Ferrets and Archaeology: Conspicuous by their absence?
by Jim Spriggs, , ACR Dip Cons. FIIC MIFA FSA
I am an archaeologist living and working in York, and my family have kept ferrets as pets for a long while. I have naturally developed an interest in their history and use and have files full of stories and bits of information. Ferrets have quite a high profile these days and almost everybody will either know somebody who has kept them, or at least will have a good stock of ferret stories. And most people will have heard what attractive and unusual pets they make. But keeping ferrets as pets is quite a recent phenomenon - go back thirty years or so and really only farmers and gamekeepers and a few other folk who enjoyed 'countryside pursuits' (i.e. rabbiting) kept ferrets. There was also, of course, that unfortunate wartime hang-over of keeping ferrets for their pelts, but the less said about that the better perhaps. Go back 100 years, and ferrets only get a mention in specialist farming manuals, natural history compendia, and of course the famous short story of Sredni Vashtar by 'Saki'. Before that, ferrets and ferreting seem to go underground, as it were, but I thought it would be interesting to pull together what few bits of historical fact do exist, and also review some of the archaeological data, and see where this leaves us.
The origins of the ferret are vague, but it is generally accepted as having been developed from the wild European polecat (Mustela putorius) which is native to western Eurasia, Iberia and north western Africa. The wild polecat is a naturally intractable animal and very difficult to tame, so by selective breeding it became used to being handled by humans, it's size and colouration varied, and its very strong scent considerably reduced. The main driver for its development is generally thought to be for the purposes of hunting rabbit, and possibly also vermin. The history of the spread of the rabbit is similarly hazy though it is known that they originally indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula and, again, north western Africa. So it seems there's a good overlap in the natural range for both the polecat and the rabbit, further cementing the relationship between the two.
One of the earliest reliable references to the ferret is in the 'Natural History' of Pliny the Elder (he who died of heat exhaustion from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79). Pliny comments on how effective ferrets are for controlling rabbits and goes on to describe problems with rabbits being experienced on the Balearic Islands. The islanders had implored the Emperor Augustus to send soldiers to deal with the rabbits as their crops were suffering. Why soldiers should have been requested for this task is curious, unless Pliny knew Roman soldiers were good ferreters. It was always thought that rabbits were a Norman introduction into Britain, but there is now some archaeological evidence that the Romans imported domesticated rabbits to these shores, along with the dormouse, grapes and other exotics. The climate in Britain was warm enough then to support these species but it seems the keeping of rabbits was not widespread and they were never allowed to become feral. So the honour of introducing ferrets, and rabbits again, was left to the Norman invaders at a time when the climate here was once more rather warmer and drier than today.
Medieval records of ferrets in Britain are few and far between and are all concerned with the fur trade. The earliest perhaps is an Act of King David of Scotland (1124-1153) where a 'timmer' (40 skins) of 'sable firretis' attracted an export tax of four pence, the same as for beaver, wild-cat and other fur-bearers. Were these really ferrets, or was there confusion with wild polecat, which is almost black like a sable? However, records relating to keeping rabbits are much more common, and here I think we are on safer ground. Rabbits, then as now, were well known to cause havoc in crops and gardens, so they were confined in warrens and where there's a warren, there'd be a warrener, or gamekeeper, who may have kept ferrets. Coming originally from sunnier climes, the rabbit was still poorly adapted to cope with the British winter, and it seems they required some careful husbandry for them to flourish and, eventually, acclimatise. The history of warrens is quite well understood from both written sources and archaeology - they were built specially to contain the rabbit colony and were protected by a moat (to keep the rabbits in) and pale (a fence to keep predators out). Rabbit was considered a great luxury and most medieval abbeys and manorial estates maintained warrens, or 'coneygarths', as a source of high status meat and fur, and the many place-names that contain 'warren' or 'coney' refer to these artificial warrens. Many of these ancient warrens still
Two ladies ferreting for rabbits on a pillow mound. What the lady with the net is going to do next is anyone's guess. Look at the ferret's tail (From St Mary's Psalter, English, c.1320AD)
If all else fails, you can obviously just whack them with clubs - very sporting! This wouldn't work unless the warren was enclosed to stop the rabbits escaping. (from St Mary's Psalter, English, c.1320AD
exist as visible features in the landscape, especially from the air. Close to the warrens were lodges providing accommodation for the warrener and space and facilities for processing the rabbits. These are well documented with some even surviving, as they are substantial well-constructed houses, often with a look-out tower. A quick search on the 'Heritage Gateway' website produced 552 recorded rabbit warrens and 1,382 'pillow mounds', the characteristic regularly-shaped hummocks that once formed the warrens. Ferrets were likely to be a necessary adjunct to managing warrens, though there were other very efficient methods for harvesting the rabbits without their aid. Medieval manuscript illustrations and other early pictorial sources show the use of ferrets in pillow-mounds, often contained within little baskets and smartly equipped with muzzles and occasionally little bells.
Archaeology is well known for filling in the gaps where history remains silent, particularly where the details of people's everyday lives are concerned. Of course what the archaeologist finds depends entirely on where they choose to dig and what they think you are looking for. When it comes to ferrets, one is hardly likely to find much in the way of equipment, or where ferrets were kept, their needs were too simple and are hardly likely to be recognizable. The sites of warrener's lodges are known, but have rarely been investigated archaeologically. However one, Lodge Farm close to Badbury Warren on the National Trust's Kingston Lacy Estate in Dorset, was excavated in the late 1980s and rabbit bones along with bones identified as ferret were reported, though no date was given. So, ferret bones do survive, but where would you expect to find them? Probably not where archaeologists choose to dig and, being relatively small, might not be collected or recognized.
