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)

Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News

Twelve Days of Christmas: Six Geese a-Laying

By Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers

As this is the History blog, today presents an opportunity to celebrate the Six Great Geese of History (as chosen by us).  They will be presented – obviously – in chronological order.

First up is Aesop’s Goose, perhaps better known as the Goose who Laid the Golden Eggs. She first appeared in Aesop’s famous Fables, believed to have been written in the 6th century BCE. They were later translated many times, and the tragic tale of this goose has been retold up to the present day. Sadly, her magical ability to lay golden eggs led to her murder at the hands of greedy owners who wanted to get hold of all her golden eggs at once. Since the Fables are morality tales it is not surprising to find that the owners ended up in possession of nothing but a dead goose!

Canva - White Eggs in Brown Nest - Photo by Alizee Marchand
[Image credit: Photo by Alizee Marchand]

Next, and rather more historical, are the Geese who Saved Ancient Rome. Their story is told by Livy, in Book Five of his History. ‘The Capitol of Rome was in great danger; for the besieging Gauls had found an easy ascent by the rock at the Temple of Carmentis. On a moonlight night they gained the summit all in silence. Not merely had they escaped the notice of the sentinels, but even the dogs had not been alarmed. But they did not escape the notice of the geese of the Temple of Juno! Marcus Manlius, a redoubted warrior, was awakened by their hissing and the clapping of their wings. He snatched his arms, and calling loudly to his fellows, ran to the spot.’ The Roman garrison was victorious, the Gauls were thrown back down the rock, and the geese were heroes (or heroines). They have been celebrated in many ways, including on a Suchard chocolate wrapper.

mottegeese[Image credit: Sacred Geese of the Capitol, by Henri-Paul Motte, 1889. Image from WikiArt.]

Geese were also prominent in medieval history, including a Goose who Went on Crusade. This exploit was commemorated by Guibert of Nogent in The Deeds of God Through the Franks. ‘What I am about to say has been testified to by numerous authors. A poor woman set out to join the People’s Crusade and a goose, clearly exceeding the laws of her own nature, followed her. Rumour rapidly spread the news that even geese had been sent by God to liberate Jerusalem. They even claimed that the goose was leading the woman and showing her the way. At Cambrai they assert that the woman walked through the church and up to the altar, and the goose followed behind, with no one urging it on. Soon after, however, the goose died in Lorraine.’ Guibert’s story echoes other medieval sources, such as the bestiary, in celebrating the ability of geese to walk long distances as well as their value in protecting humans.

Linking the medieval and modern worlds are the Geese of St Eulalia, who occupy a privileged position in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St Eulalia in Barcelona. They commemorate the patron saint of the city, the first martyr of what was then the prosperous port of Barcino. According to Saint Eulalia’s Life, white birds, identified as geese, flew down to protect her martyred body while the city was covered in white snow. Thirteen geese (commemorating the early death of the saint) have been kept in an inner courtyard of the cathedral, perhaps since the fifteenth century, and are claimed to protect the city even now.

St Eulalia[Image credit: St Eulalia’s Geese. Photo taken by Nathan Badera. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Next, and bringing the story to the Victorian period, are the Christmas Geese who walked from as far away as Norfolk to London, in time for the Christmas festival. They were specially prepared for the journey and given protection for their feet – but once they reached Leadenhall Market their fate was usually sealed. An exception was ‘Old Tom’, who somehow escaped being killed and cooked and became a well-known figure in Leadenhall. After his death in 1835 a poetic obituary was published in The Times ‘In memory of Old Tom the Gander. Obit March 1835, aged 37 years, 9 months, and 6 days’.

‘This famous gander, while in stubble, Fed freely, without care or trouble: …
Transplanted to another scene, He stalk’d in state o’er Calais-green,
With full five hundred geese behind, To his superior care consign’d,
Whom readily he would engage To lead in march ten miles a-stage.
Thus a decoy he lived and died, The chief of geese, the poulterer’s pride.’

Leadenhall_Market_entrance_Illustrated_London_New_1881[Image credit: Leadenhall Market entrance, Illustrated London News 1881.]

