A.R.T. Kemasang examines the meaning behind a much-loved Christmas carol.
It was in my 1950s pre-university years that I heard for the first time the full lyric of the famous Christmas carol. To me at the time (planning to major in English and, being an Anglophile) the idea of being given by one’s true love a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, six geese a-laying and seven swans a-swimming, etc. sounded so appealingly sweet and romantic. For many a year henceforth I dreamt about finding such a lovely lady who would give me such cute gifts.
I hail from a non-European civilisation, Indonesia, which (barring in the magico-sacral senses) belongs within the Sinæan Asian culture. A world where the majority of birds are no part of our diet. Throughout Sinæan Asia birds – except for chickens, ducks, geese and (strictly in only very exceptional cases) very few other fowls – are as a rule kept as ‘pets’, or to populate one’s menagerie. In any case, whatever they’re for, birds are definitely not for the pot. They are kept for their attractive plumes or their ‘songs’. In China particularly, and Sinæan Asia generally, keeping birds in cages as pets is a tradition that goes back millennia. Accordingly up and down Sinæan Asia birds are traditionally caught by professional catchers using only snares to avoid destroying their plumes. Certainly, Asian bird catchers – unlike, as we will see, their counterparts in Europe – made a point of avoiding the use of birdlime, for lime destroys the plume and quite often kill the bird.
Everywhere in Sinæan Asia only children, and perhaps some ‘village idiots’ or other ‘maverick’ individuals, occasionally stray off the rule. As a rule, when utilised, lime is used very sparingly in an operation that relies on skill rather than brute force. The operation is called mulut manuk in Javanese. Operation mulut manuk is in fact a bit like angling: one crouched underneath a branch on which a bird was in full flow belting out its call, and caught the bird by touching, preferably, one of its ‘knees’ (avoid the plume old boy!) with the tip of a thin bamboo rod on which one had put a small dollop of lime. One got home, washed the lime traces off the bird and either kept it as one’s own pet or sold or swap it, as pet, for pet. Only exceptionally rebellious children, out of curiosity or petulance, ate them for a dare; dreading for years afterwards parental punishment if found out and regretting it for even more years of their lives for being so heartless.
It was out of such an upbringing that it took me decades of life and research in England that it finally dawned on me that the reality in the Christmas carol is nothing like what I’ve been dreaming about all those years. The birds with those cutesy sounding names, at least in the carol’s original context, had quite a different appeal to Europeans (and Westerners generally), the carol’s natural constituency. They were all, in fact, for the pot! We need to remember that the original context of the carol, Europe up to well beyond the 18th Century, was a world of perennial hunger and scarcity. Life for the majority of Europeans was a struggle from day to day, with no guarantee there would be food on the table before they went to bed.
Lest we forget, before the entrenchment of Western colonial rule from the 18th Century on, which enabled it ultimately to appropriate large amounts of protein from its colonies, the Europeans could not be too choosy as to what meat they ate. Until then, ‘Black birds, for example, were baked in pies. They could be bought by the dozen in Paris.’ Until then, as mentioned, Europe’s regular diets comprised mainly tiny birds such as the ortolan, robin, sparrow, tits and wren, plus various other small creatures including hedgehog as well as diverse species of rodents and snails. Indeed to most Europeans, other than a small minority of the rich and mighty, wild birds and those ‘lesser’ animals were the only source of fresh meat.
Relics of some of these can still be seen today. In the main seat of the English monarch (London), the annual census taking of mute swan population continues to be carried out around the third week of July along the stretches of River Thames covering Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Dating back to the 12th Century, it was originally the Monarch’s means to claim ownership of all mute swans for the royal table. In modern France ortolan continues to be regarded as a delicacy. Indeed, for his last meal in 1995, President François Mitterand ‘chose to eat the now endangered ortolan bunting’, reportedly accompanied by foie gras, ‘made by force-feeding geese.’ (see Daniel Balint-Kurti ‘Oh, for the tongue of the nightingale!’ The Times 24 December 2009). Elsewhere, towards the close of 2009, robins continues to be eaten as a delicacy known in Cyprus as ambelopoulia. There was a fuss in the British media involving the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds when it was found that the largest snaring activities were conducted in the Ministry of Defence’s British Sovereign Base Area of Dhekelia. (See ‘Robins killed illegally’, Times 23 December 2009; Richard Theodouplou ‘What’s for dinner in Cyprus? Four and twenty songbirds – roasted, grilled or fried’ Times 24 December 2009.)
