Friday, October 3, 2008

On the Size and Color of Eggs

One of the things I was told back when I had just started to dabble in medieval cooking was that the eggs they had in medieval Europe were smaller than modern eggs. Not being overly skeptical back then, I accepted this as an established fact and filed it away for future reference. As I progressed in my research though, I became more doubtful of this factoid. Now I'm at the point where I'm comfortable in saying it's utter bunk.

The recipe for May Eggs involves pouring the liquid yolks out of partly boiled eggs, 
mixing them with spices, pouring them back in, and allowing them to boil until hard. 
This is difficult and messy enough using large eggs. I doubt it's even possible with small ones.

It's easy enough to understand how such a belief could come about. We're told repeatedly that the great size of farm animals compared to their wild counterparts is directly the result of modern farming practices. What we forget is that some of those practices have been practiced for the past thousand years.

Evidence for modern-sized eggs in the medieval period is surprisingly easy to find.

Chicken Vendors, Vincenzo Campi, 1580s
Web Gallery of Art

The painting above is a beautiful example (click on it to go to a bigger version). See there in the lower right corner? Four Grade-A, Extra-Large eggs.

The Egg Dance, Pieter Aertsen, 1552
Web Gallery of Art

In this one the egg is on the floor, next to the overturned bowl and near the wooden shoe - about to be stepped on.

"Ah! How do you know those are chicken eggs and not goose eggs? How do you know they weren't smaller in, say, the 14th century?" I hear you ask. How about this for an answer?

Taccuino Sanitatis, 14th century

Large, modern-looking eggs ... being gathered from chickens ... in the fourteenth century. That pretty much sums it up.

Oh, and about the color of medieval eggs: common wisdom is that they were probably brown or speckled. P'feh! Take another look at those paintings. See any brown eggs? Me neither. If you find a painting of medieval eggs that show them to be any color other than white, I'd love to see it.


Jules Frusher said...

Thanks, Doc - that was a great post! I, too had been fooled into thinking eggs were smaller back then (along with the people!!). I wonder how this idea came about? As for the colour, as far as I'm aware it has more to do with the breed of hen and what they are fed than whether they are 700 or 500 years old - or just a few days ago.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you'll read this anytime soon, but your post intrigued I looked up "What is the difference between white and brown eggs?" Here's what I found: Both are real, equivalent in nutrition, and natural. Typically, chickens with white ear lobes/feathers lay white eggs; chickens with red lobes/feathers lay brown eggs. Interestingly in the picture, the chicken appears to have white lobes.

Also, the predecessor to the chickens we know today is the Red Jungle Fowl. This fowl lays cream color eggs. In the painting, the chicken looks identical to the female Red Jungle Fowl.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and here's where you can look at the Red Jungle Fowl eggs in comparison to regular chicken eggs:

I did come across another jungle fowl called a Grey Jungle it's a possibility that the bird is that...but sources say the Grey comes from India.