Category Archives: Chaucer

Queck! Medieval birds’ voices and birdsong

The last decade has seen a surge of ornithological interest in the complexities and mysteries of bird songs and calls. It’s been known for some time that certain species have remarkable mimic abilities (like the marsh warbler who intentionally weaves other species’ songs into its own repertoire, or the incredible lyre bird who can imitate just about any sound on the planet), but more recently birds’ voices have also played a major part in identifying new or split species (two species so alike that formerly they have been considered one, or subspecies of one). The popular Sound Approach project has demonstrated the need for taxonomic re-categorisation amongst certain Eurasian owls, for instance, and even the discovery of a completely new species. As recently as 2014, a bird heard in China led to a whole new avian family. There is no doubt that modern technological advancements are critical to all this new research. As much as we do know, this science wizardry also reminds us that where nonhuman communications are concerned, we barely know anything.

In essence though, all of this focus on bird sound is nothing new. Various classical authors were already clued into the virtuosity and intricate meaning of birds’ voices. One of the most famous examples is Pliny the Elder’s (1st century AD) ornate description of the nightingale’s song in his Natural History, which employs the terminology of skilled musicianship to convey the bird’s brilliance:

[T]hen there is the consummate knowledge of music in a single bird: the sound is given out with modulations, and now is drawn out into a long note with one continuous breath, now varied by managing the breath, now made staccato by checking it, or linked together by prolonging it, or carried on by holding it back; or it is suddenly lowered, and at times sinks into a mere murmur, loud, low, bass, treble, with trills, with long notes, modulated when this seems good – soprano, mezzo, baritone; and briefly all the devices in that tiny throat which human science has devised with all the elaborate mechanism of the flute. (10:43)

There is obviously an element of poetic conceit in this, but Pliny uses the language of human music to attempt describing something as intricate and complex in its own way (listen here, and just for fun, try here to translate any word into nightingale ‘speak’!)

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A Roman nightingale, from Pompeii – the same century as Pliny and Plutarch were writing (Source: British Museum)

Our modern knowledge, too, of the learning and teaching abilities of birds – like the fairy wren that teaches its unborn chicks a food ‘code’ to deal with cuckoo impostors – was pre-empted by the ancients:

As for starlings and crows and parrots which learn to talk and afford their teachers so malleable and imitative a vocal current to train and discipline, they seem to me to be champions and advocates of the other animals in their ability to learn, instructing us in some measure that they too are endowed with both rational utterance and with articulate voice … Now since there is more reason in teaching than in learning, we must yield assent to Aristotle when he says that animals do teach: a nightingale, in fact, has been observed instructing her young how to sing. (Plutarch, On the Intelligence of Animals)

Despite these minority voices that recognised the innate and intended meaning of bird vocalisations,  the prevailing attitude systematically divided human and nonhuman voices – the first was rational and the second nothing more than instinctive repetition. This was the customary philosophy that led into and endured throughout the Christianised Middle Ages, and the rational/irrational adage became common place. So Saint Augustine remarked that either one would say that magpies, parrots, and crows are rational animals, or you have recklessly named imitation an art’ (On Music), and centuries later the Flemish theologian Thomas de Cantimpré could still state simply and with conviction that ‘the human voice is articulate, and animal inarticulate’ (Liber de natura rerum, I.xxvi).

However, as in the classical period, there were more free-thinking writers that spoke out for misrepresented nonhuman voices. It is quite clear from Old English glossaries that at least some Anglo-Saxon people were competent listeners. A large number of species are not named according to their appearance, as is the modern preference, but rather according to their song or call. And so we have, to name just a handful: hrafn (raven); ceo (chough); finc (finch – the typical ‘pink pink’ sound of a chaffinch); maew (gull); rardumle (bittern – ‘reedboomer’); stangella (presumably stonechat – ‘stone-yeller’); nihtegale (nightingale) cran (Isidore of Seville, a 7th century bishop, wrote in his Etymologies that the crane in Latin (grus) is named for its trumpeting call).

