I’m currently writing a book on birds, nature and place in our medieval past. It’s a nature book as a much as a work about medieval literature and culture. The narrative takes me all over Britain, exploring how people understood and connected to the natural world in the Middle Ages. Currently, in my first chapter, I’m on home turf in Kent writing about birdy towns and villages (including my home town, Cranbrook). I hope to post something of what I’ve produced soon, but for now, here’s a blog post on the subject of birds in place names that I wrote at the end of last year for Boydell and Brewer: https://boydellandbrewer.com/blog/world-literature/spirits-of-place-birds-in-english-place-names/
I’d never have found them two minutes later. I watched them, a pair, drop to ground after twenty minutes working the field and hedgerows and there achieve an instant metamorphosis—bird become sullen vegetation. Fixed on the spot where they went down, I located them only by their intensely yellow irises, stark and astonishing against indistinguishable feather-scrub, like a night creature’s eerily luminous eyes in singular darkness.
Short-eared owls are always a remarkable and special winter sight. They breed in northern and Scottish uplands, but their numbers are swelled from autumn onwards when continental birds disperse to new territories across the rest of more southerly Britain. Some years bring so many birds that every likely patch of land for hunting seems to have a resident pair (one year the small common just across from my in-laws, right on the edge of a busy town, had a pair that hunted each evening right among the regular dog-walkers).
The owls’ seasonal appearance makes them particularly associative of shortening, colder days. Their cryptic plumage is somehow the stuff of winter itself: matched to the subtleties and gradations of arctic tundra. It is the drab beauty of earth and grass intricacy; winter browns of loam and thorn, sedge, stubble and reed. It’s those facial markings, too, which conjure for me the year’s darkening nights—that black smudging mask framing the eyes has something of a Gothic, All Hallows spectre, a ghoulish stare that is unyielding and severe as winter itself.
That evening mist came in quickly as the sun set. It seemed to generate and rise from the earth itself, as though the field steamed with optimistic warmth. The cows became monoliths, their dark, head-down bulks forming a stone henge. To the south-east where St Peter’s church stands on a knoll, I could hear the jackdaws’ nightly Tenebrae in the tall stands of beech tree either side of the rectory. The birds continued to drift across from the west, their black forms like bonfire fragments in the red sky. Periodically and suddenly, the growing roost broke to an explosive cackling as thousands of jackdaws took flight before settling again minutes later.
By contrast, the owls hunted on in complete silence, easy and elegant on long, languid wings. The mist in the last minutes of light had consumed the whole field and the owls’ ghostly figures dissolved into whiteness.
Bit of a cheat post this one, but Boydell and Brewer have recently published an interview they conducted with me on my book, Birds in Medieval English Poetry, so thought I’d share it. Click here, or simply read the text below.
Thank you for assisting our discussion of your book, Dr Warren. To begin, could you tell us a little about how you came to write this book, which is now the second in our new series Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages. What first drew you to the natural world in literature?
When I decided to return to medieval studies after some years in teaching, it was an obvious choice for me to pursue a subject that combined a personal love of mine with literature. I knew that there was plenty to say about birds, in fact, because I’d written on this subject for my undergraduate dissertation a number of years before. Medieval literature is full of birds, and it seemed strange to me that no one had yet produced a full study examining how they are represented and what their significance is, or at least not one that seriously considered the presence and relevance of ornithological interests, rather than simply birds’ totemic aspects. Birds—as just one, conspicuous set of species in the natural world—were clearly of profound interest to medieval thinkers and writers, and I wanted to explore how and why. So that’s how it all began, but the project inevitably took on much bigger proportions for me as it progressed.
Do animals receive enough attention in medieval scholarship?
I think it’s more a question of do they receive the right sort of attention. Animals haven’t been ignored in medieval scholarship, but there is a long tradition of thinking that medieval poets weren’t really interested in actual species themselves; it was what they meant that was important. Birds, specifically, have always received short shrift in ornithological histories, which tend to deal with Aristotle, and then skip to the 16th century. The medieval chapter in these histories is always by far and away the shortest—it’s a respectful nod to the more familiar textual references that exist, and which suggest that birds must have been observed on some level, but the popular attitude, at least, is that medieval people ‘knew little about birds, and cared even less’ (Stephen Moss, A Bird in a Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching).