All this reality can also be gauged from Europe’s illustrations of medieval feasts. Overall, they show how bare even Europe’s high table was: a roast fowl and/or rabbit or two and some pies, a salt dispenser, and that was that. Indeed, even at the fabulous repast of a prince, as shown by Gerard Horenbout’s painting Meal of a Prince (c.1510-20), the single roast fowl lay forlornly naked on the plate without any gravy or dressing. Another example, a woodcut by M. Wohlgemuth of a ‘noble banqueter’ eating ‘from rectangular trenchers served by the Panter’ also show that even a nobleman’s table during a banquet was pretty bare.
Granted, they might show just one course, in that more courses might follow. Still, each course would ultimately be pretty much the same: one or two single carcass, normally roasted, usually of bird or rodent. This might be followed by more of the same, maybe with the order reversed: single roasted rodent or birds. The difference in the courses lay in the different variety of animals being served for each course or the order of their appearance, as mentioned, reversed. Given such simplicity, nay paucity, of its fare, is it any wonder that virtually all of Europe’s extant records on banqueting and feasting invariably mention about anything and everything other than the food? In all this the one thing which is never not commented upon is the hierarchy marker in the form of the elaborate salt-cellar, commonly referred to as the Great Salt; which was the most important item on the European table. Accordingly, from the Wohlgemuth’s woodcut Madeleine Pelner Cosman can only comment on the ‘Wine flagons cool[ing] in a footed cumelin’ shown in the foreground.
All that, in point of fact, was not really surprising. As a matter of fact, it is not always appreciated that in most of Europe for most of its history until the 18th Century, domesticated fowls including particularly chicken were still uncommon. Even in one of Europe’s biggest cities such as London, chicken in the 17th Century was still a novelty, in need of promotional efforts by ‘specialist poultry keepers’. Indeed, in the Western world chicken only really lost its “rarity value” after the 20th Century phenomenon of factory farming.
This situation was probably the context of the joke in a Japanese Edo ivory netsuke figure dating from 1700-50, depicting a Dutchman blissfully clutching a chicken. The caption accompanying it at the 2004 British Museum exhibition ‘Encounters; the Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800‘ says that it is ‘poking a gentle fun at Europeans’. To me, however, its depiction of the European’s ecstatically staring eyes and bulbous nose accompanied by a silly smirk – unmistakably suggesting that a chicken is the man’s sum total of life – seems to indicate more than a ‘gentle’ fun. We need to remember for example that originally, contrary to Eurocentric claims, in the Asian world the Europeans were comparatively so much poorer that ‘merely to gain a small slice of the lucrative Asian trade’, in Japan the Dutch East India Company’s officers were known to have been regularly ‘beaten with sticks [by the Japanese] as if they were dogs’.
Until well in the 19th Century, to return to the narrative, Europeans regularly ate the scrawniest of birds and rodents (i.e. dormice) for their daily fare. Until then, birds were normally caught ‘in the wilds’ in prodigious numbers – a ‘distressingly large number of […] wild birds continued to find their way on to the table […] up to the end of the [19th] century and beyond’ – with big nets and other trapping devices. An example of the latter was the use of sticky substances which, in Britain, was generically called birdlime. In Europe birdlime was spread over broad areas on trees so that huge numbers of birds were caught at any one time, rather like catching flies on sticky paper. So large was the numbers of catch that, for example, every day more than 7,000 birds were sold in a single poultry market in pre-Madrid Spain’s capital city of Valladolid. In Britain a specialist bird catcher was called a ‘fowler’, a word which survives to this day as a family name.
All that in addition to the consumption of doves and pigeons, which were made to roost in domestic dovecotes that often could accommodate thousands of birds. So we now know that the sweet Christmas carol with the cutesey mention of being given by one’s true love a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, six geese a-laying and seven swans a-swimming originally had quite a different appeal. They were all for the pot. In a world of dietary scarcity that was pre-18th Century Europe, being given such sought-after items of food must indeed have brought the greatest of joy. Definitely worthy as Christmas present for one’s true love.
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This is shocking news to those of us who, like me, are products of non-European cultures. All those beautiful birds, some of them melodious as well, being boiled and roasted and eaten? How heartless! Yet, no Sinæan Asian presumes even to wag our finger at Westerners for their cruelty to these helpless tiny creatures. So, in the spirit of this coming Yule tide, perhaps the next time we hear or read some story about some foreigners feasting on animals which we consider pets (on dogs, see Kemasang ‘The question of dog meat’, Petits Propos Culinaires 91 Oct 2010), we – whatever our cultural background – need to remember that virtually all our differences are cultural; resulting from our having gone through the same grinder of human experience at geographically and historically different tangents.