Systematic bone recovery on excavations by sieving, followed by analysis, is a relatively recent development but one that is seen as increasingly important to understand the economics of a site. In York (my home patch) this has been undertaken extensively since the early 1970s but, amongst the many thousands of bones recovered and identified, there are just two finds of polecat bones, and both are from the excavations at Coppergate (now the site of the Jorvik Viking Centre), one dated to the 9th-10thC and the other 15thC. Being identified as polecat rather than ferret, it is probably both finds relate to the processing of furs.
Looking more broadly, a survey was undertaken in 2003 by an MSc student at York University of a very large sample of published archaeological reports listing bones of fur-bearing animals found on sites in England excavated over the previous thirty years or so. Of the impressively large database of records assembled rabbit bones are well represented, especially from the 16thC onwards when feral rabbit colonies (escapees from managed warrens) were worth exploiting. Rabbit became available to all and in York, as in most other urban sites, rabbit bones are common constituent in kitchen waste. In the same survey, just twelve records were found for polecat & polecat/ferret. Given the difficulty of telling the bones of the two species apart, I'm tempted to treat them here as a group. Of the twelve, two examples are pre-conquest, so must be polecat, and two are post-medieval from village contexts and therefore possibly ferret. The remaining eight are quite interesting, as three are from Medieval rural/village contexts; two are from high medieval ecclesiastical contexts; two are from 'high status' early medieval contexts; and one is from a late medieval castle site.
This is a very small sample to draw any conclusions from, and there's also the bias for excavating historically interesting or important sites, but why should you find either polecat or ferret on 'high status' and ecclesiastical sites at all? Both fur-processing and ferret keeping would seem to be rather commonplace activities. I have a theory to explain this. If, as we've established, the keeping of a warren in the medieval period was an expensive enterprise and the consumption of rabbit a costly luxury, then maybe the keeping of ferrets was similarly a high status activity. An opulent abbot or wealthy lord would surely be as proud of his ferrets as he was of his well-run and productive warren and, as we know, they do make rather charming pets. Wouldn't this explain why the manuscript illustrations of ferreting always show rather well-dressed men and elegant ladies inserting their rather nicely equipped ferrets into the rabbit-holes? The way they are being handled would also suggest they were pretty tame.
Rabbiting with ferret, purse-nets and dogs (detail from the Livre de Chasse de Gaston Phebus, c.1389 ). Note the muzzle on the ferret which is a 'sandy' rather than an albino.
My hunch is that ferrets in the medieval period were often high-status, valuable pets, carefully kept and bred in the houses of the rich, to use occasionally for rabbiting as a sport. A law was made in 1390 which forbad the use of ferrets (as well as snares, traps and dogs) to everyone except people with an income greater than forty shillings per year, derived from the rent of land. This was clearly intended to prevent poaching and would have effectively excluded the vast majority of the population from keeping and using ferrets. Hunting and the ritual of 'the chase' were an essential part of aristocratic life in the High Middle Ages, important for social interaction and as a measure of nobility. If the courtly hunt for stag or boar were not quite to your taste, then ferreting would seem a good alternative blood-sport, for ladies and others of a refined or less energetic nature perhaps. It also offered a sporting outlet for the slightly less well-off gentry who could not afford the more complex forms of hunt. This idea is strengthened by the inclusion of ferreting for rabbits in the beautifully illustrated 'Livre de la Chasse' of c.1389 by Gaston Phoebus, a French aristocrat and keen huntsman. Recorded in this splendid treatise are the various stages of hunting different animals, as well as describing animal behaviour, offering advice to less well-off gentry about how to enjoy hunting without bankrupting themselves, and is even sympathetic to the peasant poacher because he too has the hunting instinct.
'Lady with an Ermine' by Leonardo da Vinci (c1485) Thought to be Cecilia Gallerani, who was the mistress of Leonardo's employer, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.
It's tempting to apply this elevated view of ferrets to explain two famous paintings, Leonardo's 'The Lady with an Ermine' (1489), and the picture of Queen Elizabeth 1, also with an ermine, by Nicholas Hilliard (1585). The ermine was sometimes used in art as a representation of purity (perhaps in the case of QE1) or for pregnancy and childbirth (possibly in the case of The Lady). So, they may just be symbolic inclusions, but if they do represent real animals, then they are clearly albino ferrets, not ermine.
'Queen Elizabeth I with Ermine' (Nicholas Hilliard 1535). The ermine was symbolic of purity, and the wearing of ermine fur was a royal prerogative.
So, if my theory has any validity (and I'm prepared to stick my neck out here) our pet ferrets have a long and noble ancestry, perhaps valued as the ultimate fashion accessory by ladies of quality during the medieval period. Only gradually did ferrets become 'democratised' down through society as the various land reforms came in, and the old warrens and hunting parks fell out of use. Rabbits were able to become naturalised and formed feral colonies in the countryside and became 'fair game' for all. Before shot-guns became readily available, ferrets would often be the best, and only, way to flush rabbits from their burrows, thereby ensuring the provision of good cheap meat for domestic use and for sale at market - a practice which continues to this day. And now, hundreds of years later, ferrets have again found a place in our affections as attractive, amenable, fun-loving pets, kept and enjoyed by people in many parts of the world. As to what archaeology can tell us about ferrets in the first 500 years of their history in Britain, they certainly are 'conspicuous by their absence', but perhaps we've been looking in the wrong places. Forget looking in medieval farm-yards and cottage gardens, perhaps we should be digging in the 'pets cemeteries' on the parks and pleasure grounds of the fashion-conscious, ferret-loving nobility.