With the spike in 21st century ecological sensibilities, though, there has been a revolution right across disciplines. Ecocriticism and animal studies have achieved considerable popularity and influence in medieval scholarship over the last decade, striving to emphasise the reality of nonhuman creatures in life and text, and demonstrate that how medieval people thought about the natural world and their relationship to it was much more complex and diverse than we have previously thought. So yes, I do think animals are receiving the right sort of attention in medieval scholarship now, but there’s still some way to go (if you look at how many panels there on nonhuman topics at the big medieval congresses each year in Kalamazoo and Leeds compared to other more traditional topics, there is a very striking disparity).
Your book discusses a rich span of poetry, from Anglo Saxon texts through to Chaucer and Gower. Do you have a favourite?
I do have a particular fondness for The Seafarer. There’s something about the early Christian asceticism and the tempestuous seascape in which this plays out that really appeals to me; I suppose it chimes with my love of bleak, people-less spaces, like marshes. There is something so affecting and powerful about the intimate linking of the exile and the wild nonhuman, and the fact that birds are a conspicuous part of the environment and the Seafarer’s experience is fascinating to me. Seabirds are especially compelling to us humans I think, being that that they are perfectly at home in a location so alien and hostile to us—their mysterious experience is what, paradoxically, makes them such rich metaphors. I’m sure this must have genuinely been the case for those monastics seeking solitude and hardship on remote Atlantic islands like Skellig. If you’ve ever visited locations like this you’ll know you just can’t avoid the raucous presence of seabirds!
How did you come to settle on this particular selection? Did you have many to choose from?
There are so many texts to choose from, especially if you move outside European traditions and consider, e.g., Arabic or Persian texts as well. I chose only English texts because I was interested in representations of native British wild birds, and because I purposefully wanted to bring new perspectives to much-studied poems by revealing and exploring their intricate and knowledgeable depictions of birds. These birds have received attention before now, but I wanted to take this further—to look at how the ornithological elements might be part of the wider thematic interests of the texts. There is also a subsidiary thread to the book which seeks to fill in some of those gaps about medieval ornithological knowledge, for which it was useful to survey the whole span of the Middle Ages.
What place, if any, did birds hold in the everyday lives of people in the Middle Ages?
As for the everyday lives of most people, it’s very hard to know. The surviving texts of the medieval age, of course, were not written by or for, and can’t be said to represent the ‘everyday lives’ of, most people. But the written evidence does imply that for intellectual or elite milieux, at least, birds had a diverse and important status in all sorts of ways ranging from the practical to the philosophical: food, quills, hunters (and quarry) in falconry, caged songbirds, intriguing comparative subjects in theories about voice and music, allegories in bestiaries, subjects of ‘special mention’ in encyclopaedias (Bartholomew the Englishmen). In poetry, of course, birds became elevated metaphors for a whole variety of subjects, but what I aim to do in the book is show how knowledge of real birds and species (the ‘everyday’ if you like) still important in informing how these metaphors work.
Beyond this, though, it is possible to get a feel for how birds must have played a part in vernacular lore and discourses. Old English names for birds, for instance, suggest remarkable degrees of observation and listening, and their presence in Anglo-Saxon place names or charter boundaries conveys how they were acknowledged as important elements of environment (‘take the path left past the pond where the coal tit lives’, sort of thing), and there is no reason to believe that much of this didn’t descend from or wasn’t shared by your ordinary man and woman living and working in the natural world where birds are. There is no doubt that wild birds generally were much more plentiful in the Middle Ages; our modern ‘baseline’ perception is heavily distorted because we live in a world where pretty much all species, but particularly groups like farmland birds, have dramatically declined due to modern industrial practices.
Expanding on the last question, why would the presence of birds in poetry have appealed to a medieval poet or audience?
