Respect the Cock

Dear CF,

I learned yesterday that in my city one can legally own no more than 12 chickens. This puzzled me. Why 12? At first I thought it might have to do with egg packaging—grocery stores do tend to sell chicken thighs and breasts in packages of six or twelve. Maybe we’ve just internalized the base-12 principle when it comes to birds.

Wrong. Today I discovered why. It has to do with chicken family values, which consist—according to William Harvey, my scientist du jour—of exactly one rooster and, ideally, ten hens. (I know that’s only 11. I imagine city planning officials saw fit to permit a spare.)

William Harvey is justly famous for accurately describing the double circulation of the blood in his “Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.” It’s a rousing story of perseverance and smarts overcoming ignorance and odds. We can rejoice that after a lifetime of bitter struggle (and friendship with Hobbes, which amount to the same thing), he watched his discovery gain public acceptance.

He’s less known for his treatise on animal reproduction, a tome called “On Generation” that offers a detailed and sometimes lyrical examination of the sex lives of (mainly) chickens.

Why chickens? you ask. Harvey thought you might:

Among male animals there is none that is more active or more haughty and erect, or that has stronger powers of digestion than the cock, which turns the larger portion of his food into semen; hence it is that he requires many wives—ten or even a dozen [you see? The city officials compromised.] … Now those males that are so vigorously constituted as to serve several females are larger and handsomer, and in the matter of spirit and arms excel their females in a far greater degree than the males of those that live attached to a single female.

In case you aren’t convinced (warning, graphic imagery ahead):

The cock, therefore, as he is gayer in his plumage, better armed, more courageous and pugnacious, so is he replete with semen, and so apt for repeated intercourse, that unless he have a number of wives he distresses them by his frequent assaults; he not only invites but compels them to his pleasure, and leaping upon them at inconvenient and improper seasons, (even when they are engaged in the business of incubation) and wearing off the feathers from their backs, he truly does them an injury.

If you can get past the ick of that bit, I ask you to imagine the methodology involved in investigating the following in his capacity as natural philosopher-cum-poultry pornographer:

It is certain that the cock in coition emits his “geniture,” commonly called semen, from his sexual parts, although he has no penis, as I maintain; because his testes and long and ample vas deferentia are full of this fluid. But whether it issues in jets, with a kind of spiritous briskness and repeatedly as in the hotter viviparous animals, or not, I have not been able to ascertain.

Not having perfected the art of chicken-pleasing, Harvey nonetheless movingly describes the hen’s sexual experience:

after connection, and brimful of satisfaction, she shakes herself for joy, and, as if already possessed of the richest treasure, as if gifted by supreme Jove the preserver with the blessing of fecundity, she sets to work to prune and ornament herself. The pigeon, particularly that kind which comes to us from Africa, expresses the satisfaction she feels from intercourse in a remarkable manner; she leaps, spreads her tail, and sweeps the ground with its extremity, she pecks and prunes her feathers—all her actions are as if she felt raised to the summit of felicity by the gift of fruitfulness.

Unfortunately I think poetry trumps science here since he later stipulates that although the hen doesn’t enjoy sex, she gets quite a kick out of giving birth:

[the hen] loudly complains during intercourse and struggles against it; but in parturition, although the egg be very large in comparison with the body and the orifice of the uterus, and it does nothing to further its exit, (as is customary with the young of viviparous animals,) yet she brings forth easily and without pain, and immediately afterwards commences her exultations; and with her loud cackling calls the cock as it seems to share in her triumph.

Luckily there are gentler exempla of chicken-love out there.  In Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chauntecleer tells the chief of his seven wives, Pertelote (yes, only seven—he wasn’t as courageous, pugnacious or replete with semen as his seventeenth-century brethren) that he especially likes the scarlet-red around her eyes. He says (in poor but well-intentioned Latin) that “woman is man’s joy and all his bliss.” He adds, tenderly:

For when I feel a-night your soft side

Albeit that I may nat on yow ride,

For that oure perche is made so narrow, allas!

I am so full of joy and of solas (pleasure),

That I defy both swevene (dream) and dream.

I like the blending of tones here—the mellifluousness of “joy and solas,” the problems of interior design and the cheerful bawdry of “on you ride.” I like, too, that this is told by the Nun’s Priest.

There are later precedents, too—Early Modern Whale alerted me to the existence of George Wilson’s 1607 masterpiece The Commendation of Cockes, and Cock-fighting; Wherein is shewed, that Cocke-fighting was before the coming of Christ, in which Wilson hopefully ventriloquizes the wives’ reaction to their husband’s habit of cockfiting: “So it would incite, and cause them to say unto themselves, wee are induced and perswaded, nay, in a manner we are even compelled, and as it were inforced to love our husbands Cockes, and to make much of them…”

Wilson adds that the cocks are ideal models: “they [i.e. cocks] doe shew unto them a good and a perswasive example, how they should love, regard, defend, and cherish us.”

Harvey has a lot more to say about chicken-love—seventy-some “exercises,” in fact, some of which mention in passing (though without the same poetic interest) the sexual behaviors of human females—but I thought a tidbit would suffice. (You might be interested in his smaller treatise “On Parturition.”)

For now, I leave you with his rebuttal of one account of a potential function of women’s orgasm, and a strident piece of rhetoric concerning woman-wetness and man-sperm:

I am greatly surprised how physicians, particularly those among them who are conversant with anatomy, should pretend to support their opinions by means of two arguments especially, … viz., from the shock and resolution of the forces and the effusion of fluid which women at the moment of the sexual orgasm frequently experience, they argue that all women pour out a seminal fluid, and that this is necessary to generation.

But passing over the fact that … all women … do not experience any such emission of fluid, and that conception is nowise impossible in cases where it does not take place, for I have known several, who without anything of the kind were sufficiently prolific, and even some who after experiencing such an emission and having had great enjoyment, [go Harvey!] nevertheless appeared to have lost somewhat of their wonted fecundity; and then an infinite number of instances might be quoted of women who, although they have great satisfaction in intercourse, still emit nothing, and yet conceive….

[Now things get a bit more strained:]

The other argument is drawn from the genital organs of women, the testes, to wit … which are held to serve for the preparation of the spermatic fluid. I, for my part, greatly wonder how any one can believe that from parts so imperfect and obscure, a fluid like the semen, so elaborate, concoct and vivifying, can ever be produced, endowed with force and spirit and generative influence adequate to overcome that of the male; for this is implied in the discussion concerning the predominance of the male or the female, as to which of them is to become the agent and efficient cause, which the matter and pathic principle.

How, [he continues] should such a fluid get the better of another concocted under the influence of a heat so fostering, of vessels so elaborate, and endowed with such vital energy?—how should such a fluid as the male semen be made to play the part of mere matter?—But of these things more hereafter.

Hereafter,

Millicent

2 Responses to Respect the Cock

  1. Louise says:

    As a keeper and observer of chickens myself, I liked this post very much. And as a woman too…!

  2. Millicent says:

    Hi Louise! How many roosters do you have at the moment? In your expert opinion, is the Berkeley city code to be justified? Is twelve the magic number?

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