Chickens in Period: A Fowl Historic Research Paper

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Honorable Lady Sosha Lyon’s O’Rourke

Art print of Red Jungle Fowl Chicken Rooster and Hen by Watts

Art print of Red Jungle Fowl Chicken Rooster and Hen by Watts (

Chickens in Period:

A Fowl Historic Research Paper


Honorable Lady Sosha Lyon’s O’Rourke


The modern view of the chicken, for non raisers/breeders in America, is that of a white fluffy feathered yellow skinned tasty bird that produces eggs in either a white shell or a brown shell.  In period this vestal tasty treat was not as it is today.  In period the chicken went from wild fowl to tamed provider of eggs, meat and entertainment.  Not to mention buying of elicited favors and imparting designs of gods.  The humble chicken has gone through a few transformations along the way to the table. 

First came the Chicken, Origins:

Our (humans) fowl love affair started many millennia ago.  The genealogical start of the humble chicken is thought to be between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago.  The chicken, through DNA analysis, has been back tracked to the red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus. (Adler/Damerow, pp. 9) in north-central India, Southeast Asia and west-central Thailand (Collias) as the primary DNA domestication start.

A modern day pair of Red Jungle Fowl.

Red Jungle Fowl Chicken Rooster and Hen

Luckily for us, the red jungle fowl is not the only DNA in the chicken mix.  Chickens being the randy cross breeders they were, modern breeds also have a little bit of the grey jungle fowl in their mix. (Uppsala Universitet).

Grey jungle fowl


Adler writes

“The domesticated chicken has a genealogy as complicated as the Tudors, stretching back 7,000 to 10,000 years and involving, according to recent research, at least two wild progenitors and possibly more than one event of initial domestication…The chicken’s wild progenitor is the red junglefowl, Gallus gallus, according to a theory advanced by Charles Darwin and recently confirmed by DNA analysis. The bird’s resemblance to modern chickens is manifest in the male’s red wattles and comb, the spur he uses to fight and his cock-a-doodle-doo mating call. The dun-colored females brood eggs and cluck just like barnyard chickens…which stretches from northeastern India to the Philippines, G. gallus browses on the forest floor for insects, seeds and fruit, and flies up to nest in the trees at night. That’s about as much flying as it can manage, a trait that had obvious appeal to humans seeking to capture and raise it…”
Next comes the egg, Mass production style:

This part gets a little muddled.  Both the Egyptians and the Romans claim to have cracked the secret for raising large numbers of chickens through closely guarded secret of slave powered incubators.  (Adler/Toussaint-Samat, pp. 336).  This was needed to feed the growing appetite for chickens in such quantities that farms with large flocks up to 200 could not produce enough chickens in these hungry times. (Columella)

Here is a view of an ancient Egyptian hatchery (still functioning today).

The incubators are heated by fire, sunlight or oil lamps.  Van der Sluis tells how the master incubator can tell by touching an egg to the eye lid whether the egg is at the perfect temperature, too hot or too cold and adjust accordingly.

Ventilation is controlled by using doors, curtains and a chimney at the top of each incubator cell.

“Like most of the ancient hatcheries this one has a central corridor with on each side five cells. Each cell has two levels where there is place for 10,000 eggs on each. The levels are connected by a manhole in the middle of the upper cell floor. From the central corridor one has access to both the levels. The openings are used to enter the room when placing eggs, moving the eggs and taking out the chicks, as well as for managing the temperature and ventilation.” (van der Sluis)

This particular hatchery has a max 200,000 egg capacity, with each egg being placed and rotated by hand several times a day.  There is a 40,000 egg entry/rotation every week with roughly 32,000 chicks hatched per week.  There is minimal egg loss between 10 and 13%.   Per Damerow, pp. 297, modern day incubation loss is roughly around 25%.  A 12-15% difference in loss is huge, especially depending on the type of egg being incubated as some chickens or other brooding fowl lay rarely i.e. peacocks (3-28 eggs per avian specialists/ or the very rare in chicken breeds i.e. Yokohamas, Saipan Jungle Fowl, Phoenix etc. ( These are not the only rare types to be found but their egg production is listed as “poor”.  Losing 25% of the only 10 eggs one bird will produce is a poor return.

