Category Archives: Anglo-Saxon

The miraculous mimicry of a jay

Two days ago I was very excited to receive advance copies of my brand new book.

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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.

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Jackdaw. Source: pxhere.

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’.[1]

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’.[2] (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.
(Riddle 24)

[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).

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A medieval jay (gai). Source: Sherborne Missal (British Library, Add MS 74236).

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.

[1] 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.

[2] Stanley Cramp, gen. ed., Birds of the Western Palearctic, 9 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977-94), vol. 8, pp. 19-20.

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A bittern booming in the mire

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.

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A well-camouflaged bittern. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

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.

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Image: RSPB

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.

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RSPB Ham Wall reserve, April 2018

The plastic plight of seabirds

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.

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The contents of a decayed albatross carcass. Image: Algalita.org.

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).

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Plastic debris drifts from the ocean into this bay in the Philippines. Image: Erik de Castro.

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.

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A UK landfill site. Ironically, these mounds of waste have become beneficial for some seabirds, gulls, who have adapted to become urban dwellers. Image from edie.

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.

A little medieval poem on birds’ voices

A quick browse through any field guide to birds reveals that the standard ornithological method for conveying bird vocalisations is still transliteration – a careful substitution of complex avian sound patterns into a phonetic sequence that is broadly understandable in another system – a human language. You’ll come across some striking examples, including some that are just ludicrous, or seemingly untranslatable into human spoken utterances. There are the well-known classics: from the Collins Guide, ‘goo-ko’ (cuckoo), and ‘kewickhoooouh’ (tawny owl; better known, of course, as ‘tu-whit, tu-who’). But then what about a willow warbler: ‘sisisi-vüy-vüy-vüy svi-svi-vi tuuy tuuy si-si-sviiy-sü’? Or maybe a greenfinch: ‘jüpp-jüpp-jüpp jürrrrrrrr tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy juit chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp dürdürdürdür jürrrrrrrr …’?

These modern examples of ornithologists’ mimicry, though, are in fact no different to much earlier efforts to translate animal and human sounds – they merely continue a long and rich legacy (see here for a fuller discussion of this topic in an earlier post). I have been prompted to think again about the lines of transmission between medieval and modern approaches birds because I am currently working with three manuscripts from important monastic centres of the late Anglo-Saxon age containing a copy each of a little birdsong poem titled ‘De cantibus avium (On the songs of birds), which is, largely, a catalogue of phonetically-rendered, onomatopoeic bird calls. The three versions are all the same, and suggest a lost, earlier source. What seems pretty clear is that this poem, wherever or whenever the original was composed, was designed to teach the typical Latin translations of particular animal and bird sounds. The poem appears in manuscripts that all deal with grammar subjects, and in two cases, it actually appears directly after a standard prose list of nonhuman sounds – what is known as the voces animantium ‘voices of animals’ genre (see here for one of the manuscript examples). The formula, developed from classical models, goes a little like this:

apes ambizant vel bombizant, aquilae clangunt, anseres crinciunt vel trinsiunt,
aves minuriunt vel vernant vel vernicant, accipitres pipant vel plipiant,
anates teritisant …

[bees buzz or buzz, eagles sound, geese hiss or honk, birds chirp or make noise
or twitter, hawks screech or cry, ducks quack …]

Much of the ‘De cantibus’ poem reads almost word for word like these lists, but it also draws attention to the great and enduring fascination of birdsong – its supreme variety and diversity. However hard we might try, it is beyond our capabilities to record, catalogue and know all bird songs:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.

[Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? A thousand are sung of birds, a thousand differences of voice. Nor do I myself claim to discern such voices.]

Many of these medieval examples might sound ridiculous to us. But they probably did to medieval writers as well: many of the invented onomatopoeic verbs in the sound lists are such nonsense that they basically mean nothing more than ‘cranes make a crane noise’, or ‘blackbirds make a blackbird noise’, as though the writer draws attention to his own complete inadequacy in trying to replicate birdsong. Perhaps this translation tradition highlights a serious point about all translation though: even though these efforts aim to bring us closer to another being or mode of communication, they ultimately reminds us of essential difference – when you try to turn birdsong, or any nonhuman utterance, into human language, the result doesn’t quite manage to do the job. Crucially, though, this difference does not make birdsong irrational goobledygook (a word, in fact, that was coined to mean nonsense precisely because it sounds like turkey gibberish). It is simply that their voices are not our voices.

