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

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