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Hens in cold winters, live stock and stored food in 16th, 17th century

Jess A

Hi all,

My setting is a world similar to 16th, 17th century Europe etc (no later than early-mid 17th century).

Some regions are quite cold in winter. Nights grow long, it snows heavily, it's very, very heavily forested in parts and it's inland.

How do my peasants survive? How do their hens lay eggs - they don't have much warmth/daylight to make them lay, so how do they keep them warm to get any at all, or will they be eating eggs they pickled in the warmer months?

What sort of food can they have stored? i.e. pickled eggs, pickled fish, salted meat. I've also read cheese keeps for ages, and some vegetables. What else did they survive on?

What about common winter drinks for both peasants and the nobility? Beer, wine, apple cider?

If anyone can give me good sources/information on live stock, hens, stored food and other survival methods for peasants around these times I would be grateful. Especially what differences there are to medieval times - I can find a lot of info for medieval times but not early modern Europe.

For warmth I assume they huddled with their animals by a fire, well into the later centuries. And I read somewhere that sometimes the lord's manor/castle had common woodlots they could use.


Hens lay throughout the winter. They do need grain and they lay more regularly if you have a heated light bulb in the coop, but if a peasant were to keep livestock in the house, which I believe was quite common, then one would get an egg a day from healthy young laying hens. Lots of root vegetables, squash, cabbage, and apples store well overwinter - do some research on root cellars. Don't forget about smoking as a form of preservation - or sun-drying. Also, stored grains to make bread as bread was a common food.

People in northern climes wore (and still wear) a lot of wool. It's warm and keeps you warm even if it's wet. Hence the abundance of sheep, pasture land, and mutton.

City dwellers drank mostly beer. Water was unreliable; rivers were full of human and animal waste. There was often a paid position in towns and cities where one would ensure the quality of beer being produced and I believe this was a position commonly held by a woman. Cider, mead, and wine worked as well; fermentation is also a great source of preservation for drinks and food. See the popular Korean dish kimchi, for instance.

By the way, I'm referring to medieval Europe for the most part. Also, as weird as it may sound, entire households used to share the same bed, even married couples who got pregnant while the rest of the family was there. I've avoided this aspect in my stories as it makes for a lot of strange awkwardness.

Jess A

Thank you, Filk, for the info :)

Though my time period is further forward, I have a suspicion that peasant living was similar in some ways?

On beer - do you mean beer-tasting? That's an interesting thought.

Traditionally, the greatest varieties of kimchi were available during the winter. In preparation for the long winter months, many types of kimjang kimchi (hangul: 김장 김치) were prepared in early winter and stored in the ground in large kimchi pots.

I suspect the cold ground kept it cold?

My next stop will be to look at root cellars. The eggs were a small point in my story so thank you again for that information. I had been finding mixed information about chickens and egg-laying in winter. An egg a day per chicken should suffice for what I want to write about. Though I was kind of tempted to have one of my characters knit a woolly 'coat' for her chickens :D I saw a photo online that made me chuckle.

What about domestic geese and ducks?


Closed Account
The diet of a medieval or pre-modern peasant in England consisted mainly of plant food, namely bread made from barley and oats, some fruits and vegetables, butter, and cheese. Meat and eggs were luxuries, fish was a more common source of protein. The poorest of the poor ate vegetables cooked without meat and drank water, or ate bacon rind and beans if they could afford it. Meat was often poached from Crown land but the penalties could be severe.

I don't believe there was a great difference between the diets of medieval peasants and those of the pre-modern period. The way the land was used (controlled) changed when feudalism was abolished in 1660 but rural life really changed with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.


Also, hens will lay eggs throughout the winter even if you don't heat the coop at all - having more birds in a small area also helps keep them warmer. You will get less eggs (every two to three days), but that is also the case with older birds. Geese and ducks run along the same lines. I know a guy who had a goose whose feet froze of, but it was fine. It hopped around on stumps or so I am told hehe.

Alexandra - there are also accounts from medieval times of meat being plentiful. I think it depended on location to some degree - there were large tracts of wilderness throughout Europe that had plenty of wild game that weren't governed by poaching laws. Owning domestic livestock was a common enough achievement and while the poor in the country generally did not get the best cuts of meat or even eat meat every day, it was certainly available. England, being an island, is a special case and doesn't count for the entirety of mainland Europe.

Edit: Storing food in the ground is the best way to keep a consistent temperature and yes, it is generally colder under the earth.
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Closed Account
Alexandra - there are also accounts from medieval times of meat being plentiful. I think it depended on location to some degree - there were large tracts of wilderness throughout Europe that had plenty of wild game that weren't governed by poaching laws. Owning domestic livestock was a common enough achievement and while the poor in the country generally did not get the best cuts of meat or even eat meat every day, it was certainly available. England, being an island, is a special case and doesn't count for the entirety of mainland Europe.

