Tom Hodgkinson muses on the ancient art of pig-keeping
All the authorities are agreed: November is the month for killing the pig. The images for November in the medieval calendars abound with porkers. The Vienna calendar of 837 shows a man wearing a delightful blue smock thrusting some sort of lance into a pig’s face.
In the illustration for November in the frescoes in San Isidoro in León, Spain, from around 1130, a jolly peasant has grabbed a pig by its ear and is about to knock it on the head with a hammer.
There is a cloister boss (that is, a sort of ornamental stud) in Pamplona cathedral, built in the fourteenth century, which shows a woman holding an axe with which she is about to strike poor piggy down.
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry spares us the killing scene, and instead November’s image features a swineherd knocking acorns out of oak trees for a group of hungry hogs.
The Bedford Hours of 1425 shows a bearded peasant with red hood, blue tunic and white apron about to bring a gigantic hammer down on the head of an unsuspecting pig. The hammer blow or the strike from the axe stuns the pig, after which its throat is cut.
Other calendars offer scenes of pigs being butchered. Flemish calendars of a more urbane nature show city-based pig markets in November. And paintings by Brueghel commonly depict peasants cutting a pig’s throat and collecting the blood to make blood pudding. Bede called November “blod-monath” (blood month).
The poets write of pigs. For the wonderful John Clare in his Shepherd’s Calendar, first published in 1827, as well as November being the month of mist and the “melancholy crow”, pigs are also given a mention:
The hog starts round the stye and champs the straw
And bolts about as if a dog was bye.
Pig-killing was going on in Ancient Greece and Rome as well. Varro tells us that pigs were sacrificed on all sorts of occasions: “Pigs are sacrificed at the initial rites of Ceres . . . [and] when a treaty is made, a pig is killed . . . at the beginning of the marriage rites of ancient kings and eminent personages in Etruria, the bride and groom, in the ceremonies which united them, first sacrificed a pig.”
Varro tells a fascinating tale about a very fat pig: “I recall that I went to look at a sow which was so fat that not only could she not rise to her feet, but actually a shrew-mouse had eaten a hole in her flesh, built her nest, and borne her young.”
Now that is fat.
Why Keep Pigs?
William Cobbett, our favourite liberty-loving Englishman, was of course a great supporter of the backyard pig for the cottager. Already, in 1820, as a result of industrialization, people were giving up the age-old practice of pig-keeping, which was why Cobbett felt that it was his duty to reskill the people. As he writes in Cottage Economy:
“A couple of flitches [salted and cured sides of hog] of bacon are worth fifty thousand Methodist sermons and religious tracts. The sight of them upon the rack tends more to keep a man from poaching and stealing than whole volumes of penal statutes, though assisted by the terrors of the hulks and the gibbet. They are great softeners of the temper, and promoters of domestic harmony.”
Be careful, though, warns Cobbett. The Methodist parson, a type for whom Cobbett reserved a particular loathing, will pay a surprise visit at pig-killing time, and you will feel honour-bound to give him some of your best bacon: “Upon what, then, do these modern saints, these evangelical gentlemen, found their claim to live on the labour of others?”
The technique was to buy a three- or four-month-old pig in March. In those days, this would have cost fifteen shillings; today it will be something like £30. The pig should be fed on milk and scraps, apples and acorns, so the cost of keeping it should be pretty low. Hogs produce useful manure, too.
The unromantic Cobbett does not write of the pleasures of the pig, his happy countenance and affectionate and amusing ways. And neither does John Seymour, who nevertheless has very good advice on feeding and killing, and makes the following useful remarks on pigs and waste:
“Always keep a pig bucket in the scullery. When we have a pigless period we don’t know what to do. What do we do with all that lovely greasy rich washing up water? Criminal to throw it down the sink. What do we do with the celery tips, the potato peelings, the carrot tops, the waste food? Out in the garden what do we do with the pea and bean haulms, the sweet corn tops, the scythed nettles, the pulled out weeds?”
When killing time comes, it is more humane, writes Seymour, to kill the pig at home with a .22 rifle than to send it to the abattoir: “The .22 is by far the kindest way to kill a pig. One moment he is happily eating – the next moment he is in Heaven.”
The above is an extract from How to Live in the Country, a reissue of Tom’s book on smallholding, originally titled Brave Old World.
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