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date: 25 April 2017

Animals in urban life in Medieval to Early Modern England

Abstract and Keywords

Animals formed an essential part of urban life in England from Medieval times onwards, economically, socially, and ecologically. As livestock, they provided meat and other carcass resources, traction power, wool, and dairy produce. The close integration of livestock with everyday urban life is reflected in the ubiquity of butchered cattle, and sheep and pig bones, and the sight, sound, and smell of livestock would have been everyday experiences. Horses are probably under-represented in the animal bone record, given their likely importance as pack and riding animals. Poultry and, later, rabbits were important as livestock that poorer households could raise and trade. Other animals provided companionship, although the differentiation of companion animals is not unproblematic. The commensal scavengers such as crows and rodents were a central element of the urban scene, becoming stigmatized as ‘vermin’ at least by the sixteenth century.

Keywords: town, England, animal, livestock, companion, commensal

Introduction and General Context

Animals are omnipresent in human lives, and animal bones are ubiquitous on excavations in English historic towns. Distinctive urban geochemistry often allows the survival of large quantities of bone fragments even in regions where the prevailing geology might not seem favourable (Fig. 14.1). The great majority of those bones derive from human activities within the town, such as acquiring, distributing, and consuming meat and other carcass products, or working horn and bone into artefacts. From the rebirth of English towns in the eighth and ninth centuries to the recent past, animals have come into towns, and their remains are an abundant and informative part of the archaeological record.

This paper reviews the place of animals in the lives of the people who populated towns in England from Saxon times to the nineteenth century. This is not a précis of the zooarchaeological record, but an attempt to understand how animals, live and dead, featured in urban life through that millennium. To do so, it has been necessary to consider the animals in expedient categories that have porous boundaries. In most assemblages, the predominant remains are those of animals that were of economic value, raised as domestic animals often some distance from where their remains are excavated. The term livestock covers these animals satisfactorily. Other remains will include animals kept in urban households, serving a variety of functions but principally acting as companions. A third group are animals that adopted the urban environment for the resources and opportunities it offered: these we can term commensal animals (O’Connor, 2013). Between them, livestock, companion, and commensal animals constitute the great majority of all animal remains excavated from English towns and, crucially, the great (p. 215) (p. 216) majority of the interactions that the people of those towns had with animals. Some species feature in more than one category: a ewe may have been livestock but her lamb adopted as a companion, or a tame jackdaw may have made the transition from commensal to companion. The object of this essay is to understand how different species, populations of species, and individuals within those populations may have featured in urban human lives, taking the zooarchaeological record as the main source of evidence.

Animals in urban life in Medieval to Early Modern EnglandClick to view larger

Figure 14.1 Excavations in English historic towns often produce copious quantities of well-preserved animal bones.

Author’s own image.


Zooarchaeological studies commonly use the evidence from urban contexts to infer husbandry decisions and strategies carried out in the pastoral hinterland, e.g. Landon (1997) for Colonial America and O’Connor (2010) for Medieval northern Europe. Mortality profiles are key to such investigations, focusing on the production of specific primary and secondary resources. Historical zooarchaeology shares this with the zooarchaeology of prehistoric sites, and the methodologies involved are seldom specifically adapted to the historical context (Landon, 2005). Less often addressed is the place of livestock in everyday urban lives. The animal bone record shows that (mostly) cattle (Bos taurus), sheep (Ovis aries), pigs (Sus domesticus), and occasionally goats (Capra hircus) were brought into Medieval and later towns from their hinterlands, and from considerable distances from Late Medieval times onwards (Finberg, 1954; Keene, 2012). The frequent presence of cranial and foot bones in urban refuse indicates that these livestock generally entered towns as live animals, and some historic towns retain areas of common pasture where incoming livestock could be held (Bowden and Smith, 2013). The noise and smell of livestock must have been familiar, reducing the contrast between ‘town’ and ‘country’. Although household slaughtering of the occasional sheep or pig may have continued into relatively recent times, animals were increasingly slaughtered by specialized butchers as the Medieval period wore on, shown by the documented emergence of butchers’ guilds (Rixson, 2000). Townsfolk would therefore have been familiar from childhood with the full supply chain from noisy and noisome living beasts to skins, bones, and joints of meat. Medieval urban ordnances bristle with restrictions on the dumping of entrails and other foul wastes, showing both the scale of the problem and the ineffectiveness of fines and other threats. As Carr (2008: 461) says: ‘Try as the towns might and did, butchers were a tough group to deodorize.’

