Twelve days – half way house – Gold rings and a brace of pheasants

“What have I got in my pocket?” he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset.
“Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in it’s nassty little pocketsess?”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

The fifth day of Christmas offers a welcome break to those singing the lyrics.  Breath and memory seize on it for a welcome break in the headlong rush towards the first day, arresting the unravelling of days, actors, wildfowl, lords and milking maids which threaten from about the seventh day.

Five go – o ld RINGS.

Deep breath and head on down to the partridge.

But what sort of rings are in the ‘nasty pocketsess’ of the package sent by my true love?

If they are indeed gold metallic rings, they would be a strange gift to receive.  Currently in these days of commitment phobia, or the concerning escalation of the costs of a conventional wedding,  one would be impressive enough. The fifth day’s package is the most economically valuable of the first seven days,  worth from a quick search on google from anything like the ring above times five, from £2,500 upwards to £15,000 depending on style and designer. This little number from Gucci caught my eye and has a clever somewhat instrumental branding design caught in its heart – but it probably wasn’t what the original intention of the ditty was.

gold ring

18 carat gold Gucci ring – on sale at £250 in stores in 2014

The first four days have all been water or woodland fowl, and the theme is continued through day five to day seven where the princely food of the swan swimming on water brings us to the end of a tour of the Seventeenth century table of delights.  So if not fool’s gold or the real McCoy what is being signed for on day five?

The riddling context of the song seems to suggest that the fifth day’s surprise package was a ringed pheasant – either one of the spectacular Chinese ring necks or the white collared pheasant which had been widely imported into Europeanised stock since Norman times.  Below is a couple of illustrations of the rather splendid  golden ringed pheasant which had been recently imported into England in the late 1760s.  This Chinese ringneck (Phasianus torquatus) – the “ring pheasant” – was imported from southern China by an English ambassador, in 1768 at a time when all things oriental was coming into vogue. The white collared pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) had been known across Europe and in England, through the years of importation of a variety of sub species following on from the sub globalisation of the market in fowl through Roman eco-imperialism, and continued in northern Europe through the Norman connection of culinary traditions north of the mediterranean, and finally reached its apex with the explorations of the seventeenth century re-connecting the feasting tables of China with those of Europe.

A brace of pheasant in happier times

A brace of pheasant in happier times

These Chinese golden ringed pheasants were introduced into Europe in the mid 1760's a present in England by 1768

These Chinese golden ringed pheasants were introduced into Europe in the mid 1760’s a present in England by 1768

Pheasants have been an important part of British culinary history and a mark of priveleged eating for many centuries however, with some historians of gastronomy marking the origin of this popular game bird to the presence of the Roman occupation of Britain – connecting food sources with Imperial Rome’s expansion into Asia under the colonising prowess of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC).  In Rochester – recently championing a UK independence ticket returning the former conservative MP Mark Reckless, had in former times a considerable debt to pay to the culinary tastes of the Norman cuisine where in 1089 the monks of Rochester received from Bishop Randulfus who sent them 16 pheasants, 30 geese, 300 hens, 1,000 lampreys, 1,000 eggs, four salmon and six sheaves of wheat.  The intention of everything would have been to enrich in either the short or long term the ability of the monks to entertain others, and feed themselves.  A veritable DHL delivery that day – from a thoroughly European ecclesial hierarch.

A record exists relating to the monks of Rochester who, in 1089, received from Bishop Randulfus
pheasants 1995 hanging

Two male ringed pheasants, in a still life – reminding us all as to the main reason why pheasants have been farmed over the centuries in Abbeys, woodlands, and commons.

Intriguingly it is recorded that the last meal which Archbishop Thomas Becket (1120 -1170- AD) took before he died whilst celebrating mass at Canterbury Cathedral was that of pheasant – though it wasn’t food poisoning which took him and there is no record as to whether french fries were the side dish of choice, though he had recently returned from several years enforced holiday in France.  It was only a matter of months after his return that he was bladed down in an horrendous knife crime in the sanctuary at Canterbury Cathedral whilst he was facing down a conflict with Henry II over the ‘rights’ of the church to self governance – and separate jurisdiction.  A struggle which continues to this day over recent changes in national legislation on same-sex marriage, and has only recently concluded over the rights to equal employment of women into priesthood and the episcopacy – but I disgress.

