Drunken cocks & bear baiting

More snippets on London from the 16th Century Swiss tourist Thomas Platter

There is also in the city of London not far from the horse-market, which occupies a large site, a house where cock-fights are held annually throughout three quarters of the year (for in the remaining quarter they told me it was impossible since the feathers are full of blood), and I saw the place, which is built like a theatre.  In the centre on the floor stands a circular table covered with straw and with ledges round it, where the cocks are teased and incited to fly at one another, while those with wagers as to which cock will win sit closest around the circular disk, but the spectators who are merely present on their entrance penny sit around higher up, watching with eager pleasure the fierce and angry fight between the cocks, as these wound each other to death with spurs and beaks.  And the party whose cock surrenders or dies loses the wager; I am told that stakes on a cock often amount to many thousands of crowns, especially if they have reared the cock themselves and brought their own along.  For the master who inhabits the house has many cocks besides, which he feeds in separate cages and keeps for this sport, as he showed us.  He also had several cocks, none of which he would sell for less than twenty crowns; they are very large but just the same kind as we have in our country.  He also told us that if one discovered that the cocks’ beaks had been coated with garlic, one was fully entitled to kill them at once. He added too, that it was nothing to give them brandy before they began to fight, adding what wonderful pleasure there was in watching them.

Every Sunday and Wednesday in London there are bearbaitings on the other side of the water. . . . The theatre is circular, with galleries round the top for the spectators; the ground space down below, beneath the clear sky, is unoccupied.  In the middle of this place a large bear on a long rope was bound to a stake, then a number of great English mastiffs were brought in and shown first to the bear, which they afterwards baited one after another: now the excellence and fine temper of such mastiffs was evinced, for although they were much struck and mauled by the bear, they did not give in, but had to be pulled off by sheer force, and their muzzles forced open with long sticks to which a broad iron piece was attached at the top.  The bears’ teeth were not sharp so they could not injure the dogs; they have them broken short.  When the first mastiffs tired, fresh ones were brought in to bait the bear.

3 Comments

  • November 17, 2009 - 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think Animal Protection was quite as popular then as now. But this activity does still occur throughout the world. There were all sorts of wild animals in early modern London; they were captured and brought to England as curiosities, as were many ‘exotic people’.

  • November 17, 2009 - 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never really understood bear-baiting. They hinder the bear so it can’t win, and yet it has to survive because it’s an expensive animal and needed for next time. So when did they step in and declare the winner?

    Of course, dog-fighting and worse still goes on so we shouldn’t really be surprised by the madness of this. Humans are the same throughout history.

  • November 17, 2009 - 10:43 am | Permalink

    Bears really did have a hard time of it.

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