The Medieval Magpie Massacre


This summer, 1,648 bits of animal bone were recovered during excavations at Leiston Abbey. Among them were cows, pigs, sheep and goats, chicken and a whole variety of small mammals – all pretty standard fare. But that wasn’t all.

There, among all the other animal bones, were the remains of a red kite and a magpie. Now, whether the magpie was one of the thieving variety is yet to be established (though that could explain the nearby discovery of a golden button!), but these two birds did put us onto something.

Red kites were, back then, frequent scavengers at medieval middens. Now, they are one of Britain’s most ferociously protected species, having been nursed back from the brink of extermination. So, what happened? The story is a bit of a surprise.

Let’s start back with the rest of the bones. First off, when we compare the bones left by the site’s medieval occupants to the animal remains that accumulated later, what we see is a relative drop in the number of cattle, sheep, goat and pig bones, and an increase in the proportion made up by birds, rabbits, rodents, cats and rats.

Wild animals like rabbits weren’t much exploited by the monastic community and are fairly rare in monastic assemblages. However, we do know that generally they were an important source of both food and income among the lay community. So, it’s entirely possible that what we’re seeing is the change in diet of the abbey’s new, lay occupants after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536.

But the seizing of church property wasn’t the only thing going on in the background. There’s something else worth considering, because it’s not just food scraps that end up in the garbage; vermin do too. And it was just four years before the dissolution that Henry VIII not only unleashed, but enshrined in law, an unprecedented attack on Britain’s wildlife that continued until the mid 18th century.

A series of bad harvests and a sharp rise in population had left Britain with serious food shortages. In response, Henry VIII passed the Preservation of Grain Act, which came to be known as the Vermin Laws. The aim? To exterminate all the animals on an official list of ‘vermin’ by means of a bounty system.


Detail of a miniature of hedgehogs sticking fallen fruit to their quills and carrying it back to their burrow; from the Rochester Bestiary, England c. 1230 via British Library

These laws made it pretty much obligatory for every community to kill as many creatures as possible, and the organised killing was big business. Both magpies and red kites were included, and each animal on the list was assigned a bounty, which ranged from a penny for the head of a kite or a raven, to 12 pence for a badger or a fox. All parishes had to raise a levy to pay for the bounties or face a fine if they didn’t meet their quota. Given that the the average agricultural wage was around four pence a day, these bounties were a pretty strong incentive.

This might all seem pretty reasonable given the circumstances, especially if the blacklisted creatures really were a burden on human food sources. But it drove many of Britain’s native species to the brink of extinction, including many that were totally benign. From water voles to otters, pine martens and choughs, hedgehogs and kingfishers, Henry’s list included pretty much, well, everything.

Though the act was aimed at protecting crops, it condemned many animals that were deemed unnecessary, or were simply disliked for inaccurate or superstitious reasons. Take, for example the hedgehog who, despite posing no threat at all, were subject to wholesale persecution along with all the other ‘vermin’ due to the bizarrely erroneous belief that they took advantage of recumbent cows and sneakily suckled the milk destined for human mouths from their teats at night. They were also believed to go rolling around vineyards and orchards using their spines to gather up grapes to greedily guzzle on later. The result? According Roger Lovegrove, who published a study of this bounty hunt from parish records, hedgehogs paid the price – over half a million bounties were paid for hedgehog heads between the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

And yet… Rabbits weren’t on the list. They weren’t seen as pests until much more recently, swapping places with species like wild cat and pine marten – our current red-list causes célèbres.

So, next time you wonder why not just your standard vermin, but also many now-endangered species – like the red kite at Leiston Abbey – show up in middens, just remember, this 200-year bounty hunt could help explain why.

This blog was based on insights provided by DigVentures’ finds supervisor Mandy Holloway. Supporting information on the change in composition of the assemblage was provided by Poppy Hodkinson and Richard Madgwick at Cardiff University. The full Leiston Abbey site report will be available soon!

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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