There are good points here. Location likely made a big difference and you're right, much of my information on medieval and pre-modern life is British. Another factor that had an important bearing was whether the folks in question were true peasants (tenant farmers) or yeoman (free individuals owning small tracts of land). Not surprisingly yeoman fared better than the peasantry—they eventually became Britain's middle class.

Jess A

Thanks again - and yes I admit much of my knowledge is British, too, but my land is quite extensive.

That's a good point about the yeomen. I did two research papers on this stuff but I've forgotten the information I crammed into my brain. I'll have to go back and look at it all again. I can't retain anything lately. -.-

Poor goose, by the way :( Birds can be very hardy.
I'm going to tell you a true story involving my aunt, who raises chickens.

One winter, she realized that she had no idea how to do any of this. She freaked out, because she'd poured a lot of money into these fowl. But my aunt, always level-headed and farsighted (*wink*), decided to do the one thing she was absolutely sure was right.

She released them into the wild.
They all died within four hours.

Here's another tip I don't see mentioned here. Change their water often. Hens, most animals, need water to survive. In the winter, their water freezes, so whoever's keeping them needs to change their water often, even if its kept inside the chicken coop (which, if you have roosters, would be a bad idea).

Jess A

Oh dear :| that's tragic.

Yes - I have the feeling my characters will be keeping the hens inside the house. They can provide the hens with warmth, water and shelter. Though these particular characters have a bit more money than the average villager - I'm wondering if they have a really nice warm coop and place to put the animals, a barn. At least a very small one.


Myth Weaver
There were what I think of as fairly strange foods around such as Cock Ale and Black Puddings

Cock Ale
8 Gallons Ale
½ gallons Sack
1 Chicken
4 lb Raisins
½ lb Dates
2 Nutmeg
Boil chicken in ale [until meat falls off bone]. Grind / mash raisin, dates, nutmeg and mace. Add to Ale. Add sack. Seal for 1 week. Strain and bottle. Stores for 3 months

Black Puddings
4 pt Sheep's blood
4 pt Cream
10 Eggs
Stale breadcrumbs
Fine Oatmeal
beef suet
Beef / Lamb Marrow
sweet herbs
Mix all together. Add to cleaned sheep guts. Boil gently for 1 hour. Will keep for 3-4 weeks.

No wait you can still buy this one...


Those black puddings reminded me of a traditional dish that could be called "Black Sauce Chicken". It's based on a portuguese dish, I think.

You cook everything together, serving it in a sauce made of the chicken's blood. I couldn't discover for how long it keeps.

Jess A

More great ideas, keep them coming! I love the idea of the strange and icky foods. It would suit one of the characters to be cooking something that to a reader sounds a little odd, even if it was common in historical times.

Black pudding - yes this is still consumed for sure. Not my cup of tea :p

Pemmican - fantastic because I have settings in arctic type regions as well, with characters travelling there. I had been doing research on that too so this helps very much.


Another anecdote regarding hens here. My great-grandmother used to own a farm in the northern parts of france, where winter gets quite cold, obviously. My mom once told me they used to give the chicken wine in winter to keep them warm, which lead to some hilarious drunken hens falling from their perches and generally looking quite silly. They endured the winters marvellously though. It might make for some good comic relief, if you're looking for something on those lines.


General winter the number of birds in the coop would keep it warm enough.
Extreme cold, they might need to be brought into the house. Might be interesting to see how a basically wild chicken would react to "in house life" during these times. Get into everything, spill or destroy stuff.
Maybe the more well off, would have a fireplace in a barn they could keep the foul in with other animals. but wood was alot of work to cut or expensive to buy for heating a home, using it for animals would be very restricted. That is why they are more likely to bring them in the home. Heat one building rather then 2.


toujours gai, archie
Livestock was also brought inside when it was cold. Some better peasant houses had a loft--people up top, animals below. It both protected the animals and provided some heat.

Meat can be dried, remember. Grab a pig in October or so while they're out in the forest foraging for nuts. Fowl can be knocked off all winter long. Fish not so much in winter, but fish can be dried as well.

But the main staple is going to be vegetables, often cooked up in a soup. Soup is warm and the fire then does double duty. Don't forget to include something about keeping the fire banked over night. Letting the fire go completely out was serious business.

If you can get a copy through the library, you might have a look at "Peasants Into Frenchmen" by Eugen Weber. It's a wonderful read and the early chapters talk a lot about peasant life in 17thc France.

Jess A

Yellow: That scene would actually fit well into my book because of the characters involved :p thanks!

