. Although wealthy families consumed great quantities of meat, they also enjoyed a wide range of wild or semi-wild creatures. Rabbits were a highly prized and well guarded commodity, a dainty dish at a feast, but hares and venison, which could be hunted locally, seem to have been readily available to complement all that beef and pork. Fish from private fishponds would be a welcome change from salted or smoked fish brought from the coast often after being imported from the Baltic. There would have been good salmon runs. You can still catch sight of some today if you’re in the right place at the right time
So far – easy to imagine. The appetite for wild birds is more surprising. At a feast celebrating the enthronement of a Bishop of Salisbury in 1417 the party ate their way through a collection of swans, peacocks, pheasants, partridges and, for the highly favoured guests, roast cranes and herons, bitterns, curlews, pigeons, plovers, quails and larks. Some of these would no doubt have been reared on the estates but others must have been shot with arrows or, in the case of the larks, netted. Since there was no way to keep such food for long they must have been available in quantity.
Wharfedale, with its valley floor wetlands and upland bogs and moors provided good habitats for wild fowl and other birds. Most, like curlew, plover and herons, are still around today though sadly bittern are a rare sight and cranes, occasionally spotted flying over, are even rarer. Place names indicate that cranes were certainly abundant here: Tranmere actually means cranes’ mire or cranes’ marsh.
Meanwhile I guess my forbears were eating their potage of beans and oats perhaps spiced up with potherbs and a sliver of elderly bacon!