Saturday 9 July 2011

History Chickens!

Caroline & her plush chicken
by Caroline Lawrence

One of the drawbacks of being a hist-fict author living in 21st century London is that you have to keep reminding yourself about things that would have existed in first century Rome. Or a Nevada mining town in the 1860s. Or Jerusalem during the siege of Titus. Or where-ever, when-ever.

Some things don't change about town life: beggars, pickpockets, street markets... But there were lots of critters roaming about back then that you rarely see today on the Kings Road, Chelsea. Horses, stray dogs, feral cats, flocks of goats and... chickens!

ancient Roman pawprint
My husband Richard and I are both avid fans of historical fiction, especially movies and TV productions. Whenever we are watching a Western or a Sword & Sandals drama and we see poultry, we punch the air and shout "CHICKENS!" Then we mentally give the film or TV show an extra star, a kind of "chicken-ometer" of authenticity. (We have recently added a "spittoon-ometer" to gauge the historical accuracy of westerns. What is YOUR accuracy barometer?)

Forum Boarium 1855
One of my favourite things about HBO's Rome was the presence of chickens in the forum. Most set designers wouldn't dream of making Mark Anthony step over a roosting free-ranger as he went to give Caesar's funeral oration, but the producers of this programme were spot on in this respect. Most Romans would have encountered a daily hazard in steaming piles of manure, scavenging dogs, fleabitten feral cats, etc. "Friends, Romans, Countrymen... Lend me your ugh! What did I just step in?" Any Roman passing through the Forum Boarium would definitely have had to watch his or her step. Forum Boarium means "Cattle Market", but they also dealt in goats, sheep, pigs and no doubt chickens. This is one of the 10% surprises I have blogged about elsewhere.

"Only three sesterces..."
Another one of my favourite historical dramas is HBO's Deadwood. This TV series – with its amazing evocation of an 1870s mining town in the Black Hills of South Dakota – revived the Western genre in America and partly inspired my new Western Mysteries series. But the producers of Deadwood made one grievous error. NO CHICKENS! (apart from some briefly glimpsed dead chicken feet in the title sequence, that is.)

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when screenwriter Dom Shaw introduced a sacred chicken and its owner to the CBBC TV adaptation of my book The Slave-girl from Jerusalem. Floridius the Soothsayer, brilliantly played by Mark Benton, posts a sign in the forum:

Threptus & Aphrodite
Aulus Probus Floridius: Haruspex, mercator sacrarum gallinarum, orator, peritissimus ad horoscopos operaque varia. 
(Aulus Probus Floridius: Soothsayer, dealer in sacred hens, orator, very skilled in horoscopes and random tasks)

Floridius also says amusing things like: "Would you like me to sacrifice this nervous chicken to ensure the verdict? Only three sesterces?" and "The entrails of the sacred chickens never lie!" Also, he falls into the fountain a lot.

Most authors would be peeved if a screenwriter introduced a major character into an adaptation of their story. But I loved Floridius so much that I gave him a walk-on part in the final Roman Mystery, The Man from Pomegranate Street. Then I let him have a bigger part in the second volume of Roman Mini-Mysteries, as sidekick to an 8-year-old beggar-boy detective named Threptus. And finally I conceived an entire spin-off series starring the two of them.

And all because of them chickens. 

You can read "Threptus and the Sacred Chickens" in The Legionary from Londinium & other Mini-Mysteries

Caroline's new Roman Mysteries spinoff series will debut in February 2012 with The Sewer Demon. It will be illustrated by Helen Forte who drew Threptus and the nervous chicken above.

Caroline Lawrence's latest book, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, is a western mystery for children 9+. You can listen to an excerpt from the audiobook HERE.

For more information about Caroline and her books visit


Katherine Langrish said...

I agree - it's always great when writers or producers add those important little details of everyday life which would have been so commonplace. Free range animals definitely. And what about outhouses - toilets! There's even a story from one of the sagas which is entirely set in a communal toilet built for King Olav's vikings. I sometime tell it in schools: the kids love it.

catdownunder said...

Oh what fun - I purromise not to chase the chickens! One of the things I love about good historical fiction is the little details about ordinary, everyday life - what the beds were like or what they ate and (often) how uncomfortable it must have been.

adele said...

Nobody here but us chickens! Lovely post, Caroline.

Sue Purkiss said...

Hurrah for the chickens! I shall look out for them from now on...