Our sixth and final set of ‘great geese’ are wild geese, traditionally famous for being chased. This image goes back at least to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where Mercutio challenges Romeo: “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”  Strangely, it seems that a wild goose chase was originally a complex sort of horse race!  Modern wild geese, it seems, are having a much better time than most of these famous geese, and provide what has been called ‘one of the success stories in the contest between wildlife and agriculture’. Decline in farmland bird populations has been estimated at 50% since 1980; but northern-hemisphere geese, which now winter mostly on agricultural land in both Europe and North America, actually show increases in their numbers. As these geese have discovered, food quality, nutritional content and abundance are higher on farmland than in wetlands and can support higher numbers of birds. (Information taken from: A.D. Fox and K.F. Abraham, ‘Why Geese Benefit from the Transition from Natural Vegetation to Agriculture’, Ambio. 2017 Mar; 46(Suppl 2): 188–197. Published online 2017 Feb 18. doi: 10.1007/s13280-016-0879-1).

Alternative candidates for the title of Great Geese of History are very welcome!


Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News

Twelve Days of Christmas: Five Gold Rings

By Dr Heike Schmidt

Five Rings of Gold – But Where Did It Come From?

When the Gold Coast gained independence from Britain in 1957 the anti-colonial nationalists proudly renamed the country Ghana. Their first head of stead, Kwame Nkrumah, a committed Pan-Africanist, and his government set a clear sign that colonialism ended for his country and that it was taking its last gasps, as the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan confirmed in his famous speech in South Africa in 1960, when he proclaimed: ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.’

What then was the newly formed government distancing itself from by dropping the name Gold Coast? From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century Twi speaking societies developed a sophisticated agrarian system that allowed for urban population density, for political centralization, division of labour, and for the export of gold. That gold was traded across the Sahara Desert to Europe. With the arrival of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the first slave castle in Africa, Elmira, built by the Portuguese in 1482 on what is now the Ghanaian coast, gold was sold to European traders directly. The result is the rise of the Asante Confederacy, with the capital Kumasi, a ruler, the asantehene, a female co-regent, the asantehemaa, dated by Asante historians to 1701.

The accumulation of wealth and political centralization was only possible with the use of mostly male slaves raided by the Asante army or bought with gold. At times when the local labour demand was met, these unfree African men were then in turn sold either into the trans-Sahara or the trans-Atlantic trade which allowed Asante rulers to negotiate prices favourably.

Kente cloth was and is woven by men, originally from silk cloth imported across the Sahara Desert from Europe which in turn acquired the silk in Asia. The cloth was unraveled, the threads then newly died, and woven into a talking cloth, as the combination of colours and patterns provide an explanation about the wearer and at times the occasion.

Antelope[Image credit: ‘Brass, bronze antelope weight used for gold dust and gold nuggets in trade’, 1800s, Cleveland Museum of Art. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Gold in Asante was part of everyday life. Swiss missionaries Kühnle and Ramseyer, the latter with his wife and toddler son, were captured by the Asante army in 1879 and became prisoners of war in Kumasi. The men observed food shopping at the local market where, to their great surprise, everybody around them was buying food with gold dust, using scales with highly ornamented brass and bronze weights.

Gold breast plate[Image credit: ‘Asante gold breast plate’, early 20th century, Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

At the same time, gold also served to signify status of individual members of the political elite and their following, as well as the confederacy. When the ruler had his morning bath, a servant stood by and rattled the keys to the treasury. In fact, circa 1850 a death tax was introduced which meant that all gold of a deceased person had to be handed over to the ruler, who then had it melted down and redistributed the gold. This not only showed that the remarkable goldsmith skills could be casually destroyed because of the tremendous wealth, including the availability of labour and craftsmenship, this also allowed the Asantehene to reinforce or build new patronage networks.

Sleeping quarters[Image credit: Architecture of Ashantis drawn by Thomas Edward Bowdich in 1817. Original picture in Joseph Dupois: Journal of a residence in Ashantee, London 1824. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

The gold further has symbolic meaning. According to Asante historians, the confederacy came into place in 1701 when the golden stool descended from the sky, called upon by ritual experts, and Osei Tutu became the first asantehene. The stool is the symbolic site of the Asante nation, past, present, and future. Furthermore, wood carved stools with gold ornamentation signify both male and female political office holders in Asante from the asantehene to the local communities. On special occasions, such as the annual Yam festival, celebrated to this day, in a public procession the rulers, male and female, are carried in dug out canoes, decorated with silks, wearing their gold ornaments, shaded by silk umbrellas.

Mission from Cape[Image credit: Ashanti Yam Ceremony 1817 by Thomas E. Bowdich Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London, 1819). Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Britain conquered Asante in 1896 with an expeditionary force sent to Kumasi under the command of the Boy Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell. This not only ended any political power with the colonization of the territory and surrounding area to establish the British colony of the Gold Coast. Many artifacts, such as those shown in this blog, were taken, regardless of their symbolic, spiritual, cultural, historical, and material meaning to their owners and Asante society.