The difference for the lack in lose of eggs seems to be from the personal touch, with generations and years of training by each person working minutely with each egg till hatching.  The man made mechanics with out human intervention, other then the first inclusion of egg, is left to the vagaries of nature interacting with the mechanical.

Feather Raising; Suggested Raising Techniques in period:

The best period raising advice seems to come from Columella (thecoolchickenreturns).  He suggests a feed on groats, chick-peas, millet and bran (if they are cheap).  Wheat should not be fed to the birds as it is harmful. Boiled rye grass with alfalfa (seeds and leaves) are good bites of fodder. While Columella does suggest vetch, Damerow (modern) states that vetch is down right harmful if ingested.  The feeding of vetch seems to be an on going discussion still between chicken raisers of safe or not safe from the various comments on chicken raisers boards.

Columella next discusses the breeding habits of chickens as well as cross breeding types for the best in both eating and temperament. The breeds Tanagrian, Rhodic, Chalkidic and Median (Melian) should only be used for cockfighting while the native Roman chickens either by themselves or hens crossed with Greek cocks.   These breeds do not show up in modern times; however the breed names for these period chickens seem to be based on the origin city or region and not upon any specific type or defining characteristic.  And example would be Tanagrian, which was a Greek district between Thebes and Chalcis. (UChicago)  Dwarf chickens, Columella continues, have no other advantage then that of being pretty.  White chickens are too easily visible by eagles and goshawks so should be avoided.

Thirdly Columella’s advice on the size of a flock is that of 200.  This he says is the ideal number for which one person can maintain while watching for wild animals bent on sampling the tasty strays.  There should be no more then five hens to one cock but for Rhodian and Median cocks, three hens are the ideal number due to the heaviness of the cocks and their decided lack of interest in sex.  Even in Roman times it is noted that heavy chickens are less likely to tend toward broodiness so eggs should be removed from the heavier breeds and given to the more standard sized hen.  This standard hen should be able to brood over 15-23 eggs at a time and should it be needed could watch up to 30 chicks.

Damerow discuss how modern smaller breeds such as Bantams are more apt to brood eggs of other chickens, such as the heavier types of fowl whose breeding makes it either harder for them to breed or all broodiness has been breed out of them in preference for quality of growth for meat.  Damerow does not say if this technique is common chicken knowledge passed from generation to generation or a newly discovered technique (i.e. with in the last 100 years).

When a chicken is neither Fowl nor Fish:

“Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.”

(Athenian General Themistocles/Adler).

The Greeks liked to use chickens for game cocks. (Adler)  A sport that is still around in modern times.

The Romans used chickens as presents to seduce young boys. (Faas, pp. 294)


“I had another chance the following night.  I changed my voice and whispered. ‘If I am allowed to touch this boy unashamedly with my hands without it troubling him, tomorrow I will give him two of the best fighting cocks.’ (Petr, 86)


I think I can safely say that this would be unusual way to seduce a younger man to bed by most modern standards.  This may or may not be the original term for “chicken hawk”.

Romans also used the chicken for predicting the future by sacrificing them to the gods or reading divine will through every day habits.  The chickens divined the future by flying “ex avibus” and when feeding “auspicium ex tripudiis”.  It was also thought that when a chicken appeared on the left that this was a favorable omen “auspicium ratum”. ( Chicken mongers would set up their shops next to temples for ease of divination or dinner purposes.  The way a chicken ate, did not eat, or spilled grain while eating would purportedly tell the priest the petitioners’ fate.

One very famous report of chicken divination was when:

“In 249 BC, the Roman general Publius Claudius Pulcher had his chickens thrown overboard when they refused to feed before the battle of Drepana, saying “If they won’t eat, perhaps they will drink.” He promptly lost the battle against the Carthaginians and 93 Roman ships were sunk. Back in Rome, he was tried for impiety and heavily fined.” (thecoolchickentreturns).

