Whether domesticated or hunted, birds were much-enjoyed food items in the Middle Ages. Some exotic birds we wouldn't consider food sources today were particularly popular at banquets, where, as a festive display, they would be re-dressed in their plumage after they'd been cooked. While peasants could occasionally consume chicken or perhaps even goose, most birds were captured by the upper classes in the hunt or raised to be sold at high prices and were therefore rarely eaten by the average medieval fellow.
Chicken, Capon and Eggs
Chicken appears in a good percentage of the recipes that have survived from the Middle Ages, and among the upper classes the meat was served frequently. In more modest homes, chicken might be served on very special occasions; peasants needed chickens for their eggs, and were very unlikely to eat a hen until it had stopped laying them. Eggs were used regularly and frequently in a wide variety of recipes in upper-class kitchens and peasant dwellings alike.
Capons -- castrated males -- were considered luxury items that only the rich could afford.
Though not as popular as chicken or goose, duck was often served in medieval Europe. Sometimes duck was raised domestically, but more often than not it appears to have been hunted or captured in the wild. Duck feathers were probably put to use in bedding and clothing, though goose feathers were more common for such uses. The duck's relative, the coot, was also known to be consumed.
Whenever the well-to-do laid on an impressive spread for a feast, duck and coot were very likely to be among the dishes served.
Game Birds: Partridge, Pheasant and Quail
These three birds are all related to each other, and all were hunted with the help of falcons by the upper classes. Pheasant was especially prized, since its meat was considered very flavorsome. Male pheasants had colorful feathers, and at aristocratic banquets it was common to serve them in their own plumage.
Geese have been domesticated since ancient times, and they have been raised for their feathers as well as for the meat, grease, and liver used in cooking. In England, it was traditional to serve goose on Michaelmas and Whitsuntide; in Germany, the Feast of Saint Martin was often a time to serve goose; and throughout Europe, goose was popular for Christmas feasts.
Domesticated and highly prized for its stunning plumage, the peacock wasn't a particularly tasty bird, but it was still served at aristocratic functions as a status symbol in spite of its toughness. Their taste could be improved and their toughness mitigated by hanging the slaughtered birds by the neck with their feet weighted down a day or two. Like partridges and swans, the peacock was almost always served re-dressed in its own skin with its notable tail feathers fanned out.
Pigeon and Dove
The wood pigeon, the rock dove and the turtledove were domesticated for food in medieval Europe, and were usually reserved for the upper class. Pigeons and doves might be roasted or served in pies.
Water Birds: Crane, Heron and SwanLike some game birds, cranes and herons were hunted by the aristocracy with falcons and hawks. Herons were known to be bred in the Low Countries, and the swan had been domesticated for centuries. All three were favorite dishes at banquets, particularly swan, which would not only be returned to its plumage after cooking but might have parts of it gilded to impress the guests. Though swan wasn't as tasty as most other birds eaten in medieval times, it was still a status symbol and commanded high prices in the marketplace.
The above birds are not the only winged creatures that were eaten in medieval times. Through archaeological evidence and account books of the wealthy and nobility, scholars have been able to verify that the following birds were also consumed, usually by the upper classes:
- Plovers (including dotterels and lapwings)
- Razor-billed auks
- Sandpipers (including knots, snipes, ruffs and woodcocks)
- Water rails (and gallinules)
Sources and Suggested Reading
Food in Medieval Times
by Melitta Weiss Adamson
Food and Eating in Medieval Europe
edited by Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal
Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition
edited by by C.M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron
The Cambridge economic history of Europe, Volume 5
edited by E.E. Rich and C.H. Wilson
Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays
by Melitta Weiss Adamson