Beyond what I’ve suggested above, I think the overall thing for me is that birds are such consummate and enigmatic transformers. They complicate, escape and thwart human attempts to categorise—something I pick up on with particular reference to the Exeter Book Riddles in the book. Birds, in life and in poetry, always seems to be in some sort of ‘trans’ status and I think this has a lot to do with why they were (and are) so compelling. David Wallace has eloquently said in his recent book on Chaucer that medieval conceptions of the human condition engaged the ‘perilous art’ of aligning ‘bawdy bodies and stargazing intelligences’. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why birds were illuminating parallels—they are animals below human status in one sense, and yet occupy the ethereal heights above humans as well; they are both mundane and numinous at once.
A captivating aspect of your volume is the depiction of everyday birds and how their reality is used and transformed into metaphor. What’s your favourite example?
Again, I’m drawn to the alien, pelagic qualities of the seabirds in The Seafarer which the poet aligns with the solitary speaker, but perhaps one of the most interesting examples is the owl in The Owl and the Nightingale. Part of the poem’s sophisticated comedy, for me, is that the ‘realities’ of the eponymous birds are consistently (and knowingly, on the part of the author) confused, which causes problems when these particular qualities are transposed into metaphorical use in texts like the popular bestiaries. So, when the nightingale attacks the owl’s day-blindness (which becomes a well-known metaphor for the sinner who cannot or refuses to see the light of Christ), we are aware that profound moral ‘truths’ are being drawn up on false premises: the owl states herself in the poem that this particular ‘truth’ about owls is just plain wrong.
This book clearly demonstrates a real love for birds. Are you an avid birder yourself?
I certainly am. I birdwatch a lot in Kent where I live, particularly on the marshes up in the north of the county. It was my uncle who got me into birding when I was very young, and it’s his photos, in fact, that illustrate the book, including the striking image of flying godwits on the front cover.
Of course, you don’t need to be a birdwatcher to write about birds in medieval poetry, but I do think it has helped attune me to various nuances, such as the importance of sound or accurate observation in Old English bird names, or the ornithological aspects of certain species that clash with allegorical treatments.
What are you working on now, or will you be working on next?
Still birds! I was approached by a publisher some years back whilst writing my PhD about the possibility of producing a trade version of my thesis. So, now the monograph is finished up, I’m turning my attention to this new project. It will take some of the informative, ornithological elements of the monograph and weave these into a nature/travel-writing narrative. The first chapter is set on the Essex Marshes, particularly concerning a place called Foulness Island, to explore Old English place names, and how birds, but also the natural world more generally, are intimately observed and become a part of human conceptions of place.
Two days ago I was very excited to receive advance copies of my brand new book.
It’s been way too long since I last posted, so I think the advent of my book’s publication is an appropriate excuse to offer something now as a preview into one of the chapters. Here, then, is a little something based on chapter two, which is all about transforming trickster birds in an astounding collection of Old English riddles that only survives–and might have only ever existed–in one manuscript from the 10th century, known as the Exeter Book because it’s been at the cathedral in that city for probably all its lifetime. One of these riddle birds is a jay. A talking jay.
In recent years there’s been a lot of focus on birds’ remarkable vocal abilities. This year, as it happens, is the ‘Year of the Bird‘ for the National Geographic. Their range of articles has sought to celebrate the colourful diversity of bird life, and one focuses specifically on birds’ cognitive abilities, exploring how ingenious and imaginative some species can be.
Not surprisingly, corvids feature pretty heavily. It’s well-known that corvids top the smart bird charts because of their comparatively large forebrains with densely packed neurons. In the article, an eight-year-old girl named Gabi has befriended American crows visiting her garden who habitually bring her gifts. Corvid species, more than any other genus of bird, have demonstrated all sorts of remarkable functions (see here, here and here–for a bit of fun!) that parallel the ‘unique’ capabilities that supposedly set us humans above other creatures.
Knowledge of this ingenuity is by no means new, of course. It’s just that scientific studies now are proving the hunches or proverbial lore that has surrounded these species for millennia. Above all, it’s corvine mimcry that most captivates us, not only as a source of marvel, but because it raises questions about our own linguistic abilities. The Greeks and Romans certainly came across talking corvids. I particularly like an anecdote from Plutarch about a barber’s pet jay renowned for its vocal skills (which I came across in Jeremy Mynott’s new book), which one day, upon hearing a trumpet fanfare, falls silent for a period of time. The town’s people cannot fathom what has happened, until it reveals that it was only ‘withholding its mimetic skill while it adjusted and refashioned its voice like a musical instrument. For suddenly its voice returned … and there rang out the music of the trumpets, reproducing all its sequences and every variation in melody and rhythm’.