How general was access to fresh meat in different towns at different times? The abundance of animal bone refuse seems consistent with quite general availability. Furthermore, dietary stable isotope analysis of Medieval human skeletons shows that most people had at least some animal protein in their diet (Müldner and Richards, 2005). The quality of the meat available to different people is another matter. Intensity of carcass utilization may indicate socioeconomic ‘status’, showing that some households needed to extract food value from elements of low utility, for example by splitting cattle metapodials and other limb elements to extract marrow (e.g. Crabtree, 2014), while (p. 217) others could be both selective and relatively wasteful. In fact, households that had no need of marrow and other bone products may not have acquired beef ‘on the bone’ and so may yield relatively little cattle bone in their refuse. The rise in relative abundance of sheep bones in Late to post-Medieval assemblages from English towns, coinciding with the rise in wealth largely based on wool, may reflect changing attitudes to carcass utility. Such interpretations are complicated by the emergence of greater control over waste disposal (Sabine, 1933; Carr, 2008), potentially leading to an over-representation of cattle in ‘town dumps’ and of sheep and other smaller-boned taxa in household refuse. Very broadly, cattle bones predominate in urban bone assemblages from England. In the more easterly parts of the country, and particularly in post-Medieval assemblages, sheep bones sometimes outnumber those of cattle, though cattle would still have predominated in terms of meat yield and other carcass products.

Cattle featured in urban lives in many other ways. Each beef carcass would have yielded hide, hoof, horn, and bone to be worked into artefacts familiar to everyone. Where water-logging and careful excavation have yielded Medieval leather artefacts and off-cuts, cattle and calf leathers predominate (e.g. Cameron, 1998; Mould et al., 2003). Coppergate, York, presented an unusual opportunity to compare bones and leather from the same phases of one neighbourhood. Cattle predominated in both sources of evidence, but the age profile of the leathers showed an appreciably higher proportion of young animals than the bone debris indicated, perhaps showing that the source of leather was not simply whatever the butchers produced but included some selectivity. Other keratinous materials such as horn and hoof seldom survive even in water-logged sediments. However, urban excavations often encounter concentrations of cattle and goat horn cores (Armitage, 1990; Huntley and Stallibrass, 1995: 187–9; Serjeantson and Rees, 2009: 176–7), and the regular identification of horn in mineral-preserved organic remains on, for example, the handles of iron knives, reminds us that horn was an important and versatile everyday material. Like the leather-workers, horners seem to have acquired raw material selectively, not only from the regular butchering of cattle for meat. Goats are disproportionately represented in urban deposits by horn cores. Differentiation of sheep and goat horn cores is simpler than for many other parts of the skeleton. However, little other goat is found even in assemblages recorded by analysts familiar with the identification of, and actively looking for, goats (e.g. Bond and O’Connor, 1999: 410–11), showing that goat horn was a valued commodity.

The other significant carcass product is the bones themselves, a source of robust raw material for artefacts (Choyke and O’Connor, 2013). Here there is little evidence of raw material importation, other than of antler. Deer bones are recovered from most urban assemblages, including introduced fallow deer (Dama dama) as well as native roe (Capreolus capreolus) and red deer (Cervus elaphus). However, as with goats, antler greatly outnumbers the post-cranial remains, especially from the eighth to twelfth centuries. Antler-working was a significant craft right across northern Europe during those centuries, with stylistic and analytical evidence for long-distance exchange (Ashby, 2005; von Holstein et al., 2014). Objects in bone and antler are commonly found (Fig. 14.2). Even allowing for the durability of the material in most burial environments, (p. 218) these objects (as hair-pins, knife-handles, gaming-pieces, clothes-fasteners) must have been as familiar to Medieval people as plastic objects are today. It is unlikely that the identity of the animal mattered. Simple objects such as bone pins are often unidentifiable beyond ‘mammalian cortical bone’, so it seems unlikely that one made of horse, for example, would have out-ranked one made of cattle bone. The abundance of antler in Early Medieval contexts, in contrast with its later decline, may simply be because the emparkment of the English landscape under Norman and Angevin ruling elites cut off the ready supply of antler to urban craftsmen.