Toussant-Samat, pp. 336, has this same account however the good general was killed by Hannibal after throwing the chickens overboard as an impious action, instead of being fined in Rome and tried for impiety.  Publius throwing the chickens into the sea cost him more than if he had disengaged when the chickens refused to validate his battle plans.

Period Poultry Pedigree:
In 1863 Charles Darwin published an inventory of the all chicken breeds existing at that time.  He counted 13 breeds. (Fairoakspark/Damerow).  Darwin may have been following the definition of breed: A group of organisms having common ancestors and certain distinguishable characteristics, especially a group with in a species developed by artificial selection and maintained by controlled propagation. (thefreedictionary).  However it is debatable if he managed to see all breeds in all countries, leaving a wide swath of poultry left un-cataloged.  Today there are over 130+ (

Period chickens for cooking would be the following.  Per wiki, the English Game Fowl is one of the oldest strains of poultry breeds.  This breed is also used for fighting not just for eating or egg production, giving this breed a duel purpose to a breeder for extra income.  (  While this bird is not fat and usually runs about 4-6 lbs depending on the sex, Old English Game chickens can be considered a period breed for cooking.  (cacklehatchery).

Note the chicken hanging in the back ground.  This is an English game fowl (rooster) in the back ground.  A modern picture of the same type of bird is such.

The modern picture is not a perfect representation of the stylized period painting cock.  This is a best estimate on a type of English game fowl out of the modern descendents.

Unless a person wants to spend $600 for a show bird, one of the easier ways to procure such a period type of bird is to raise from a chick.  This is not a common walk into a market and purchase type of bird for cooking.

Period Chinese cooking would use a type of chicken called a Silkie.  The Silkie is listed by Marco Polo on his voyage in the 13th century and again in 1599 by Ulise Aldrovandi for the University of Bologna, Italy. (  This chicken is a very fluffy small bird with black skin.

I am sure there is a period painting of a bucolic farm with period tasty fluffy chickens in the Chinese style.  My web search provided 1910 artistic renditions but nothing in period.  I found horses, mountains, and cranes, but nothing as lowly as a chicken.

This tasty bird is common and available in Chinese markets.  I have never seen this type of poultry freshly wrapped but I have seen this type in the frozen meat sections, feathers off and black skin nude, wrapped in clear plastic for the entire world (or those in the poultry freezer section) to see.

For period Italian cooking, the Sicilian Buttercup would do.  A chicken with similar qualities is listed by Ulisse Aldrovandi in 1600.  This bird is thought to be the result of the interbreeding of a local Sicilian breed with a rose-combed Berbera from North Africa or a Tripolitana.  The actual standard for the Sicilian Buttercup would not be noted as a type until 1892 when the first actual breeder, Carroll Loring of Dedham, would list the bird as the Sicilian Buttercup. (

File:Gallus turcicus.jpg

Though the image presented in Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1550’s) does not much correlate to the drawing by Ulisee Aldrovandi in the same time period.  I am going to refer back to the comments by Columella, where he talks on different breeds, which were listed by the name of the city the poultry came from.  Each city or region had a distinctive type of bird.

The modern day Sicilian Buttercup looks like this.

Thank you Cackle Hatchery for our Buttercup chickens we got from you in 2008.  They love to hang out on our deck.  Christy, Prairie Grove, AR.

The modern day version looks more like the Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted rooster then the rooster in watercolor by Ulisee Aldrovandi.  This Sicilian Buttercup is not a common bird in the states but must be raised by back yard devotees.

A period Middle Eastern chicken breed would be the Orloff.  Per wikipidea, this bird, through modern research (DNA and bone fragments) first appeared in Persia then found its way into the wilds of Russia. (  In Russia the Orloff was such a hit and so prolific that the bird was assumed to have started there.  This is an extremely hard bird to find in west due to lack of interest.  This type of chicken though is rar(ish).  The status for the bird is listed as critical due to lack of breeding interest by commercial breeders and back yard breeders.  Nor will the chicks or chickens be found under the name Persian Orloff, rather they will be listed as the Russian Orloff. (

Russian Orloff in winter.jpg

Period painting of poultry either for the Persian variety or the Russian variety were unavailable.

