While Christmas caterers begin to turn their minds to large roast fowls, let us tell you about the olden days…
In the Middle Ages, swans were seen not just as a source of meat but also as a foodstuff which reinforced the prestige and social standing of the feast giver. Therefore who owned them – and could then kill, cook and serve them to and in the presence of suitably awed guests – was an important issue. Furthermore, as swans are undeniably regal birds (at least when swimming!), the mindset of medieval sovereigns saw this as showing that they naturally had a prerogative right over them. Consequently, the ownership of swans raised issues not just in property law but in constitutional law too!
In the (16th this vexed issue of the ownership gave rise to a court case – originally called “Case de Swannes.” It was one of the cases included by Sir Edward Coke in his collection of reports – in the 7th volume no less, so cited 7 Coke 15b. Coke’s Reports are among the nominate reports reprinted in the English Reports series in the mid (19th. In this series the correct citation for The Case of Swans is 77 ER 435. We should also point out that the reports is available in the All England Law Reports reprint volume for [1558-1774] at 641 – but this series rather spoils the link between 7 and swans.
The decision in the case was subsequently summarised in verse:
“Swans, white not mark’d, their native freedom gain
In common river, and to King pertain.”
but we are never satisfied with just the head notes!
As the image above shows, early editions with their black letter typeface can be difficult to read – so the English Report volume is the one we would recommend. The Law Bod has the full set at Cw UK 120 E50, but recently they have become widely available online. Holders of Oxford Single Sign On usernames and passwords can consult the English Reports via Westlaw UK, and Justis and HeinOnline. (All three should recognise at least the first two citation forms above.)
Thanks to the free access to law movement (see previous blog) anyone with access to the internet can read them free via CommonLII The free version prominently offers first drill down via year or by case name. Be warned! For reasons of speed no doubt, The Case of Swannes is listed only under T (for The) not S (for Swans) or C (for Case) as you might have expected. There are dozens of cases which start with The (think of England’s shipping history and correct ways to address Lords Spiritual and Temporal!) so, if you want to drill down by case name, having first clicked on T, do a ctrl+ F search typing “case of sw” – usually by the time you get to the w you will be at the right report! Alternatively, you could do a citation search via the CommonLII Advanced Search screen for ER.
Today, the famous survivals of this taste for swans are the Abbotsbury Swannery and the annual (weather permitting!) ceremony of Swan Upping on the Thames – both used entirely for conservation purposes rather than matters culinary. (If you are interested in how swans were cooked – you can read a recipe from Curye on Inglish an Early English Text Society volume of (14th English culinary manuscripts: the modern online editor suggests how you could adapt it for your Christmas turkey – but that is not something the LawBod has tested!