Humans have long demonstrated an enormous appetite for animal flesh. At some point in history just about every creature has been hunted and considered food. And of those, birds have been among the most popular.
People think of chicken and turkey as the principal fowl for consumption. However, a few hundred years ago, the dietary range of European royalty and nobles far exceeded today’s standard domesticated fare. This is evident from both historical accounts and the fine arts.
Some Food for Thought
Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art provides insights into a Western European culture obsessed with feathered trophies and wild game. In numerous works by Melchior d’Hondecoeter (like the one above), Jan Weenix (see below), Jean-Baptiste Oudry, William van Aelst, and Carstian Luyckx, ample collections of slain avifauna are depicted. From such still-life paintings, one can see that traditional meal favorites included dove, duck, goose, quail, pheasant, and partridge.
No doubt, the thematic display of limp animal carcasses, some bound and bloodstained, is disturbing to modern sensibilities. However, Europe’s aristocracy felt quite differently about these masterpieces. Patrons deemed game subjects a symbolic display of their power and wealth.1, 2 After all, the nobility were the ones who owned large estates of countryside and wilderness for hunting purposes. Moreover, some people of rising status borrowed upon this tradition as a means of conveying their own growing influence, which may explain why Rembrandt painted a self-portrait of himself holding a dead bittern by its legs.3
A Spread Fit for a King
The practice of showcasing one’s bounty can be traced well beyond Rembrandt and this period of game paintings. Prior accounts note many medieval kings and lords holding lavish banquets where attendees dined on bittern, swan, heron, and peacock.4 Some events such as the Feast of Swans (Edward I) and the Feast of the Pheasant (Philip the Good) were held to secure support for possible military campaigns.5, 6 Flaunting one’s affluence and means was a way to advance special causes and entice cooperation.
At celebratory banquets like these, food was not merely a gustatory experience; it was employed as an over-the-top embellishment. The most famous example of these is the boar’s head with an apple lodged within its mouth.7 But such entremets and subtleties could be far more extravagant. Take for instance a baked swan that spews fire—thanks in part to a technique enhanced by alcohol-dowsed cotton!8 Special effects in the medieval culinary arts were surprisingly innovative.
The entertainment value of meals could also be used to relay a message or theme. Some hosts imparted dishes with symbolic significance, as was the case of a feast honoring the newly installed King of England Henry V. At that event the monarch’s staff served his guests a couple dozen cooked swans bearing scrolls.9
Dynamic Roles of Birds in Culture
Just as people today think of birds as something more than merely a food source, the same of course was true of Europeans ages ago. In some cases exotic feathered creatures were portrayed as living subjects, as in this d’Hondecoeter painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Birds have served many cultural functions throughout history and continue to do so. Nevertheless, there is no denying the role fowl held in Western European societies, not just as game or fine art—but simultaneously as both.
- Henisch, BA. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. p. 229.
- Sullivan, SA. “Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with a Dead Bittern.” College Art Association. The Art Bulletin 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1980). pp. 236–243.
- Sullivan, SA. pp. 236–243.
- Henisch, BA. p. 229.
- Strickland, M. “Treason, Feud and the Growth of State Violence.” Given-Wilson, C, et al (editors). War, Government and Aristocracy in the British Isles, c.1150–1500: Essays in Honour of Michael Prestwich. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2008. pp. 104–107.
- Bowles, EA. “Instruments at the Court of Burgundy (1363–1467).” The Galpin Society Journal. Vol. 6 (Jul., 1953). pp. 41–51.
- Henisch, BA. p. 229.
- Scully, T. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005. p. 162.
- Henisch, BA. p. 233.