Posted in African History, British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News

Twelve Days of Christmas: Four Calling Birds

By Dr James P. Bowen

In 2018, Dr James P. Bowen of Leeds Trinity University was awarded the Poultry Club of Great Britain Research Fellowship at the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life.

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a popular Christmas carol sung throughout the country. It is an example of a cumulative song (a form often used for children’s songs) whereby increasingly luxurious gifts are given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. It refers to the traditional celebrations which began on Boxing Day and finished on the Feast of the Epiphany (6th January). Originally it was probably a children’s memory or forfeit game. Today it is sung ‘Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, Ten Lords a Leaping, Nine Ladies Dancing, Eight Maids a Milking, Seven Swans a Swimming, Six Geese a Laying, Five Golden Rings, Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree’. However looking back, it is apparent that the lyrics of the carol for the fourth day have not always been the familiar ‘four calling birds’ we sing about today. In the past the order of the verses and specific gifts has varied and there are versions from England, France, America and Canada.

28AA24D5-5B7E-4708-A4B1-D2B99E585C7B[Image credit: The blackbird behind The MERL logo, as designed by Thomas Manns & Company.]

In Mirth without Mischief a collection of children’s games published in London in 1780, which includes the first recorded instance of The Twelve Days of Christmas, on the fourth day four ‘Colly birds’ were given. Joseph Wright’s (1855-1930) English Dialect Dictionary first published in 1898 includes an entry for ‘Coll[e]y’ found in Gloucestershire, Somersetshire and Devon defined as ‘The blackbird, Turdus merula. Also known as Colley-bird.’ This Latin name, merula, gave rise to the French ‘merle’ and Scots ‘merl’, which just happens to be why the hosts of my recent Poultry Club Research Fellowship, The MERL (Museum of English Rural Life), chose a blackbird as their symbol. ‘Colly birds’ is given in a subsequent version of the song, published as a broadsheet in Newcastle-upon-Tyne between 1774 and 1825. In his The Nursery Rhymes of England which James Orchard Halliwell (1820-89) published in 1842, it had changed to four ‘canary birds’ which was subsequently used by Edward F. Rimbault’s (1816-76), Nursery Rhymes, with the Tunes to Which They Are Still Sung in the Nurseries of England. However, it appears to have reverted back to ‘colly’, ‘collie’ and ‘colley’ birds in versions published in 1853, 1855, 1858 and 1864.

7015B3DA-AB1F-4C94-B059-D88AF7E4F4B5[Image credit: Detail of a page from an eighteenth-century workbook by Richard Beale.]

In a short story called ‘The Ashen Fagot’ published in 1864, Thomas Hughes (1822-96) wrote that on ‘The fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me four ducks quacking…’,  although this seems to have been an exception with later versions reverting to ‘Colly’, ‘Colley’, ‘colour’d’, ‘coloured’ or even ‘corley’ birds. It was Frederic Austin (1872-1952) who in 1909 introduced the now standard melody and altered the fourth day’s gift to ‘four calling birds’. This has become the most popular version sung. In the past there was considerable variation in the type of bird denoted on the fourth day. Calling birds imply a variety of song birds that produce an attractive pleasant melody commonly sung in the spring by the male as a prelude to the breeding season, whereas colly bird refers to blackbirds of which the male’s song is a varied and melodious low-pitched fluted warble. Furthermore the four calling birds were deemed to represent the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which begin the New Testament of the Bible, reflecting the prevailing Christian religion of the period.

C3F31C1B-267E-4F01-988E-E296BF62DC62[Image credit: The MERL invites the British Museum to share its duck-related collections with Twitter.]

In recent years The MERL has itself fuelled the popularity of several birds alongside its ‘merly’ mascot, including a now infamous chicken in trousers, some of the world’s best ducks (Thomas Hughes would approve!), and some artist-inspired poultry in its own backyard. So, on this fourth day we give you four very strange calling birds, a blackbird logo, an eighteenth-century hen doodle, a duck on twitter, and a chicken that lives in a museum garden.

3A52526F-D280-408A-88F7-846E96DD3B26[Image credit: The Chook Run henhouse in The MERL garden, as  designed by artist Christine Mackey.]
Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News

Twelve Days of Christmas: Three French Hens

By Professor Joel Felix

To a French historian the three French hens of the 12 Days of Christmas inevitably recalls the story of King Henri IV and the poule au pot (chicken in the pot) which was popularized by Voltaire in his historical works. The famous 18th century philosopher reminded how Henri IV, the head of the Bourbon dynasty who brought back peace to the kingdom after the French Wars of Religions (1562-98), wished that the peasants would now be able to cook a chicken every Sunday.

