A History of the British Pig by Julian Wiseman - review by Angela Carter

Angela Carter

This Little Piggy

A History of the British Pig


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A History of the British Pig is exactly what it says it is – a straightforward, somewhat bald account of the domestic pig in British agriculture since the Anglo-Saxons. There’s no romancing, no speculation, no fancy stuff; the ample illustrations richly demonstrate the characteristic, serio-grotesque, infinitely appealing nature of the pig, but Julian Wiseman keeps his objectivity, as befits a lecturer in Animal Production (University of Nottingham). Though pig-lovers will find much of interest here, this book is not a celebration of the pig.

Not that the pig is universally admired; if that were so, the word would never have become a term of abuse. (There’s a gradation of virulence, too, between ‘pig’ and ‘swine’. To call a person a pig is vulgar abuse pure and simple, implying no more than general uncouthness; but to call a person a swine is a swords or pistols matter. Why is this?)

No. The pig has had a deal of prejudice to contend with. ‘Of all the quadrupeds that we know, or at least certainly of all those that come under the husbandman’s care, the Hog appears to be the foulest, the most brutish and the most apt to commit waste wherever it goes,’ opined John Mills. He felt so strongly about pigs that he slipped this diatribe into the treatise on cattle he published in 1776.

But, then, Mills published in Dublin, and, in Ireland, the pigs were really low class, living on equal terms with the Catholic peasants, trotters in the common cauldron, snoring with them in a promiscuous heap on the earthen floor and so on. Traditionally, the pig has ever been the companion and the succour of the poor; you can eat every scrap of him, tan hide for boots and make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, if necessary. Besides, as Mao Tse Tung observed, he is ‘a manure factory on four legs’.

The pig of the poor peasants of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England was a free-range beast, foraging at will in the autumn woods consuming mash and acorns. The village swineherd tended all the pigs of the village; the lord of the manor gave them the use of the woods from August 29 to December 31.

This Anglo-Saxon pig, out in all weathers, was a tough, hardy type, about the size of a well-grown Labrador retriever, bristly, razor-backed, prick-eared, bright-eyed, sagacious looking. If he’d stuck to mash and acorns, he might have gone on gypsying about the forests until they were cut down to make the English navy, but he couldn’t resist the saplings, the new shoots, the occasional lamb.

Therefore the early Medieval pig spent more time confined indoors, where he functioned as a garbage disposal unit. ‘The housewife’s most wholesome sink’ said Gervase Markham in 1683. (What were the unwholesome sinks like?) The pig’s facility for converting kitchen refuse into palatable meat lay behind the pigswill collections on the home front in World War II, and the backyard ‘backyard pig’ policy that sought to replace the absent menfolk with a pig in every home in the country.

By the eighteenth century, the Old English pig has established itself as the most notable breed in residence in the stye, with his lop ears and chunky, assertive build, with his coat of many colours – even if most often a ‘dirty white’, he could be impressively variegated, and stippled, spotted, brindled and saddled to boot. Also somewhat shaggy of coat. The Old English on the cover of A History of the British Pig is positively curly, looking like a rug with dugs.

Meanwhile, the desire to produce the perfect pig spurred on the breeders. They introduced the Chinese pig, succulent for five thousand years, for the sake of his fat, and hybridised like billy-oh. From the hectic history of the breeds, it would appear that not only will a pig eat anything, he and, indeed, she will mate with anyone, just so long as they are, loosely speaking, other pigs.

By the mid nineteenth century, there were, as categories overriding all the various breeds, two kinds of pig – big pigs (used for bacon); and small pigs, used for pork.

The big pigs were colossal. The winning boar at the Chester Show in 1871 weighed 1148 pounds. The pig suffered the most terrible physical indignities. In America, he became merely the machine that processed maize into lard. The Poland Chinas are tubs, are barrels of lard, head and legs but the meanest afterthought.

At home, Black Dorsets grew so fat that, ‘to prevent accidents from suffocation, the pigs were supplied with pillows made from round pieces of wood. These were placed by pigmen under the snouts of the reclining beauties.’ No sooner bred to the perfect sphere than the Black Dorsets were extinct, foundering under the weight of the fat which human beings made them bear.

Julian Wiseman includes, perhaps for contrast, a picture of the Irish Greyhound, a pig as lean as a rasher of gammon, long-legged, impressively athletic looking, not an ounce of cholesterol on him , and informs us of his ability to clear a five-barred gate. He doesn’t say whether the Irish Greyhound is any relation of the famous racing pig of folklore, nor if he were best roasted or braised.

Nowadays, pigs are adjuncts of the food industry. Wiseman gives glum statistics concerning ‘food efficiency,’ that is, the relation between kilogram of food ingested and kilogram of liveweight gain. And evidently the breeders still can’t resist fiddling with the gene pool, ever in search of the formula that will produce an earthly reflection of the pure Platonic idea of a pig. ‘The British Lop is apparently being bred for a more attractive ear!’ Julian Wiseman informs us, shocked .

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