Monthly Archives: May 2016

American robins, pickled ramps, and medieval birds in Kalamazoo

I’m not long back from a place many Brits have probably never heard of (well, unless you’re old enough to be familiar with a certain song), where the most bizarre of events takes place. The International Congress on Medieval Studies (yes, this exists) is hosted in Kalamazoo (zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo!) in the US state of Michigan. The name alone is strange enough, but in this town, of all towns and cities in the US, some 3000 medievalists from all sorts of arts and humanities fields, from all over America, Europe, and further afield, have been assembling for the last 51 years on one weekend in May to present new research, network, smooge and drink. Can any other town in the world truly say it is overrun by medievalists?! (Well, Leeds actually, which decided to copy the Kalamazoo format.)

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I was a Kalamazoo (and US) rookie, but I have been initiated: Bell’s, Waldo’s, ramps (I still can’t quite get the Virginian pronunciation of these things), the Saturday dance …  The travel, admittedly, was horrendous: three hours getting through Chicago customs (no really, the officers are lovely people), then a seven hour standby because I’d missed my connecting flight. Fortunately, I managed to get on the last plane out that night because some other poor sap hadn’t made it on time. I’ve never been livid and joyous with relief all at once. If I believed in God I’d have asked him to bless everything and everyone, but instead I just offer personal blessings to all coincidences that put me on that plane. Ironically, all the flights were only entirely booked up because of the Congress (who visits Kalamazoo the rest of the year?) Anyway, I did make it to Western Michigan University campus that night, and finding the canteen shut, I wandered down the boulevard to find an empty burger joint, sat alone eating my chips, then retired to my little undergraduate breeze block room.

The birds, however, saw me all right. It’s not often I get to take advantage of an avian double-whammy reason to visit a new place. I’d come to Kalamazoo to talk on some research I will publish later this year (on birds’ voices and translation theories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls), which went down very well (and I intend to write more on this in my next post for the medievalists reading this!), but it was the real birds that did it for me. The area is well wooded, so it wasn’t difficult to notch up plenty of new species just on campus: common grackle, red-winged blackbird, American robin, downy woodpecker, great crested flycatcher, blue jay, cedar waxwing … The Congress times itself perfectly with the great spring migration, so I got off campus when I could to nearby Walden wood to see what passerines might be moving through: palm warbler, Tennessee warbler, grey catbird, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager.

The best of all, though, was suddenly and silently just beside me on a roadside path on the woodland fringe – my first hummingbird.

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Source: Wikipedia Commons

Pelagic Anglo-Saxon souls

I’ve spent the last couple of months devoted to re-writing the very first chapter I ever wrote for my PhD. In many ways, it’s been the hardest task. Returning to something I wrote five years ago was always likely to make me balk, but quality of writing and ideas aside, there is the accumulated mass of four other chapters to cohere with those original thoughts now, and all the developments in methodology and theory that come with  that body of work. Needless to say it’s taking a while, but here’s the basic nub (which I offer now as much to clarify it to myself among the mess of sections and paragraphs that currently exists!)

The two Old English poems I discuss in this opening chapter, The Seafarer and The Wanderer, both expound a traditional Christian vision of the soul’s journey on earth to reach home (OE ham); heaven. Technically it’s the body that does the journeying, of course, but it’s for the soul’s sake. Whether we are to read the journey literally or not has been much discussed, but either way, the speakers of both poems are involved in a maritime pilgrimage of sorts – they take to the sea, probably voluntarily, to seek the ultimate destination. It’s not so far fetched to imagine this literally; certain monastic individuals (see here, entry for the year 891) did, in fact, do precisely this – set sail in flimsy coracles on sea-bound wanderings (peregrinatio pro amore Dei ‘pilgrimage for the love of God’), often headed for remote, pinhead islands in the Atlantic from which to live out bleak, ascetic lives (Robert Macfarlane discusses this practice and visits specific locations in the first chapter of The Wild Places).

What I’ve been researching and writing about, though, is the role of birds in all of this. The convention of representing souls as birds certainly predates both of these poems in Latin, Norse and Germanic cultures (and post-dates; think Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner). It appears several times in scripture (as a sparrow [passer]), and almost certainly influenced one of the most famous instances of all time; Bede’s analogy of fleeting human life as a sparrow in his telling of the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria in the seventh century. The king’s councillor puts the case for converting thus:

“Such”, he said, “the present life of men on earth seems to me, king, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us: as if, while you were sitting at dinner with your leaders and ministers in the winter time, with the fire lit in the centre and the upper room filled with heat, with the raging winter storms of winter rains or snow everywhere outside, a sparrow were to arrive and fly swiftly through the house. As it enters through one door and soon exits through another, during the time when it is inside it is not touched by the winter storm, but nevertheless, after the briefest space of calm, when it has hastened forth, turning from winter and soon back to winter, it escapes your eyes. Thus this life of men appears for a moment; what follows, or what came before, we absolutely do not know.” (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.12, trans. B. Colgrave)

