Monthly Archives: October 2015

Bird bodies

A student I taught last year for AS Level literature gave me a card a few weeks ago to say thank you. She knows me well – her handy work combines my great loves. You can see Chaucer up the top – a flying … trout, he seems to be. Not sure how he got up on the cliff with the puffins. I’m not sure where she obtained that photo of me either. Still.


What this student didn’t realise is how closely she touches upon my current fascination and area of research. In fact, her misfit human-bird bodies are precisely what I’ve been writing about for the last month or so. Hybrid anthropo-birds were all the rage in late medieval art as well. In a previous blog, I wrote about conceptions of multiple-bodies in the Middle Ages. This was a particular fascination for medieval minds – metamorphosis, hybridity, psychosomatic unities. Ovid had a lot to do with this: there was a massive surge of interest – a craze even – in his Metamorphoses from the 12th century onwards, but this was also in response to increased preoccupations and concerns with theological dilemmas – the relation between body and soul (particularly after death); transubstantiation (was bread and wine really transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ?)

I hope to write more fully in the future on bird bodies in John Gower’s ‘Tereus’ – about his goshawk body during the rape of Philomena; about Philomena’s various metaphorical bird morphs; about the power of birds’ voices; about the final transformations into three birds at the end which entwines human identities with species’ ontologies. Gower devotes a lot to this, far beyond Ovid; well over one hundred lines about the habits and characters of the nightingale, swallow and lapwing (a hoopoe in most versions).

This was serious stuff, this metamorphosis. For  now, though (because I promised myself I’d keep this post short!), what really struck me about my student’s artwork was how close it comes to the witty, bizarre and more frivolous nature of marginal illuminations in late medieval manuscripts. Medieval artists could have a great deal of fun, too, imagining how human and bird forms might combine.

Feudal Custom of Aragon; c. 1290.
Feudal Custom of Aragon; c. 1290.
British Library, Harley 7026   f. 16
British Library, Harley 7026 f. 16

The twitching chirrup

The birds have been a continuous, colourful presence ever since we set up our modest balcony ‘garden’. The entire-wall-height Georgian window of our living room looks out immediately onto our copper beeches and feeders where we can watch the always coming-and-going of chaffinches, house sparrows, starlings and wood pigeons, of coal tits, blue tits, great tits, and nuthatches.

But most of all it’s the goldfinches. They are a near permanent presence and delight – up to ten in a charm, in all stages of plumage, from juveniles to resplendent adults right there on our window box in crimson and black and yellow. Their calls are often what draws me from my study to wander through and watch them again. There are the fluting notes which have made them popular caged song birds for millenia, but it’s also the jitter of electricty, the kick and fizz down live wires. Swallows do it too. In John Gower’s version of Ovid’s tale of Philomena (c.1390), her sister Procne is transformed into a swallow and she ‘chitreth out in her langage’ (Confessio Amantis, Book 5). Chitter is right. It’s where modern chatter comes from, and in medieval usage, the word is specifically applied to birds: for Chaucer, too, the swallow ‘made hire cheterynge’ (Troilus and Criseyde) and Trevisa, an encyclopedist, mentions the ‘chiteryng of briddes’ (Properties of Things). The word conveys the sound marvellously.  But it was also derogatory in medieval terms – often accompanied with jargoun to describe bird sounds because it denotes their seemingly nonsensical twitterings and is associated with the gossiping of women!

It’s well known that goldfinches had a rich history in late medieval and Renaissance art (for which I direct any curious readers to Mark Cocker’s two great tomes – Birds Britannica and Birds and People). Their red faces were symbolic of Christ’s blood, and the yellow linked to a long-lived tradition in which the colour was considered curative.

Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’). Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

As with birds generally in medieval art and literature, however, alongside the allegory in which all nature was believed a book or mirror of God’s divine scheme, there was room for real birds, palpable and material creatures. The goldfinch already had its name in the late Anglo-Saxon period (goldfinc), but it is also listed in one glossary as þisteltwige. The popular interpretation of this name is thistle-tweaker, which sounds lovely, but there’s actually no philological evidence for it. What is apparent, however, is the close observation so often implicit in Old English bird names. They are not straight-forward translations of Latin, but original terms that denote actual attention to plumage, habitat, behaviour: glida (red kite); colmase (coal tit(mouse)); wudecocc (woodcock); snite (snipe – a reference to its long bill) or haefenblaete (heather-bleater!); hegesugge (hedge sparrow – literally hedge sucker). The goldfinch is described metonymically, according to its familiar food type (the linnet is linetwige).

Goldfinch - Sherborne Missal (c. 1400)
Goldfinch – Sherborne Missal (c. 1400)

Mark Cocker has remarked how the goldfinch’s ubiquitous presence in sacred art is ‘as strong a candidate as any to illuminate how vastly different were our ancestors’ views of nature’. I’m not sure, on more than one account. Alongside the etymology of its name, depictions of the goldfinch in marginal illuminations of medieval texts like the Sherborne Missal suggest, at least, that the intricate plumage was part of the artist’s fascination (although no doubt he worked from a skin). But in our times, too, whilst we quite rightly admit that we are ‘only part of life’s purpose’, we still seem to find the same irresistible desire to create metaphors or symbols from birds, even if that ‘red face and golden wing bars owes us nothing’. My title for this post is taken from Ted Hughes’s description of a goldfinch in his poem ‘The Laburnum Top’, but my favourite appearance of the bird in modern poetry comes from Paul Farley. In ‘Paperboy and Air Rifle’ (Tramp in Flames), a young boy shoots a goldfinch whilst out on his after-school round. The final stanza conveys boyish glee, but when the rest of the bird’s charm flies overhead, there is a note of remorse, and the magnificence and beauty of all life is apparent in their flight on a summer’s evening which lead’s the boy’s eyes upwards to new and wonderful possibilities presented by the natural world:

… I’ve never been happier than the time
I got a goldfinch, looked it over in my hand –
just a line of blood between the mandibles –
and, taking the shortcut through a thistle field,
a summer’s worth of goldfinches, the rest of his charm,
flew with me, a little ahead of me, from crown to crown.