Doves and pigeons were an important resource in the Middle Ages, valued primarily for their meat, eggs, and feathers. Falconries used them as quarry, and their guano was a highly sought-after fertilizer. In southern Europe, it was spread on hemp fields and vineyards. In Northern Europe, it was said that pigeon guano was worth ten loads of any other type of fertilizer.
Until the 1600s, strict laws forbid anyone other than the nobility or monasteries from keeping doves and pigeons. Though some castles and manors had built-in nesting boxes, for the most part these birds were housed in freestanding structures called dovecotes. They were round, stone buildings with either a domed or conical-shaped roof. The round shape made it easier for people to collect young doves or pigeons (squabs) from the nesting boxes. Squabs were considered a delicacy.
The inside of the building had a large open space, with ledges or cubicles jutting out from the walls. Pigeons would enter and exit from openings just beneath the roof. The nests could be accessed with a ladder attached to a revolving pole called a potence.
There is some evidence that pigeons were also used for communication, but only after exposure to Middle Eastern practices during the crusades. For the most part Western Europeans had no concept of how birds migrated. (They thought that Swallows hibernated during the winter in the mud beneath ponds.) The use of homing pigeons to communicate over long distances didn’t become common throughout all of Europe until after the medieval era. However, those regions that continued to trade and communicate with the Arab world during and after the crusades began to build networks of homing pigeons. The Republic of Genoa was the most notable of these, and built towers for that purpose along the Mediterranean Sea.
Pigeons were able to deliver messages relatively reliably and quickly over hundreds of miles from their home. By feeding them in one location, and nesting them in another, they could be trained to fly back and forth between two locations. But more often, once they were released and delivered their messages, pigeons had to be transported back and forth by cart. This method of communication was not without its limitations, however. Any message sent by pigeon had to be very short, and the receiver on the other end would have to be literate enough to read it. Such messages could also be intercepted by trained falcons and hawks, or by archers.
Learn more about daily life in the Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.