|A. O. Cooke|
|Chapter One||The Roman Columbarium|
|In a book so limited in size
and scope as the present volume, a learned disquisition on the pigeon, on
its place in former ages and in many lands, with an excursus on the subject
of its prehistoric ancestry, will hardly be expected, and assuredly will
not be given. We are concerned chiefly with the dovecotes of England and
Scotland; and though some enthusiastic owner of an ancient pigeon house may
claim that it descends from Saxon times, it will hardly be seriously disputed
that the keeping of pigeons in Great Britain, with the construction of dovecotes
in which to house them, had its beginning in, and came from, although in
directly, Rome. A word or two on Roman pigeon keeping, then, will not be
altogether out of place; and happily our knowledge of the subject has its
bases soundly fixed on such reliable authorities as Pliny the Elder and Varro,
with some useful support from Columella.
Pliny, after noticing the fidelity and combativeness of the dove, reminds us that during the siege of Mutina, Decimus Brutus dispatched to the Consuls a message fastened to the foot of a pigeon; the modern method, it may here be mentioned, is to tie the letter underneath a wing. The use of pigeons as letter carriers during the siege of Paris in 1870 may well be known to many who are unaware that the Germans attempted to destroy such messengers by means of hawks. Pigeons, too, played their part as message bearers in the recent war.
Pliny goes on to speak of the "mania" for pigeons, which, in his day, existed to such an extent in Rome that veritable "towns" were sometimes built upon the roofs of houses for their use; and finally sets down, no doubt in all good faith, a few beliefs which, current in his time, will hardly survive collision with modern science. He states, for example, that if the body of a tinnunculus - by which Cuvier believed him to have meant the kestrel - were buried underneath each corner of the pigeon house, its occupants would not desert the place.
|He also speaks of a peculiar venom in the
teeth of human beings, which not only tarnished the brightness of metal mirrors,
but proved fatal to young unfledged pigeons, which we now call "squabs."
Allusion is also made to the special fondness of pigeons for the mixed grain
called by the Romans farrago, a word which has descended to us with a different
Much interesting information as to Roman pigeon-keeping will be found in the proper section of Varro's Rerum Rusticarum. Two different breeds were chiefly kept. One was the wild rock pigeon, agreste, of a mixed or dappled colour; shy in its habits, keeping to house gables or high towers, feeding in the distant fields. The other, clementius, was a white bird; very common, and quite tame enough to feed about the doorstep, but not greatly in request with pigeon keepers, for the reason that its snowy plumage made it a conspicuous prey for hawks. The birds most largely bred for table were a cross (misccellum) of these two, and were usually housed in what was sometimes called a peristeron or peristerotrophion, which might hold as many as five thousand birds.
The Roman columbarium was usually round, the vaulted roof being generally of stone, though tiles were sometimes used. The entrance was small, and the windows either latticed or covered with a double trellis to ensure the birds against the invasion of snakes and other vermin. The interior surface of the walls was covered with a smoothly worked cement made from ground marble, while the outer face immediately around the windows was often similarly treated, so that no foothold might be offered to small climbing animals. The nest holes, very similar to those that we may see to day in many an English dovecote, lined the walls from floor to roof; the entrance to each being only large enough to admit the bird, but the whole expanding inwards to the breadth of a foot. Sometimes the nests appear to have been circular, and in some instances they were constructed of a kind of porcelain. Before each row of nests there was a shelf eight inches broad, to serve as an alighting place and promenade.
There was one detail in the construction of a Roman pigeon house which, though it may possibly have found its way to France, seems never to have reached Britain. This was an arrangement by which the birds could be fed from the exterior of the house through an elaborate system of pipes and troughs. The troughs were placed all round the tiers of nest holes, while the pipes communicating with them had their orifice outside the walls. The most perfect nicety of adjustment must have been required, since the pipes were called on to convey, not smoothly flowing water, but a great variety of grain, such as peas, beans, millet, refuse wheat, and vetches. It may perhaps be fairly doubted whether so complicated an arrangement was in very general use.
Varro seems to recommend that water, not only for drinking but for washing purposes, should flow into the house, and one authority suggests the provision of a fairly large bath basin in the centre of the floor, a hint we shall in due course find followed in an ancient English dovecote. Columella, on the contrary, favoured the use of small drinking vessels which would admit the pigeon's head and neck alone, on the ground that bathing was bad for the eggs on which hen birds might be sitting. Pigeons being very cleanly birds the keeper of the columbarium was to sweep the house out several times a month, and that for the additional reason that the manure yielded was of the highest quality. The present use of this manure as a tanning agent for certain classes of skins is not alluded to.
Varro goes on to speak of the desirability of the window or windows admitting plenty of sunlight, and of the necessity of a netted off chamber for the sitting hens; also that these should have a due amount of exercise and air, lest, " saddened by the slavery of continued confinement," they might lose their health.
It seems that the occupants of a pigeon house were expected to draw others of their kind to swell the owner's colony; for the pigeon keeper is reminded that if his birds are anointed with myrrh, or if a little cummin or old wine be added to their usual food, the pigeons of the neighbourhood, attracted by the sweetness of their breath, would follow them. This recipe, or something very like it, long survived, and even crossed the sea to us. In John Moore's Columbarium, or the Pigeon House, first published in 1735, occurs the following passage:
"Being thus entered on the head of diet, it leads us necessarily to consider a certain composition called by the fanciers a Salt Cat, so named, I suppose, from a certain fabulous oral tradition of baking a cat . . . with cummin seed, and some other ingredients, as a decoy for your neighbour's pigeons; this, though handed down by some authors as the only method for this purpose, is generally laughed at by the gentlemen of the fancy, and never practiced."
Moore then gives the ingredients of this mixture, which
include sand, lime rubble, with cummin seed and saltpetre, both the last
named items being much relished by pigeons. Whether, however, the genuine
"salt cat" was always altogether absent from the composition seems doubtful.
I n the accounts of Jesus College, Cambridge, for the year 1651-2 may be
read the following suggestive entry: "For a roasted dog and cummin seed,
00:02:00;" while a boiled goat's head forms a prominent feature of another
prescription for the same purpose.
|Dovecote: Table of Contents||