These abilities are certainly no exaggeration. Jays have a repertoire that can encompass a wide range of other bird species, ‘and a motorbike horn, human voice, whistled songs, barking dog, and (probably) lawnmower’. (See here for a jay mimicking a buzzard.)
When it comes to medieval knowledge of corvid mimicry, there are no shortage of examples again. One piece of classical writing on magpies, by the Roman poet Martial, was certainly known to medieval writers. He has the bird itself tell us that ‘if you did not see me, you would deny that I am a bird’ (Epigram 76). The point here, of course, is that the bird is such a good mimic that one needs to actually have the bird in sight to confirm that it is indeed a bird. It’s this aspect of avian brilliance that I love about Exeter Book Riddle 24 (see here for the Riddle in the original manuscript), which I write about in chapter two of my book.
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wræsne mine stefne,
hwilum beorce swa hund, hwilum blæte swa gat,
hwilum græde swa gos, hwilum gielle swa hafoc,
hwilum ic onhyrge þone haswan earn,
guðfugles hleoþor, hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne, hwilum mæwes song,
þær ic glado sitte. . ᚷ. mec nemnað,
swylce . ᚫ. ond . ᚱ. . ᚩ. fullesteð,
. ᚻ. ond . ᛁ . Nu ic haten eom
swa þa siex stafas sweotule becnaþ.
[I am a wondrous creature. I vary my voice: sometimes bark like a dog, sometimes bleat like a goat, sometimes honk like a goose, sometimes yell like a hawk, sometimes I mimic the ashy eagle—cry of the warbird—sometimes the kite’s voice I speak with my mouth, sometimes the gull’s song, where I sit gladly. G they name me, also Æ and R. O helps, H and I. Now I am called as these six letters clearly indicate.]
The solution to Riddle 24 is definitely a corvid species, because the speaker tells us so: those funny letters which look like something out of Lord of the Rings are Germanic runes–the Anglo-Saxon alphabet from before the days of the Roman alphabet–and when re-arranged correctly they spell out higoræ (Old English for jay, though sometimes translated as magpie). This jay gives a virtuosic performance that suggests to us how tricky, even inadvisable, it can be to categorise and label species with particular characteristics that neatly separate them from all other creatures. As the jay shows us, comically, you can get yourself tied in knots doing this! A mimicking bird is the perfect subject to get across this idea because it can convincingly incorporate the ‘unique’ voices of other creatures into its vocal range in a way that makes things we thought were defining and distinguishable the very opposite–indistinguishable! A jay’s voice is a jay’s voice, but also a goat’s, and a hawks, and a dog’s, and a goose’s, and … . I imagine how this Riddle would change over time as jays in different centuries respond to different stimuli around them. (I think here of the well-known Attenborough clip of the lyrebird mimicking modern man-made sounds).
So this Anglo-Saxon jay mimics other nonhuman voices. Interestingly, the human voice is not included in its repertoire. But I like to think this bird has another trick under its wing. You see, it’s very easy to assume that animals and objects being represented in the Exeter Book Riddles are personified: they usually speak in the first person voice as if they actually have a human voice. Once we remember, though, that we are dealing with no ordinary creature in this particular Riddle, but one that is renowned for mimicking even the human voice, the boundaries change again. The human speaker reciting the poem (and let’s remember that medieval poems were often read out loud) actually becomes one of the many voices adopted by the jay, thus craftily integrating the human voice that at first sight seems to be absent from its list. The jay is not personified, but is actually speaking the poem! This jay with its astonishing vocal abilities, like the magpie in Martial’s epigram, plays a game of hide-and-seek with us. If we did not see it, we would not believe it was a bird.
 For a selection of other classical sources dealing with mimicking birds, see Jeremy Mynott, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 143-9.