Animals in urban life in Medieval to Early Modern EnglandClick to view larger

Figure 14.2 Red deer antler from Medieval York, sawn up as artefact raw material.

Author’s own image.

Identifying dairy produce in the archaeological record is notoriously difficult, though some analytical progress is being made (Craig et al., 2005; 2011). Mortality profiles with the bimodal age distribution of young (presumably male) calves and old cows expected of a specialized dairy herd are seldom encountered before Tudor times (for example Wilson, 1994; for an exception, Bond and O’Connor, 1999: 384–6). However, Medieval texts and illustrations make it quite clear that cows were milked, even if not kept specifically for dairying, and that cheese and butter were made in most village and estate households (Woolgar, 2006), so these products of live cattle were familiar to urban populations. (p. 219)

Horses must have become an increasingly common sight in towns as they replaced cattle as the main source of traction power in later Medieval times, though ridden horses would have been familiar from Saxon times onwards (Langdon, 2002). Urban bone assemblages commonly include a few horse bones, often butchered and disposed of in the same way and places as cattle bones (e.g. Bond and O’Connor, 1999) and more substantial deposits of horse remains sometimes occur (e.g. Baxter, 1996). Occasional finds of butchered horse bones suggest that horse meat was sometimes eaten, despite papal interdiction, though the ‘passing off’ of horse as mature beef or venison cannot be ruled out. Horses seem to be under-represented in the zooarchaeological record given their likely importance in towns, at least from High Medieval times onwards and there are few published excavation records of stables and blacksmiths’ premises. The evidence suggests that horses were kept and maintained, and their carcasses mostly disposed of, outside urban areas. The zooarchaeological record reflects the place of dead horses in towns rather than live ones and therefore understates their importance. Indeed, Gunn and Gromelski (2012) estimate that 10% of accidental deaths in Tudor England occurred whilst working with horses.

The place of pigs in towns may have been quite different from that of cattle and sheep. Pigs lend themselves more readily to being kept in a backyard area, leading O’Connor to suggest that pigs were kept within the tenements and yards of Viking Age York, though subsequent work has cast doubt on this interpretation (Hammond and O’Connor, 2013). Pigs are a ubiquitous but seldom abundant component of English urban assemblages, not attaining the high relative abundance seen in eastern Europe (O’Connor, 2010) and their urban status remains debatable.

Poultry occur quite regularly, mostly as bones of chickens (Gallus gallus) and geese (Anser and Branta spp.). As chickens are not an endemic species, there is little doubt they are present as domestic livestock. Reliable separation of wild and domestic forms of greylag goose (Anser anser) is rarely possible, so context is often the only indication of domestic status. Ducks, too, are commonly present, though separating wild and domestic forms of Anas platyrhynchos is problematic. Chicken bones in Saxon and Medieval assemblages are predominantly of adult birds, even where preservation and recovery have been good enough for sub-adult bones to have survived. Although this is supposition, the predominance of adults suggests chickens were kept for their eggs at least as much as for their meat. Fragmented eggshell can be abundant where preservation and recovery allow and new biomolecular procedures enable the species identification of eggshell fragments, giving a more nuanced assessment of the role of chicken, duck, and goose eggs (Stewart et al., 2013). Immature chicken bones are encountered rather more often in post-Medieval assemblages, perhaps showing the rise of capons as a table bird. An important consideration regarding chickens, and perhaps geese, is their value as currency, allowing small-scale exchange to go on between households. Poultry and eggs often feature in documentary records of commodities traded specifically by women (Hilton, 1984; Whittle, 2005).