Perhaps more interesting, though, are those moments where writers are forced to admit, willingly or otherwise, that translating nonhuman sounds isn’t always straightforward, and sometimes is just darned impossible. In Aldhelm’s Rules of Metre (7th century), for example, a teacher attempting to give the utterances of all sorts of nonhuman beings to his student is forced to say that storks … well, ‘make a stork noise’ and ‘kites make kite noises’. To Aldhelm, of course, this would only prove his point – that these are irrational voices, but it also inadvertently exposes the gulf between different modes of expression and their meanings. To quote another classical author: ‘even if we do not understand the utterances of the so-called irrational animals, still it is not improbable that they converse’ (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I.73-6). In moments like these, the limitations of human languages are clear too – they cannot adequately cross boundaries.

Problems with translation become a key issue in a well-known late medieval Chaucer poem. The Parliament of Fowls is a dream vision bird debate poem – a popular form at the time in which two or more birds representing human individuals or perspectives conduct a formal argument as witnessed by a human narrator in a dream. In this case, the topic is love (or breeding), and Chaucer creates a great deal of humour by allowing the assembly to fall into chaos because the lowly birds (worm and seed eaters) disagree with the lofty pretensions of the birds of prey who want to conduct themselves according to the rules of courtly love. For certain birds, like the goose and the duck, this is all too much – why on earth would you spend time pining after an unrequited love when there are so many others to choose from?! Just get on and pick a mate! In Chaucer’s poem, that is, birds fail to consistently represent human beings; they keep on doing and saying birdy things.

 

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A quecking duck in the Gorleston Psalter, 1310-1324 (Source: British Library)

The moment in the poem that has preoccupied me over the last year (for the full extent, see here) concerns these birds:

The goos, the cokkow, and the doke also
So cryede, “Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!” hye,
That thourgh myne eres the noyse wente tho.

The goose, the cuckoo, and the duck also
Cried, ‘Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!’ so loudly
That the noise went then right through my ears.
(498-500)

What is strange about line 499 is that it is the one and only instance of phonetically-rendered bird call in the entire debate. Elsewhere, as is conventionally the case, birds speak a human language (or rather,  they never actually speak in their own language – the voice is human from the start, only inserted into bird bodies). What then are we to make of a line that has the birds momentarily cry out in a transcription that, like the quacking duck in the marginal illustration above, at least seems to represent genuine birds’ vocalisations?

In my view, when the birds stop talking English and suddenly speak out in a strange semiotic mode, Chaucer is playing with the same sorts of curiosities that turn up in that sound wordlist from Aldhelm – there is a fault in the transmission. It raises all sorts of interesting questions concerning translation between species in the poem: are we to imagine that the line stands as his attempt to translate what he denounces as irrational ‘noyse’ elsewhere? In which case, why does he not do so in Middle English as at all other times in the debate? Are we to understand, maybe, that the dream enables the fantasy of nonhuman to human understanding, and that the birds do not actually speak English to each other? Or perhaps the birds’ utterances indicate something incomprehensible to the narrator – accurately reported, anomalous bird sounds amongst voices that otherwise genuinely speak English? The line, in fact, is doubly complex because it both conveys real bird calls, and presents a human mimicking bird calls (exactly like modern ornithologist’s attempts to replicate bird calls). And, given that the debate actually takes place between a multitude of birds, to what extent are other species meant to understand ‘quek[s]’ and ‘kek[s]’ – can they translate too?

More profoundly, Chaucer’s bird call line, interrupting the human speech, invites us to bridge the communicative gap. It provokes a speculative translation act from us at this moment, a playful invitation to imagine what the birds mean (or perhaps fail to mean) amongst their own and other species. From this angle, the lively vernacular of the goose and duck at other times conducted in English (‘All this is not worth a fly!’; ‘Come off!’) is an attempt to translate this otherness of bird species, and that of all nature’s voices. As a modern ornithologist states in a recent article on birdsong, ‘We will probably never be able to talk to birds, but we may yet be able to know what they are saying’ (David Callahan, Birdwatch, May 2016). Chaucer might have been dubious about such confidence, but I think he’d be happy to admit that ‘queck’ is far from meaningless.

