Spancels: Cuffing the Chicken

Cuffing the chicken?

If you’re like me, that mental image is too amusing for words. I mean, we own chickens. They’re not the most graceful animals. So picturing one trying to get around in some sort of cuffs is downright hilarious!

Seriously, though, why on earth would you want to cuff a chicken?

First off, before answering that question, you might be wondering…

What’s a spancel?

Basically, it’s an animal hobble. Usually a length of rope twisted to produce two hoops to go around the animal’s legs, and another smaller loop with a knob (made of wood or knotted rope) meant to fasten through it and bind the legs together – thus minimizing the animal’s movement. As time went on, different materials were used. But for the period we’re focusing on, illustration a and illustration b seen below, are good examples of  a period-appropriate spancel.


Now before those of you unfamiliar with agricultural work cry foul and shout out “animal cruelty”, let’s stop and take this particular tool in the context of its use.

As it turns out, in the Middle Ages the Irish had a very good reason for restraining certain animals – least of all, an unruly chicken.

In his book Cattle Lords and Clansmen, Nerys Patterson discusses the management of agricultural animals in early Ireland. I found it interesting to note that Irish law had some pretty hefty fines for individuals who didn’t manage their animals well. As he elaborated on the measure farmers took to keep their animals under control, I came across this passage…

If hens broke out of their spancels (flexible hoops, tying the legs), and got into someone’s house, where they could steal, spill, or waist grain (griddle cakes and porridge would be made on the domestic fire); if they got into the enclosure of the ring fort, where they might swallow bees; damage leeks, the red-dye plant, roid, and herbs; if they got out of the ring fort, where they might cause damage (to the grain) in the kiln, mill, stacks of corn, barn fields or vegetable garden.

Well that made a ton of sense to me. Chickens can be quite destructive when it comes to vegetation and grains. Our own chickens are free range, and during the spring and summer when the plants are shooting up, they do a descent job of stripping those plants bare. We learned early on that if we wanted to maintain any sort of garden, it would have to be encased in chicken wire.

In early Ireland, communities were close. No individual really owned his own land in the sense that we understand owning land today. Instead, all land belonged to the clan. That land was parceled out to certain individuals to be kept for certain uses – fields for farmland, pastures for animal herds and so on. While higher members of the society may well possess their own animals, those very animals might be kept in a communal pasture. Others were kept in or near their homes.

A portion of all crops and animals produced in the clan’s tuath (territorial lands) would be distributed to the king of that tuath. The king of the tuath would keep some for himself and his household. The rest he would set aside as render to his over-king. This ensured loyalties and gained the clan a measure of protection from that over-king. Any produce kept by the local populace would then be distributed among the clan via trade or sale in the oenach or assembly, which served as a kind of local market, among other things.

Now if you were living in early Ireland, you couldn’t very well have your chickens getting into your neighbor’s corn field or eating the local beekeeper’s bees. Not only would that make them very mad, it would limit the corn and honey crop meant for the entire clan!

Can we say, “No corn and honey for you,”?

Of course, not all animals needed to be bound in spancels. Most were kept sufficiently corralled in fencing or some other enclosure. In the instance of the chicken, one can assume it was a pet of sorts and a repeat offender that required more severe measures of restraint.

Personally, the only measures I’d take with a troublesome chicken would be turning it into soup. But hey! Maybe it was their only chicken or a prized chicken. Who are we to judge without understanding the circumstances, right?


The spancels’ more practical use was meant for horses and cows. A milk cow would be placed in spancels to restrain her movement during milking, then released afterward. Horses were hobbled for a number of reasons. Sometimes for training purposes. Most of the time spancels were used when turning a horse out to graze where you didn’t want the animal to wander too far away. In this manner the horse is free to roam for food without being tethered to one spot – and not too difficult to catch.

So there you have it! Though not a commonly used tool for every situation, the spancel was a specialized instrument to aid in restraining animals under necessitating circumstances.

Now, heaven help us, the internet might just well be flooded with images of people cuffing a chicken just to see what it does.

*Face palm!*

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