Just to indicate the legacy of Bede’s description, here’s how the twentieth-century poet Louis MacNeice reimagines the metaphor:

This indoors flying makes it seem absurd,
Although it itches and nags and flutters and yearns,
To postulate any other life than now.
(‘Dark Age Glosses’)

Given the religious content, and the popularity of Bede’s text, it seems likely that the poets (or poet – it’s possible one person wrote both; they appear in the same manuscript) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer were influenced by the sparrow-soul image. Moreover, though, these writers specifically include real birds in their texts, which preface the implicit references to bird-souls later on. In The Seafarer, we actually get birds named:

Hwilum yflete song
dyde ic me to gomene,     ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg     fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende     fore medodrince.
Stormas þær stanclifu beotan     þær him stearn oncwæð
isigfeþera;     ful oft þæt earn bigeal
urigfeþra … .

[Sometimes the swan’s song I did for my game, the gannet’s sound and curlew’s cry for man’s laughter, the gull’s singing for the mead-drink. There storms beat stone cliffs, there the tern answers them, icy-feathered; very often the eagle screams, dewy-feathered… .]

The Wanderer‘s reference is fleeting, and far less specific, but the birds are real and doing birdy things nonetheless:

Đonne onwæcneð eft     wineleas guma,
gesihð him biforan     fealwe wegas
baþian brimfuglas     brædan feþra
hreosan hrim ond snaw     haggle gemenged

[Then the friendless man wakes again, sees before him dark waves, bathing seabirds spreading feathers, falling rime and snow mingled with hail.]

What has particularly intrigued me is not just that the souls of humans might be depicted as birds, but that they are depicted as seabirds (brimfuglas). The type of birds may well have been suggested to the poets by the ‘life is like a tempestuous journey at sea’ trope, but both these poems, to me, draw their suitable metaphors for the wandering soul from wider Anglo-Saxon knowledge about birds, and seabirds specifically.


The huilpan has never been definitively identified by scholars, but cognates with other Germanic languages like Dutch suggest that the curlew is a very likely candidate. There is no doubt that this species’ haunting call must have attracted the attention of Anglo-Saxons as much as it does us today. (Source: Wikipedia Commons.)

The migrating or pelagic seabird provides the poet(s) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer with a potent image for the migrating soul partly because these species inhabit liminal, coastal territories, the uneasy boundary between the joys associated with the earthly splendours for which the speakers in both poems yearn, and the paradoxically desired hardships sought on the rough waters. Seabirds breed on terrestrial margins, but travel for vast distances to feed, often for huge spans of time. They inhabit realms that might seem, well, otherworldly. The religious journeys of both human bodies and souls, that is, are so well depicted not only by birds generally, whose most noticeable ability is flying, but by birds who master this skill over nonhuman habitats – mysterious and dangerous seas that stretch beyond the human eye. That Anglo-Saxon poets responded to the natural aspects of these richly suggestive locations as part of their poetic imaginings seems very significant. Seabirds, it seems, did feature in the cultural identities of coastal areas in Anglo-Saxon England. There is a series of coins dating from the eighth century, for instance, largely distributed in southern coastal regions, which portrays what appear to be tall waders. And zooarchaeological work on at least one coastal high-status site, has unearthed numerous sea or water bird species,  including herring gull, common gull, kittiwake, dunlin and curlew (see here).

The Anglo-Saxons were certainly aware of birds’ ability to migrate, in the sense understood in ornithological terms. Aristotle’s observations on birds were available to churchmen through Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century Etymologies (XII.7), the last of which comments, for instance, on how birds like the swallow and stork are ‘migratory and return at certain seasons’, whilst others ‘stay in the same location’. But the Anglo-Saxons, keenly aware of their own migrations over the ‘gannet’s bath’ (OE ganot’s bæþ; e.g., Beowulf, 1861) and wary of invasions from Nordic foreigners across the North Sea, must have understood and responded to birds’ migrations in the broadest sense, too, as creatures seemingly always on the move, soon to be gone and out of sight. In two riddles from the same manuscript of The Seafarer and The Wanderer, a swan is defined by its unreachable flights far ofer folc ‘over people’, and a barnacle goose is described according to the myth that its unfathomable disappearance is explained by its origin as a mollusc. They are equated with frightening but compelling territories outside human knowledge, like the ‘wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia’ to which Isidore links birds’ unknowable wanderings in his introductory passages to birds and which leads to their most characteristic quality, that which gives them their Latin name (according to Isidore; a lot of his etymologies are highly dubious or downright ridiculous!)): ‘They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways’.

Seabirds, at home on the pathless oceans that the speakers of The Seafarer and The Wanderer perversely seek out, best embody this marvel of avian behaviour, and provide the ideal metaphor for human souls pursuing a mysterious celestial destination beyond known lands.

Postscript: the ideas explored in this post are now to be published in an article submitted to English Studies. For a copy of the pre-submission script, see here.