Twelve Days of Christmas: Seven Swans a Swimming

By Professor Kate Williams

Seven swans a swimming – well, with giving this, our ‘true love’ was really buying us something rather expensive. Swans have always been luxury goods, a medieval Gucci handbag, if you will. In the medieval period, swans were status symbols, exchanged between noblemen as the centuries wore on, they became increasingly exclusive to royalty. Any top feast worth its salt had to have a swan as a centrepiece, especially at Christmas feasts. Ideally, you’d roast a few swans in their feathers and put a burning piece of incense in its beak. In 1251, Henry III ordered 125 swans for the Christmas feast for his court. Dining with the King in winter meant eating swan.

swan-4411514_1920[Image credit: Barbara Baldocchi from Pixabay.]

Swans were so important to aristocratic and royal status that they had to be marked, usually on the soft skin of the beak. Notches would usually be cut in, but there could also be initials or even heraldic devices. These ‘swan marks’ became the property of the government; they had to be bought at great expense and, following the law that only wealthy landowners could own swans, their use was restricted. Essentially, from the late fifteenth century, only the Crown, the very rich and some wealthy institutions such as guilds, universities and cathedrals were lucky enough to have their own flock of swans. Any spare swans wandering around were automatically seen as the Crown’s – and picked up by Swan Collectors. Swanmoots were special courts to discuss ownership of swans. As you see, Swans were terribly sought after and often stolen.

In Horace Walpole’s astonishing collection of books at Strawberry Hill, were two books of ‘Swan Marks’, on vellum, probably dating from the sixteenth century. Still, now, we have the annual Swan Upping ceremony on the Thames in early July, when the ‘Swan Uppers’ of the Queen and two guilds, Vintners and Dyers, travel the Thames to count the swans.

Swans looked fabulous and denoted wealth and power, particularly on private estates. Whether the swan was worth eating was another question. One rather disgruntled commentator in 1738 complained that goose was much better – swan was ‘blacker, harder, and tougher’ and was hard on the digestion as well as having ‘melancholic juice’…but ‘for its Rarity serves as a Dish to adorn great Men’s tables at Feasts and Entertainments, being else no desirable Dainty’.[1] Indeed, full grown Swan was deemed so unappealing that baby cygnets were taken and bred separately in a fenced pen, fed on barley, purely so they’d be tastier to eat. When Christmas was restored after Charles II came to the throne, people’s minds turned to Christmas and the earliest Christmas menu – a huge feast of meat – lists a ‘swan pie’ along with ‘powdered goose’ and ‘six eels, three larded’.

cygnet-4187515_1920.jpg[Image credit: Mabel Amber from Pixabay.]

The Empress Josephine created a grand garden at her estate at Napoleon, a tribute to him, a claim of the glories of Napoleon, who was vaunted as taking anything from anywhere. She had a menagerie of foreign animals, including emus, kangaroos and an orangutan who ate carrots at the table with her guests. But her prize was her black swans, brought over from an expedition to map the coast of Australia from 1800-1803 – a prelude to empire. Over 200,00 specimens of plants were taken to the Museum of Natural History and Josephine got the animals, packed up in pairs and fed on water and bits of fruit on the way, including her beloved pair of black swans. Some of the animals died, but the swans settled in their pond on the outskirts of Paris. Josephine adored the swans and saw them as her symbol even on chairs!

Armchair_Josephine,_by_Jacob,_Musée_de_Malmaison.png[Image credit: Armchair Josephine, by Jacob, Musée de Malmaison. Artist François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter, Photograph by Jebulon. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

The ‘Swan Song’ phrase comes from the notion, dating back to Aristotle and Socrates, that the swan sings better when it is nearing death. The Victorians were still eating swan, but it gradually fell out of fashion and now, of course, swans are protected. Until as late as 1998, killing a swan (that was not marked as your own) was still an act of treason. Now, it is simply illegal because they are protected. So, unfortunately, when your true love gives you seven swans, you probably should give them back. Along with everything else – the milkmaids, the dancing ladies and all of rest of it, as humans as gifts doesn’t really cut it anymore. But I think you can keep the geese.

[1] See Janet Kear, Man and Wildfowl (London, 1990)

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