Another Middle Eastern period chicken would be the Sultan. This breed’s point of origin is Turkey.  The documentation of English, Italian or translation from either the Persian empire or the Ottoman Empire commenting on period Middle Eastern types of poultry.  We have to rely on Wikipedia for the information that the name is Seari-Tavuk or Fowls of the Sultan.  These birds were kept by the Ottoman sultanate as ornaments for the palace gardens and grounds. (  The birds do reach a weight for cooking between 4-5 lbs depending on sex.  The Turkish is also listed in critical though these too can be bought as chicks for the back yard poulterist.

File:Maltipoo hen?.jpg

These are by no means the only period chickens available.  The availability to walk into a grocery store is severely limited for period chicken types though.  From the research available most period breeds need to be raised in the back yard or paid dearly for.  This leaves cooks wishing to do period dishes with only a few options.  Pay dearly for prime period meat, hope for good zoning rules to raise period types in the back yard or substitute the modern chicken, raised for mass production, while noting which period breeds would be used in their dish.


In period chickens were more than just meat.  When the chicken was a meat source, for non farmers, they were an expensive treat.  The farmer kept what he needed to eat and continue producing chickens, while he sent what was left over into town to sell.  (Toussaint-Samat, pp. 344).   They were oracles for telling outcomes of luck and battle.  They were used for bartering in sexual favors.

I was disappointed to not find a reference to the first civilization actually taking credit for taming the red jungle fowl and their progeny.  I would like to have seen a genealogical flow chart just for visuals.

I also found the discussion in ancient text about turning rooster chicks into capons (neutered chicks) rather disappointing.  Columella writes that the way to turn a rooster into a capon is to burn out a rooster chicks spur with a hot iron then treat the wounds with potters chalk.  (thecoolchickenreturns).  From what I have read and studying of anatomy of chickens, the spurs are used as fighting weapons while the actual testes are located along the spine, slightly above the legs and slightly below/between the bottom ribs. (Damerow, pp. 363-364).  Per the reading, both testicles need to be removed in tact other wise even the smallest portion will re-grow, flooding the rooster chick with testosterone rendering the supposed capon into a rooster.

The other method written by Varr. III-ix, was to take a cock and hold a red-hot iron between the legs until it bursts, with the wound smeared in clay. (Faas, pp. 294).  I believe this is an error in translation.  If a cock were to be burst by a red hot poker then the only thing left to do is eat it.  Nothing survives a bursting.  However if the Romans were trying to burn out the actual roster organ, this still leaves the testacies intact to produce testosterone.  This just leaves a rooster unable to breed and all the desire to do so.

I found little reference to types of hen houses used by the Romans, Persians, Turkish, or others.  I know that many breeds roosted in trees and were free range per the readings and that eggs were hatched in gigantic man made incubators.  However the actual chicken coop does not seem to be even a footnote in period.  This leads me to believe that any cooping of chickens was more of an after thought or perhaps guiding hens to lay and/or roost in existing animal shelters such as lofts and barns.

Overall I found the research to be both amusing and interesting.  I learned more about period chickens and their uses than I ever dreamed of.  I found myself far more curious about the types of chickens and what would be a suitable period breed or breeds for raising in Ansteorra to use in cooking.  This then led to the logical conclusion of where to find the chickens, how to acquire the type(s) needed, housing and feeding.  I believe that a good period cook knows where and how their ingredients were raised or grown.  This holds true for the meat used and not just accept that X Y or Z type of food is period.  I think the searching of why a food is period as well as what foods are period, give some one attempting period cooking, a better understanding of how foods were prepared and why perpetration were done in certain ways.  I also think striving for period foods gives a dish greater authenticity. However with that being said not all items are available due to logistics or sadly extinction for some items.


 Adler, J., Lawler, A.,. (2012):

Collias, N., Collias, E., (1967).

Damerow, G., (2010). Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.

Faas, P., (1994). Around the Roman Table. University of Chicago Press.

Giacosa, I., (1992). A Taste of Ancient Rome; by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, Translated by Anna Herklotz. University of Chicago Press.

Toussaint-Samat, M., (1992). History of Food. Barnes & Nobles.

Van der Sluis, W., (2011). s