Poultry can therefore be regarded as ‘household livestock’, a potential source of food and trade for urban residents with little or no land, and the same applies to rabbits (p. 220) (Oryctolagus cuniculus). In Medieval England, rabbits were animals of the landed estates, economically important where poor soils made grain uneconomic (Bailey, 1988) and their remains are relatively scarce on urban sites. On post-Medieval and Early Modern sites, we encounter rabbits more frequently, reflecting their wider availability as a feral animal and perhaps the ‘backyard’ keeping of rabbits for the pot.

A final point about livestock is the social importance of regional types or ‘breeds’. To the occupants of a Saxon or Medieval town, the livestock of their immediate rural hinterland probably had particular characteristics of conformation, colour, horns, fleece, and so on that marked those animals out as ‘local’ (Trow Smith, 1957; Armitage, 1982). When livestock were brought in from further afield, how were those more unfamiliar beasts received? Morphometric studies hint at the presence of different ‘types’ amongst samples of cattle and sheep bones (Armitage, 1990; Davis and Beckett, 1999) and advances in genomics make it possible to ask more specific questions about livestock populations and demes (Edwards et al., 2003; Speller et al., 2013). In interpreting those results, the conflicting influences of conservatism and novelty must be kept in mind. The importance of long-distance cattle droving from Medieval times onwards is well known, but detailed sources such as Skeel (1926) show that much of this consisted of the Crown or nobility acquiring cattle at a distance. Those beasts may not have found their way into the general urban food supply, nor their bones into general urban refuse. There is a pressing need for some astute integration of stable isotope and genomic studies with urban zooarchaeology to investigate the population diversity and geographical origins of the cattle that featured in the lives of Medieval and later towns in England.


Companion animals present something of a challenge. First, an individual of almost any species could be a ‘pet’ or companion animal in particular circumstances: consider poet Gérard de Nerval’s pet lobster (Cavanaugh, 2011). Second, we have no archaeological template for recognizing the bones of a companion animal. Instead, we naively assume that species that are usually companion animals now, such as dogs and cats, were companion animals in the past. Despite the thorough research of scholars such as Walker-Meikle (2012), Medieval texts are mostly uninformative, as they reflect the literate groups of society. Serpell (1996: 47–8) points out that the Church frowned upon the keeping of animals for other than utilitarian purposes, excluding the bonds of affection usually associated with pet-keeping. We might question whether God-fearing English households would have kept companion animals at all.

Cats (Felis catus) feature frequently in assemblages from Medieval and later English towns. Occasional examples of apparent mass-felicide (McCormick, 1988; Luff and Moreno García, 1995) and more frequent finds of cat bones with cut-marks consistent with skinning show that not all were companions (Fig. 14.3). Mortality profiles of urban Medieval cats are seldom published, but this author’s impression is that sub-adult cats (p. 221) make up a substantial proportion in most towns. Cat bones were deposited into general urban refuse and only rarely in discrete interments, more consistent with feral populations of commensal cats than with cared-for companions. In a rare systematic taphonomic study of cat and dog remains in a post-Medieval town, Clare Rainsford’s currently unpublished analysis for Hungate, York, shows little evidence of deliberate burial prior to the eighteenth century, with mainly casual disposal of feral animals prior to that date.

Animals in urban life in Medieval to Early Modern EnglandClick to view larger

Figure 14.3 Post-Medieval cat skull from York showing cut-marks consistent with skinning.

Author’s own image.

Dogs (Canis familiaris) were potentially more useful to a Medieval household than cats and so a companion dog could more readily be justified. Pathologies consistent with rough treatment of dogs are occasionally reported from English towns, though there is to date no full published review to match those for the Classical world (MacKinnon, 2010), France (Binois et al., 2013), Scotland (Smith, 1998), Russia (Zinoviev, 2012), or Germany (Teegen, 2005). Biometric studies show the majority of Medieval and later dogs to have been of medium size, with a few larger individuals, consistent with working and guard dogs rather than small ‘lap’ dogs. In East Anglia, for example, Crabtree (2013) notes an increase in the morphological variation of dogs from the mainly rural evidence of the fifth to eighth centuries to the more urban ninth to eleventh centuries, suggesting that urban dogs may have served multiple roles. The wealthier Medieval households kept companion, as well as hunting, dogs. In 1440, the Prioress of Langley complained (p. 222) that her lodger Eleanor, Lady Audley, kept too many dogs, up to a dozen of which would follow her into church (Power, 1922). Presumably the town houses of those same families accommodated more than a few dogs, whose remains we encounter amongst the urban refuse. As with cats, individual dog burials are rare in urban Medieval and later contexts, perhaps in part a reflection of the status of dogs in urban society and in part a consequence of the inevitable re-deposition in urban stratigraphy.