2014-07-16 16.27.17

A sculpture in the grounds of St Paul’s London of the last moments of the Rt Revd Thomas a Becket – Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the Realm – sworded down by four emissaries from the King’s Court in 1170 –

But before I am brought back to the subject of gifts on the fifth day,  which brought us into the woodlands of pheasant trapping, netting, and cross bowing,  one final mention of some German import into this festal sport of killing pheasants, and sending the resultant brace of birds to one’s true love.  Traditionally the British have been somewhat controlled in the method of hunting the pheasant, with once the licence to start killing the birds had been granted by Henry I to the

Abbot of Amesbury near Stone-henge the right to kill pheasants in 1100, shortly after the abbey was founded, Abbeys across the country starting to take up farming and feasting on pheasant with some alacrity. In fact some of the clearest indications of feasting on pheasants seem to have been taken forward by ecclesial hierarchy with the inauguration banquet of Neville the Archbishop of York in 1465 bringing to table 200 pheasants, 12 porpoises and seals, 104 peacocks, 400 swans, 500 stags, 2,000 geese, 4,000 mallard and teal and six boar, and a range of other exotic culinary treats – but no pear tree in transcript to round off the explosion of wild life expunged for that particular feast on that day.

The process of enclosure in England  which took place from the fourteenth century but gathered formalised pace in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought the raising and shooting of pheasants to the landed gentry.  They developed a method of walking forward –   walking through the low cover in which the pheasant lay to  ‘flush’ the birds up into their typical low ‘escape’ flight with spaniels, or to walk over areas with their servants beating, or following where setters or pointers had marked the way to raise the birds in similar manner shotgun in hand.

A new method of pheasant shoot emerged in Britain in the mid nineteenth century. The pheasant ‘battue’,  shown to great effect in the Christmas 2014 Downton Abbey special, was a continental import from Germany, brought across along with the Christmas tree by Prince Albert in the 1840’s and embedded in the customs of the houses of Victoria.  Her latter day family adopted the new techniques with some gusto particularly in Sandringham where her heir Edward Albert, took driving pheasants into awaiting gunfire into the new culture of city bucks coming to cut their teeth at the shoot and to define themselves with the establishment.  It flourished with the new technology of the more efficient quick loading double barreled Breech loading shotgun,  which capitalised on ‘driven’ birds beaten towards an awaiting battery of invited or paid for guns under set covers in the field.
King James VI of Scotland later James I of England would have shuddered at the transformation of the sport into such killing fields. In 1594 he had legislated to protect pheasants and other species from being taken by the use of firearms in an attempt to protect the species.  By the end of the nineteenth century, young bloods of the new aristocracy of both land and industrial wealth, created their peer pecking order in status through how many pheasants they had bagged at the end of a country shoot.
With the male’s wonderful plumage a scarlet burst of beauty in the midst of a cold winters day,  its hung head over fencing, or in the back of a stacked land rover has always a sadness in the thud of another brace with their life interrupted.  Paradoxically, this beautiful bird raised for a  double bottom line, the highly lucrative gastronomic market and high-end leisure sport,  has resulted in the ring necked pheasant now being one of the few birds not on the RSPB endangered species lists;  however unsavoury the new means of semi- industrialised slaughter which awaits most chicks raised in pens across Europe might be.

And the meaning if we go down the catechetical route?  These are said to be the first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch – and the five golden rings as shown in the illustration of the riddles and rhymes for the Nursery where this wonderful song first emerges in 1780 in England might make one choose to head down this route rather than the golden rings of the pheasant heading one to a laden table.

golden rings original

Five golden rings from the illustration in the original published collection of the Twelve Days of Christmas 1780.

  The riddle continues.  And a fine day of feasting to you on this fifth day.  Ahead lies geese laying and swans swimming – until we get to maids a milking on the eighth day when we shall rejoin the ditty and consider the mortals mentioned as we meander up to the twelfth day.


About fordwords

Writer, social entrepreneur, coach, academic, Anglican priest, mother and concerned global citizen. Curious as to how power, gender, sexuality, globalisation, migration, faith, and the 'open knowledge economy' play out in our gendered world - how the domestic collides with the former dictates of business, governance and public space. Meditating on a world in which all children can mature into adults who enjoy space, well-being, love, inter-dependence and dignity. We are still some way off our destination of equity, sustainability and the triumph of emPathy. These musings hope to shorten the distance between hope and realisation in our lives.
This entry was posted in Carols, Christian allegories, European Culture in Britain, Gastronomy, German Traditions, Twelve days of Christmas and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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