 Stanley Cramp, gen. ed., Birds of the Western Palearctic, 9 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977-94), vol. 8, pp. 19-20.
It’s easy to imagine why some birds appeal so well to our myth-conjuring habits. I think particularly of those species that make a skill of obscurity. Crepuscular birds excel in shadow—the nightjar or woodcock are no more than ghostly silhouettes in dusk-dark. By day you’ve not a chance—their plumage is the very stuff of earth, intricate and cryptic patterns of leaf-litter, mulch, soil.
The bird that most comes to mind for these evasive sleights, though, is the bittern. It does not need darkness; this bird has perfected invisibility in specialist reed bed living. The woodcock’s argillaceous plumage is matched in the bittern by habitat imitation so effective it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed in metamorphosis, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks. It’s colour and striations mimic the close, vertical world of marsh and fen exactly, especially so when the bird lifts its beak right up, narrows itself to reed-thinness and sways gently with the wind-rustling stems.
This morning I’ve been waiting since dawn at Ham Wall RSPB reserve for the briefest of glimpses. It’s April and I can hear one male booming—a sonorous, eerie bass note that carries over a mile. It’s this aspect of the bird, in fact, that humans have responded to for millennia. The many dialect terms for the bittern show alliterative playfulness with the bird’s reverberations: butter bump, bog bumper, bog blutter. These marvellous names go way back. In the Anglo-Saxon age, when King Alfred was hiding out here on the swampy Levels, the bird was a raredumle, probably meaning something like ‘reed-boomer’. By the late Middle Ages, the vernacular term was miredromble, but the English language also adopted French bitour, which became ‘bittern’. The strange booming spurred inventive explanations about how ‘a bitore bombleth in the myre’ by lowering its head ‘unto the water doun’ (Chaucer), or blowing through a reed. Inevitably, the supernatural aspect of the disembodied noise associated it with omen and disaster.
The old names alert us to the priority given to bird sound in the past, and even now the bittern is certainly a bird more encountered by its unique call than sight. Its presence in the once extensive marshes of Britain bred inventive myths down the centuries. Here on the Levels, bitterns stalked the prehistoric swamps alongside pelicans, cranes and white-tailed eagles. Neolithic tracks across the marsh still exist, preserved in peat beneath the watery landscapes recreated in recent years. What did our prehistoric ancestors make of the bittern’s booming call? What was their word for the bird? We’ll never know, but surely they were equally struck by its eldritch presence. Perhaps those medieval myths and names reach back this far.
Like many of Britain’s fen and marshland birds, the bittern became extinct. It recolonised in the early twentieth century after an absence of 50 years, but numbers remained low and as recently as 1997 there were only 11 booming males. Thanks to hard conservation work, 46 males have been estimated calling on the Avalon Marshes this spring in Somerset alone, the densest population anywhere in the country. Our names and myths recall how elemental bitterns are to this habitat, as much as reed and peat and water. It is joyously encouraging that a bird so intimately rooted in these special places is not lost.
This week brought in the birds to us, made bold in numbers and cheek by the short arctic visitation, just when we were expecting spring to start murmuring from below ground. Snow had come overnight and the first morning filled our room with a brilliancy of light that seemed like snow itself. The world was distilled, snow perfecting light to the very tip of purest white.
If there is anything that can intensify such whiteness further, it’s the male blackbird that is here each time I come to the window to show our five-week-old daughter the hushed and strange outside. In truth it is one of several nearby, but it’s always a single bird that comes to our balcony. The utter blackness of its plumage is both a sharp presence and absence in the snow. For long periods of time he seems to stare intently at us, snow-light reflected in his black eye.
In the American poet Wallace Stevens’ famous ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird‘, the final image depicts the onset of snow one evening, and a blackbird in a cedar tree. Our blackbird comes next, the morning after, when the snow has fallen thick, and the bird perches in the stuff itself. Another way to look at a blackbird. And snow.
Beneath this monochrome beauty, though, lies a stark reality. What brings the blackbird to us, and its cousins the redwings and fieldfares, is thrush hunger for easy pickings in these suddenly cold days. In the nonhuman world, snow means tough living, and very possibly, death.