The scarcity of guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) and parrots (Psittacoidea), in post-Medieval English towns is surprising. Guinea pigs originate in South America and were depicted in European art by the mid-sixteenth century. One account from eighteenth-century France indicates that they were eaten in Europe as well as kept as curiosities (Van Dijk and Silkens, 2013). There are few English records of these endearing animals, the earliest being a late sixteenth-century specimen from a rural manor house (Hamilton-Dyer, 2009). Guinea pigs are not even found where sieving has recovered appreciable numbers of other rodents, indicating genuine rarity not poor recovery. Parrots and other colourful, exotic birds feature in Late Medieval and post-Medieval texts and illustrations (Yapp, 1982; Albarella, 2007), though not in the archaeological record. A mid- to late seventeenth-century pit at the Castle Mall site in Norwich yielded what may be the only example, identifiable only to the sub-family Psittacinae (Albarella et al., 1997: 51–2).

Categorization of urban bird taxa can be problematic. Corvid birds, particularly jackdaws (Corvus monedula), commonly occur in urban assemblages, and it is a reasonable assumption that most were free-living urban residents. However, corvids in general are highly social and intelligent birds that readily adapt to life as tame companions (e.g. Marzluff and Angell, 2007; Woolfson, 2010) and it is possible that a few of the corvids that occur in urban bone assemblages were tame birds kept as companions. Documentary sources are unhelpful on this point: Yapp (1979) notes only a few clear examples of corvids on Medieval documents and texts offer little in support or contradiction.


A more likely role for corvid birds, and certainly for rodents, is that of urban commensal, the synanthropic animals that lived in towns of their own volition, exploiting refuse and stored foodstuffs (O’Connor, 2013). Corvids were listed in the Vermin Acts of 1532 and 1566, designated as animals that were injurious to human health and wealth and therefore to be exterminated (Lovegrove, 2007: 79–85). Corvids were condemned particularly for eating cereal crops, so urban populations of crows and jackdaws may have been less reviled than their rural conspecifics. The remains of corvids occur dispersed through occupation and refuse deposits, not in the concentrations that might result from a cull of urban populations. Specimens of raven (Corvus corax) are frequently (p. 223) recorded from Medieval towns throughout England, though seldom in abundance and a few post-Medieval records show that this species persisted at least into Tudor times (Yalden and Albarella, 2009: 127). White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), on the other hand, is only sparsely represented in the Medieval urban record and not thereafter (Yalden and Albarella, 2009: 148–9). Commensal ‘street’ pigeons (Columba livia) are recorded in small numbers from many Medieval to Early Modern urban sites, though it is problematic to differentiate free-living commensal populations from pigeons that were fed and housed as a source of meat and eggs. Most pigeon records consist of bones dispersed in the general urban refuse, which is more consistent with commensal birds than with maintained domestic pigeons.

Apart from noisy jackdaws and opportunistic pigeons, urban people would have encountered rodents such as house mouse (Mus domesticus) and ship rat (Rattus rattus). Both species have a continuous record in English towns from Late Saxon times onwards, apparent absences mostly being attributable to inappropriate sampling and recovery. House mice, of course, are still with us though ship rats have ceased to be part of the urban scene. Arguments continue for and against ship rats as a vector for plague and hence the Black Death: Antoine (2008) gives a useful overview and Benedictow (2010) and Hufthammer and Walløe (2012) demonstrate the differences of opinion. Urban zooarchaeology could record the displacement of ship rats by common rat (Rattus norvegicus), probably during the eighteenth century. Regrettably, survival and sampling of Early Modern deposits is a rarity and we have few good records for common rat. Recent work in York demonstrated the presence of both species in an early nineteenth-century property (Fig. 14.4). Twigg (1992) noted the close association of ship rat colonies with active ports and coastal locations in England in the latter half of the twentieth century and O’Connor (2013: 90–2) has suggested that ship rat populations were most persistent where they were regularly ‘topped up’ by new introductions.