The figure of Henri IV (r. 1589-1610), whose edict of Nantes (1598) authorized both Catholicism and Protestantism – it was only recalled by his grandson Louis XIV in 1685 – became a hero in the age of the Enlightenment as reformers were calling for tolerance, reason and progress. The story of the poule au pot, unlike the goose with the golden eggs which emphasized the accumulation of money, came to embody the goal that institutions should aim for and achieve, namely happiness.

Shortly after Louis XV’s death (1774), the character of Henri IV further gained in popularity. The latter’s achievements were associated with the great expectations that the public placed in the royal couple, Louis XVI and his queen Marie-Antoinette, as the new rulers of a country craving for reforms. The two engravings below show the young Louis XVI personally mentored by his ancestor Henri IV, and the queen empathise with the hardship of a poor peasant family to which she gave a gold coin to add a hen to their meagre soup.

Henri IV & Louis XVI


[Image credit: BNF, Gallica, La Poule au pot. Dédiée à la Reine par son très humble et obéissant serviteur et sujet A. F. David.]

The allegory of the poule au pot was also especially relevant in a period which saw the birth of economics, or the modern economy. At the same time as Voltaire was writing, a group of intellectuals, known as the physiocrats, argued, like Adam Smith did later, that the origins of wealth were to be found in the capacity to produce and consume goods, and not in the unproductive accumulation of money by the king’s financiers. Physiocracy – literally the power of nature – proposed the first economic programme of government based on Dr Quesnay’s path-breaking Tableau oeconomique which also proposed the first economical model of wealth creation and reproduction. One of the key features of physiocracy – they were mostly implemented during the French Revolution – was to support agricultural productivity by means of a reform that would tax the net revenue of the landowners only (not of the ordinary peasant who usually rented land), as the initiators (capital) and beneficiaries (revenue) of wealth. The physiocrates, such as Dupont de Nemours, also demanded the abolition of excise duties and domestic tolls, allowing for the suppression of costly and unproductive tax agents.

Dr Quesnay

[Image credit: BNF Gallica, Dr Quesnay, Tableau Oeconomique. Physician of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, Quesnay printed the first economic model (1759) on the printing press at Versailles. The table represent the economic and social rationale behind the creation and reproduction of wealth (revenue). As such he is a precursor of Marx’s analysis of capital, the formation of wealth and its social distribution.]

As France was heading toward the French Revolution, the poule au pot became the symbol of the social aspirations to equality and plenty, often in opposition to the privileged. The image below shows a poor sans-culotte putting a hen on top of his pike (with the words ce ira; it will fit). It draws a parallel with the beheadings of Bertier de Sauvigny, intendant de Paris, and his son-in-law Foulon, shortly after the Fall of the Bastille. Foulon had been accused of cruelty towards the hardships of the poor for allegedly telling the people to eat grass in a period of poor harvest and higher bread prices.


[Image credit: BNF Gallica, Quand ce ra la Poule au Pot, 1789 (When will be the chicken in pot).]

The imagery of the poule au pot is perhaps best encapsulated in the new revolutionary jeu de l’oie, the equivalent of the English snakes and ladders, where the goose (oie) is now replaced by a hen. According to the rules, a  favourable draw of the dice would see the lucky player move automatically from hen to hen and reach the goal: cornucopia. The other players were sure to get there eventually: for each of the game boxes represented the major events that had successively paved the way to the abolition of the monarchy in 1792.


[Image credit: BNF Gallica, Les délassements du Père Gérard, 1792.]

In the 19th century, the allegory of the poule au pot remained a distinctive symbol for the reformers who sought to encourage agricultural progress, as well as the radicals who pursued the French revolutionary agenda into the age of the Industrial revolution.

During the Revolution of 1848, the poule au pot was seen as both the cause and the remedy to the class war. As the conditions of the population and the representation of their political interests improved with the establishment of the Third Republic (1870-1940) the transformative agenda associated with the story of king Henri IV inevitably faded away.


[Image credit: BNF Gallica. Addition à la poule au pot ou assolements du spéculateur, 1829 [addition to the chicken in the pot, or crop rotations according to the speculator)]

Poule 2.jpg

[Image credit: BNF Gallica. La poule au pot ou le secret de finir la guerre sociale par un bourgeois des mansards. Religion, Famille, Propriété. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. (The chicken in the pot, or the secret of finishing the social war to 10 million of electors, by a bourgeois living in the attic).]


Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News