It’s different for most of us, of course, particularly here in southern Britain where heavy snow fall is a scarce and magnificent event, short-lived and affording quick pleasures whilst it lasts. There’s a carnival aspect to snow days—approved topsy-turvy misrule in a fleeting interlude between usual routines. I suspect this accounts for much of the fascination and excitement that goes with snow in a country where by and large there is none. Unless we are travelling, or obliged to work whatever the conditions, most of us thrill to the fact that just sometimes our lives are ‘gloriously disrupted’, as a friend recently put it.
The delights and obstacles of niveous mayhem remind us that the natural world can and does call the shots, even if most of our lives are spent smugly believing otherwise. The remarkable trick of snow, in fact, is even more absolute. It performs a dissolution, smothering time and place so that the world appears ageless, our traces erased. In the fields beyond our town where the expanse of snow goes out to sky, broken only by blackbird tree-lines, the whiteness is everything and nothing.
In recent years I’ve done a fair bit of thinking and writing about seabirds in early English culture (see here and here). I’d say, in fact, I can talk at quite some length about seabirds in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I’m currently researching the topic further for a chapter in a new book. My research and writing on the subject, though, gives me pause for thought, because despite similar imaginative responses to these remarkable creatures across the centuries, my experiences with seabirds in my own time are disturbingly and drastically different in ways that profoundly and irrevocably affect their cultural relevance to us in the twenty first century, and would have been unimaginably alien to our medieval ancestors. The picture of environmental destruction that afflicts seabirds is uniquely modern: we cannot think about seabirds without confronting how they are tied up, quite literally, with our detritus. The poet who depicts a gannet in the Old English Seafarer as a far-travelling companion on the winter waves could not have conceived of the strangulated individual in the harrowing image above.
In particular, of course, I’m talking about plastic, and the gargantuan quantities of enduring waste it produces. It’s such an unavoidable aspect of daily life that we barely give the substance a second thought, and we don’t need to. We can legitimately throw away as much of the stuff as we want, confident that it will be disposed of somewhere else, by someone we don’t know or care about. That’s the situation the ‘progress’ of convenient, comfortable living has led to; we aren’t required to care. To be sure, most of us know we should care, and most of us use local schemes to recycle as best we can, or avoid using plastic bags when we go shopping. What most of us could never have guessed is just how pervasive plastic and its disastrous effects are when we think we’ve safely discarded it. Without even considering the devastating effects on all the other creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans, it is estimated now that 90% of the world’s seabirds have consumed plastic (here and here).
In response to all this, and the sickening feeling we have about the sheer quantities that go into landfill every year in countries around the world (the stats are staggering: in Australia alone just toothbrushes produce 1000 tonnes of landfill a year!), my wife and I decided to go plastic and packaging free in 2018. We want to implement habits and routines that will slowly become a way of life. We know the realities—avoiding plastic entirely is pretty much impossible unless you want to completely cut yourself loose from modernity. We’ve done our research though, and have embarked on a scheme to dramatically cut down what we throw into landfill at the end of this year. (Later on in 2018 I’ll post again on this topic to let you know what we’ve done and how it’s going.)
In fact, we’ve apparently taken up this challenge at the right time: Blue Planet II has apparently really caught the public attention on issues of plastic; China has stirred things up by rejecting imported plastic from the UK from this year; and only days ago Theresa May made the headlines by discussing ambitions to force the big UK supermarkets to rethink packaging. Here’s hoping.
I’m excited by our environmental ambitions for this year: they feel real and filled with genuine potential. But taking on this more explicit form of environmental action has prompted me to think about the importance of those other less obvious, less immediate examples of individual responsibility. Writing about the natural world is the most relevant example to me, and it sometimes seems arcane, detached and irrelevant. What difference does it actually make? In some slight yet important way, though, the thinking and caring that happens when people write about the natural world does matter. In my case, understanding how seabirds were experienced and represented in the earliest English writings is part of the narrative that leads to our engagement with these creatures now, and their plights, even if only because we might be prompted to a keener sense of loss and responsibility. It is all part of the passion and urgency we share to influence the way people think about, encounter and treat the natural world. We do this, always, with the hope of making just a little, positive difference.