Medieval Food Facts 1 – What’s with the Turkey Legs?

Despite their popularity among the crowds at medieval fairs, turkey legs would not have been found anywhere in Europe during the middle ages.  The turkey is actually a New World bird, the only two living species of which reside in North America and Central Mexico.  Even the domesticated turkey, which produces the prodigeous drumsticks for festival consumption, is a relative of the North American wild turkey.  The bird was wholly unknown to Medieval Europe.

The confusion came from the first European explorers to America (as so much confusion does).  They mistook the wild turkey for a species of guineafowl they called the Turkey fowl, which they knew from the Turkey fowl’s importation to Central Europe from, unsurprisingly, Turkey.

The prevalence of turkey legs at medieval fairs can be mostly attributed to four things: they are economical, they are easy to carry around the fair, they are tasty, and everyone has seen at least one painting of Henry VIII holding one.  While history is mute on the first three points, conceding their self-evidence, the question of Henry’s penchant for poultry may be at issue.

Never mind for now that, depending on your definition of “medieval,” Henry himself might be anachronistic, images of the imposing Henry with an actual drumstick in hand are not as prevalent as one might imagine.  Even such pictures that may be historically accurate, though, have stubbornly failed to produce handwritten notes labeling the leg as belonging to a turkey.  Europe does boast a number of large game birds whose hindquarters could have been so ignobly immortalized, but turkeys were likely not amongst them even at the time of Henry’s death in 1547.

Of course, this year’s Sarasota Medieval Fair takes place a comfortable five centuries before Henry’s reign just to eliminate confusion.

But, yes, there will be turkey legs.

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Published in: on July 8, 2009 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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