Finding the fieldfare

When it comes to favourites, certain British birds nudge their way into the top ranks repeatedly: the robin – unofficially Britain’s top choice – is predictable enough, as are other garden species, such as blue tit and blackbird, or perhaps something less commonly seen; a barn owl or kingfisher. I suspect my own favourite, though, is shared by few, and would never occur to anyone curious enough to hazard a guess. Fieldfares are unfamiliar to many, a birder’s bird maybe, unnoticed in the hedgerows of sodden ploughlands in such short and dreary days. But these mobster thrushes are mysterious and attractive. They exist like the promise of hard snow – overnight, sudden and thrilling, they come with the boreal cold.

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Fieldfare in snow. Image: RSPB (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/f/fieldfare/).

This year, as every year, I have been walking and driving the lanes in search of fieldfares and their thrush cousins, redwings, mostly across the flatlands of Romney Marsh not far from home in Kent. These winter nomads breed right across sub-arctic Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, making their annual incursions each October and November to wander and raze berry harvests in southern Europe. I found a roving flock last November, one bright and blue morning when it was painfully cold. I knew the birds were there long before I saw them, announcing their presence with restless stony calls, a ringing magpie ‘chak-chak’. For all this commotion, they can be frustratingly difficult to catch in good view. They remain teasingly invisible in the bare but impenetrable thorns. Suddenly, at the moment you become just too close, they burst from cover as though the trees have kept their leaves all along to release just now in a brisk gust. The action is surrounded by accelerating notes that rise in pitch and dynamics, scattering with as much force as the birds themselves. These cackling fits disappear again just metres down the frosted path, though some birds veer upwards to sit defiantly at the top branches. They mark my advance like a procession, always just ahead and out of reach, as though alarmed and mocking all at once.

The fieldfare’s evasive presence seems fittingly mirrored in their slight cultural legacy. The name as we have it is certainly medieval, but its origins, although almost certainly older (Old English feld ‘field’ + fara ‘to go’), are all but lost, scantily and obscurely present in the inky tracks of just one or two Anglo-Saxon scripts for scholars obsessed with such things to ponder and trace. Fieldfares, curiously in my view, have never attracted poetic attention in the way of so many other British species. John Clare, of course, does not forget them as passing details: they ‘chatter in the whistling thorn’ (‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’) or ‘come and go on winter’s chilling wing’ (Shepherd’s Calendar, March). At the end of the medieval period, though, it is clear that fieldfares did not go unnoticed: Chaucer ends his catalogue of birds in The Parliament of Fowls, unexpectedly, with the ‘frosty feldefare’, and in the Sherborne Missal (c. 1400), there is a remarkable titled image of the bird, accurately depicted in all its striking colours (see here for some of the images, although the fieldfare page is not included).

I find a new, hustling chatter of fieldfares on Romney Marsh again this week in mid-February. By now, with most berries stripped, they are dispersing to the fields, roaming in big numbers. Chaucer’s phrase, I’d say, has it right – their hoary plumage is a precise configuration of winter splendour, even on a day as drab and wet as this. They mark extremes: that pristine white underwing and belly, that storm-grey hood, are balanced with colours that flare like hibernal dusks, or the light and warmth of indoors we seek against such cold – the colour of smoky whisky, or the slow burn of wood fires. I follow fieldfares across tree-lined fields, follow their flights down hawthorn paths to be with all that clattering verve that turns and turns again straight into the wind.

Enigmatic riddle birds

Bit of a cheat post this one, but since I’ve recently published a general-audience post on the Anglo-Saxon riddles site The Riddle Ages, I thought I’d provide a link for readers of this site who might be interested. It’s taken and adapted from work I’ve produced on the Old English Exeter Book Riddles – an amazing collection of riddles written in Old English (the only ones we have – everything else is in Latin) and compiled in a huge manuscript given by Bishop Leofric in 1072 to Exeter cathedral, where it still resides. Many of the riddles involve a first-person speaker who describes themselves in typically riddling, paradoxical style and then asks that the listener or reader saga hwæt ic hatte ‘say what I am called’. Intriguingly, in this manuscript at least, there are no answers. It really is a guessing game! The natural world features well in the collection of 90+ riddles, and birds make up a noticeable portion of these. There is a swan, a nightingale, a cuckoo, a barnacle goose, hens and a jay. Riddle 57 is nearly always solved as one species of bird or another (crow, swift, swallow), but no scholar has ever settled on which species. So … here are my thoughts on why we should pay more attention to the anonymity of the birds in Riddle 57 then the possibility of a precise answer: see here for the translation, and here for the commentary.

 

The Seafarer and the Seabirds

Last year I posted on a particular chapter of my PhD thesis that I was re-writing at the time. This will now be published in the peer-reviewed journal English Studies, so if any readers enjoyed the summary I provided here and want more, then here’s the link to the pre-print manuscript version: https://www.academia.edu/31023882/Native_Foreigners_-_Migrating_Seabirds_and_the_Pelagic_Soul_in_The_Seafarer_English_Studies_forthcoming_