The Pigeon Cave


They weren’t always called pigeons, of course.

No: once, before supermarkets and gastropubs and Agas and shrink-wrap, they were called by a completely different name. Time was, when folks ate pigeons out of necessity and each kill was not a cull but a preface to a mediaeval feast.

Back then, in mediaeval times, they called them culufres: or culvers.

These days, in Britain, the pigeon is simply a pest. In cities and towns where junk food is disposed of in public places, the pigeons eat everything available, hoovering it up like a vacuum, and they are obese, and waddle painfully around on sugar highs, sporting dishevelled feathers and taking outrageously long to get on the wing.

But back then, pigeons were as lean and desperate as the human population.

And as we  face the coming of the Autumn and Winter here in England it is easy to forget, with our pampered modern existence, just how hazardous it could be simply finding enough food to get through the winter.

Mediaeval summers could be broadly plentiful. Crops might yield plenty to eat  and livestock could live out their days in the fields.

But the winters in England have always been grim dark affairs, and they could be desolate indeed for the people who lived between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the  light of the Renaissance. Animals were costly to feed during the winter, and so Autumn and harvest would be accompanied by the screams of slaughter: carcasses were salted and stored. There was no way of knowing whether the meagre supplies laid down in October would last until April when the sun warmed once more.

But there were always pigeons.

Even at the worst times, it was possible to attract culvers to warm, dry places to shelter. A dovecote was not just a pretty decoration to adorn a millionaire’s mansion. It was a way to make food when there was none.

But dovecotes were luxuries for the upper classes.

Which brings me to the strangest puzzlement of a place: a curiosity which clings to the rock of the Gower Peninsula in Wales, baffling historians as it has for centuries.

Its name is the only clue we have to its purpose: It is called Culver Hole. It does not run obediently and horizontally backwards but strains upwards, tall and thin like a stringy old man clinging to the cliffs near Port Eynon.

And the strangest bit of the whole business is that Culver Hole is walled in, with openings provided. Inside, it has several floors and treacherous flights of stairs, so that it is obvious that man once used it for his own purposes. But local lore has nothing to say about how it was used. Man has built this extraordinary cliffside limpet, named it and forgotten he ever cared for its existence.

So I’ll tell you what historians surmise, shall I?

Make a warm cavern on the cliff and you make a home for hundreds, even thousands of Blue Rock Pigeons.

Blue rock pigeons are like rats: they can breed all year round. Quickly. Dent their population and they’ll have the discrepancy corrected in a trice, generating pigeon after pigeon ad infinitum, there in the dark treacherous farmed shelter of a culufre cave.

Have you ever seen a recipe for mediaeval pigeon pie? You have to make a coffyn: a tomb of robust pastry which might be thrown away or eaten depending on how desperately hungry you are.

You couche the fowle in the coffyn, then take mary harde yolks of egges, throwing in reysons of coraunce, prunes, hole clowes, hole maces, canell and saffron. And  lay thyme about them as thou thinkest goode. Then strew about them this: dates, mary and reysons and then close the coffin with a lydde of the same past and putte hit in the oven.*

Culver Hole: a pigeon farm. A place for food. The people of the Gower must always have been sleek and well-fed, surely?

  • This recipe comes from a fifteenth century cookery book, Harleian Manuscript 4016, Edited by Thomas Austin, Oxford University Press, 1964

19 thoughts on “The Pigeon Cave

  1. “But back then, pigeons were as lean and desperate as the human population.” Great line – and wonderful observations. We tend to forget how easy life is now. The nursery rhymes did reflect real life. Delightful post

  2. Aaargh I remember the winter of 1204-5. The Thames froze over and famine stalked the land. That was when bad King John fined the squire £100 for cutting down trees without permission and then had the cheek to send him a barrel of wine to give to his wife – and we all knew what that meant.

  3. Well, now, ’tis an interesting piece of the pie, Kate. Love the recipe – not that I will try making it, mind you.
    Pigeon pie was popular during migration in the midwest. There is even a marker commemorating the carrier pigeon at a way station in Wisconsin. Alas, they are now extinct.

  4. In Australia we have the Wonga pigeon, so naturally plump that it can barely get off the ground. Historically, earlier centuries, but it is now a protected species.

  5. New York is also heavily populated with pigeons, Kate, but I’m rather fond of them, not to imply that I feed them, but I would certainly never eat one! But, I suppose desperate times called for desperate measures. Pigeons are birds with swagger and attitude that I find, dare I say it, charming. I enjoyed seeing them perched on the sill at my place of employ’s old location. Recently, they’ve started to hang out on the sill at my new digs, but the windows are frosted so they’re just silhouetted against the glass. It is true that they’re not exactly svelte on this side of the pond, either. NYC’s streets are littered with plenty of grub for our rock doves. Just like the human population, our pigeon population seems to have fallen victim to the obesity epidemic, too.

    1. Aw, I’m glad the pigeons are making their presence felt at your new place, Virginia. I have this image of these small but very definite shadows flickering on your work windowsill. They won’t be deterred by a bit of frosting!

  6. I have to say my favorite part is the medieval recipe. Many of the spellings and terms are so strange compared to their contemporaries, yet the whole is understood as though the intervening 600+ years in changes to the language are only trivial.

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