People in Medieval and Early Modern towns experienced a range of commensal animals similar to those that we see in England today (corvids, pigeons, rats, and mice), indicating that urban living generated much the same opportunities. It is surprising, therefore, that records of red fox (Vulpes vulpes) are infrequent, given that this species has become such a successful urban commensal in recent decades. Medieval and later towns certainly had refuse accumulations, yet foxes seem not to have taken advantage. Perhaps foxes were subject to competitive exclusion by other scavengers, such as feral dogs and cats. The scarcity of foxes in the urban zooarchaeological record may support the inference that many of the cats whose remains we encounter were living as feral animals rather than household ‘pets’.

These commensal animals must have been a significant part of the ecology of Medieval and later towns, occupying an important niche as scavengers of the organic debris of human lives. More than that, they would have been a familiar part of people’s lives, an intrusion of the ‘wild’ into the constructed environment of the town. Whether they were regarded as ‘vermin’ may have been locally contingent, with attitudes perhaps becoming as polarized as modern attitudes to, for example, badgers (Cassidy, 2012). (p. 224)

Animals in urban life in Medieval to Early Modern EnglandClick to view larger

Figure 14.4 Femora of ship rat (Rattus rattus, left) and common rat (Rattus norvegicus, right) from York, found in the same early 19th C context which produced the cat skull in Fig. 14.3.

Author’s own image.

And the Wild Things

Apart from the commensal animals of the town, people’s experience of ‘wild’ animals was largely limited to fish and wildfowl. Other than antler, deer remains are infrequent and venison may have been only a rare luxury or the occasional product of poaching. Where bone preservation is good and sieving has been deployed, fish bones may be abundant. Eels (Anguilla anguilla) and freshwater fish such as cyprinids tend to be the majority in Saxon towns, broadening to include quantities of herring (Clupea harengus) by late tenth to eleventh centuries and increasingly marine fish, especially gadids, as the Medieval period went on (Barrett et al., 2004). Post-Medieval and Early Modern fish assemblages show that ‘modern’ patterns of marine fish exploitation, focused on large gadids and flatfish, were established by Late Medieval times and changes in shipping and capture technology seem to have made little difference to the species composition of catches. To the people of Medieval towns, fish represented two rather different realms: the locally available eels, pike (Esox lucius), and cyprinids that any enterprising angler could procure and the generally larger marine (p. 225) species that reflected an environment and way of life beyond the experience of nearly all urban residents.

Apart from poultry and commensal urban birds, Medieval and later towns regularly yield bones of wildfowl such as waders and the typical ‘game’ birds of the Medieval literature (Yapp, 1983). Documentary records show that some birds, such as crane (Grus grus) and bittern (Botaurus stellaris) were favoured for high-status feasting (Albarella and Thomas, 2002) and their remains are infrequent in the general urban refuse compared with those of wild ducks, plovers (Pluvialis spp.), and wood pigeon (Columba palumbus). As with the fish, urban people may have regarded wildfowl in distinct categories: the local and mundane birds of the surrounding woods and fields and the higher-status birds from further afield or from exclusive estates.

Summing Up

Urban zooarchaeology in England has delivered a substantial volume of data on the occurrence of bones of different species at different times and places. Although those data are open to analysis in terms of mortality, biometry, pathology, and much more, what they ultimately represent are the roles that living animals and their dead remains played in the economic life of historic towns and the individual lives of their people. The bones show the predominance of cattle on the streets but chickens in the home and the place of dogs as working animals, pets, and vermin. Medieval to Early Modern towns offer the unusual opportunity to trace those roles over a millennium, noting changes in response to larger historical or climatic events and in response to the developing ecology of the town itself. Somewhere between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, Medieval towns became modern and we can explore the place of animals in that transition. There are fewer large-scale urban excavations in England today than in the 1970s and ’80s: today’s challenge is to understand assemblage formation processes and to frame the higher-level research questions that link people and animals, now and in the past, in the constructed urban environment.


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