Severin: A good point for realism. Though the Duke in this case does help his peasants out. After all, they loyally followed him in rebellion - hence they get some perks, such as free firewood. Plenty of it available, definitely not a rarity. Of course, the townspeople have to chip in to cut it/obtain it. It's not entirely free.

Skip: I'll have a look for that book in my university's library. Sounds absolutely perfect for what I need, because most literature I've found deals with medieval times, not early modern Europe (which is closer to the setting of my book)!

Brokethepoint: The fresh water tip has come up a few times. I'll be sure to keep that in mind.


I think given all this info, it's perfectly viable to have some eggs available towards winter and during winter. Thanks all again :) the added info on peasant life and book recommendations have also been very helpful.


I'm going to take a different view here JessA. My feeling is that hens at that time would very seldom have laid through winter. Most poultry were of quite a different type to post-industrial birds. They had much shorter laying seasons and were more inclined to go broody (during which they wouldn't lay at all). Hens need at least 11 hours of daylight to lay. If they were brought indoors and provided with light for a few hours early in the morning, it's possible a few would have laid, but that's a lot of fuel to go in keeping hens on lay, and with a general scarcity of food it's debatable whether it would have been worth the extra rationing of grain and candle power to keep them laying. As well, the birds aren't spending much time scratching outdoors, so their basic diet would have been quite low in protein during winter -- even the most thrifty modern layer pullet won't lay without at least 16% protein. They wouldn't be eating any insects, where is the protein coming from? They didn't have formulated rations with artificial amino acids back then (modern industrial birds rely on quite a lot of artificial methionine for building muscle and feather -- my little 'did you know' for the day...).

Of course pullets (young birds in their first laying season -- they're only called a 'hen' once their first laying season is over) could have been bred to come on lay during autumn, and might have laid throughout winter on that basis (having higher hormones etc) if the henhouse had some form of lighting (bright enough to read a newspaper by is the general rule). However if you consider that most cottages in former times wouldn't have wanted to waste candles, I still don't see it as much of a likelihood.

Far more likely, I feel, would be a system of boom and bust: eat the eggs in summer, eat the unproductive, unthrifty and/or male birds in winter (thus reducing the flock down to its bare minimum of healthiest most productive birds). Pickled eggs can last for months in a cool climate. My general feeling is eggs were a bit of a summer luxury (flans, cakes, puddings, breakfast eggs) but the winter proteins were more likely to be meat based.

As well (if you want more detail about hens), chicken type would be important. In a cold climate they might look quite different to your average modern layer, e.g.:
- rose or walnut (i.e. flatter to the head and wider) comb rather than blade (upright) comb -- upright combs can more easily get frostbite.
- perhaps feathered legs (e.g. google 'faverolles')
- fluffier birds like orpingtons were bred to handle cold; chickens are surprisingly good at dealing with harsh climate if they're of a fluffy type.

As for food storage, pickling was a very common technique, but it wasn't the kind of pickling we rely on almost exclusively today (with vinegar). Instead pickles were often made using fermentation. This includes things like sauerkraut (cabbage). You can naturally ferment most vegetables using no more than salt and a bit of hard labour (typically grating, then pounding). Salt was therefore highly valued. Sauerkraut and similar live pickles can also keep for 4-6 months in a cold climate (I have some in my fridge that are quite fine after 13 months!). Typically pickling was a live process rather than using dead vinegars, but cider vinegar would have been reasonably plentiful, so it's fairly likely that was the technique used to pickle eggs (watered down though -- cider vinegar is way too harsh on its own, and turns eggs to yellow leather).

Types of utensils include big wooden or ceramic straight-sided vessels with wooden lids, which were weighted down with stones etc (fermenting is an anaerobic process). Often these sorts of nutritious foods were then stored in sealed barrels. By the way, sauerkraut is an amazing food, really high in vitamins (C, many B vitamins) and of great use on boats at the time against scurvy.

I'm sounding like a survivalist, I suppose -- I'm not even remotely, but I do run a miniature organic farm, breed my own chickens and make sauerkraut and other pickles.

Never thought it would come up in a question! :)


Jess A

Jamber: An incredible source of information, thank you! You are right - my commoner characters might be a little more well-off than most of the commoners, but they can't afford to light the hen house for that amount of time. I can come up with a variety of hen to suit winter I suppose but I like to learn the real basics before I start to modify things.

I think pickled eggs might suffice for what I need the eggs for. I just thought of it now when reading your post. As for fermenting - the descriptions are great, cheers - I can probably use this for a scene or two when I need the two women to be working or doing something when leading up to a scene or having a conversation.

What do you mean by the grating and pounding? Of what, the vegetables?

Thanks again :)