 

 

 

 

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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

Gower’s goshawk – raptor and ravisher

I’ve been reading and writing about goshawks and their kin a lot over the last four months. As fashionable birds from the sport of falconry, they make frequent appearances in medieval literary texts, alongside eagles and falcons and other hawks. Chaucer’s Sir Thopas carries a ‘grey goshauk on [his] honde’; Maldumarec in Marie de France’s Yonec morphs into the species; and Philomena in the very popular L’Ovide moralise (a 14th-century French moralised version of the Metamorphoses) is a woman of status, skilled in the art of hunting, who knows about goshawks and moulting patterns.

Goshawks are back in fashion. They’ve made it beyond the rarefied interests of birdwatchers and austringers to fascinate a wider public. Two recent books have contributed to this accipitrine  passion – Conor Mark Jameson’s Looking for the Goshawk (2013) and the phenomenally successful H is for Hawk (2014), both of which honour their debt to, and have renewed interest in, T. H. White’s classic The Goshawk. Helen Macdonald’s work has outstripped sales of all other books of its kind, and is now set to make it to the big screen. The goshawk craze looks set to continue.

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Photo: Oliver Reville

It’s not difficult to see why these birds fascinate us. We love a predator – a creature that can be part-tamed, or captured at least, but which remains well on the distant side of loveable or predictable, of that we think we can come to know. Minacious and fierce, tiger-striped, fire in the eye. Goshawks might be familiar to us as captive birds for display or hunting, but we know they exist wild, too, rare creatures that made it back from extinction in this country. In British forests these huge, striking birds are masterful predators, but so rarely seen by the uninitiated that they more fully inhabit the mythic realm – the stuff of medieval elite hunting (unsurprisingly they appear in T. H. White’s best known book The Once and Future King, the source for Disney’s Sword in the Stone); the blood-and-guts poetry of Ted Hughes; or stunning footage in wildlife documentaries, at large in HD. Their name hints at their impressive bulk: from Old English goshafoc; goose-hawk. These birds are capable of taking large prey, unlike their smaller cousin, the sparrowhawk (OE spearhafoc), and there is evidence that they were used to hunt big water birds from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards. All in all, I imagine Macdonald may have had less success with M is for Meadow Pipit.

I have never seen a goshawk. In the last few days of 2015 I make determined plans to change this in the coming year. Wild breeding goshawks are elusive and, quite rightfully, guarded closely. The threat of egg collectors has not yet passed. I know there are goshawks in the counties where I live and watch birds, but the most likely places are the Forest of Dean on the border of England and Wales, and Thetford Forest in Norfolk. On calm, sunny days in March, it is possible to see goshawk pairs displaying above their territories. I am re-reading Jameson’s book, translating his journeys into my own imagined quest for a bird that still exists as symbol for me, as a complex and tantalising construct that has not yet escaped my Kulturbrille, the thrilling bird in Ted Hughes’s ‘Hawk Roosting‘ whose ‘manners are tearing off heads’. The poet’s ‘falsifying dream’ both dismisses human pontification and confirms it – the bird is a part of that ‘falsifying’, even in the attempt to envisage a hawk’s perspective, for whom the ‘earth’s face [is] upward for my inspection’. I revel in all of this, in White and Macdonald and the goshafoc, but what I really want is to see the thing itself, to collapse and explode myth into the barred breast and the orange eye of the flesh-and-feathers bird.

For now though, I return to medieval hawks, to a sparrowhawk in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and a goshawk in the ‘Tale of Tereus’ in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. The references are insubstantial – fleeting metaphors, in fact – but carry sophisticated meanings. In both examples (and its certainly possible that Chaucer’s sparrowhawk detail influenced Gower’s goshawk), the birds take on inherited meaning from aristocratic culture, but they also allow something of the instinct and unpredictability of real hawks to intrude as well, to create perversely alluring figures of sexual desire.

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In Middle English, the association between these birds and their predatory nature was linguistically pronounced – ravine referred to both greed, but also raptors; indeed, our modern word for birds of prey still carries the Latinate etymology – from rapere (to seize). The knot of words surrounding this term included raptors alongside lust, theft, abduction and aggression. Rape still carries these associations, but ravishment has more romantic significance than it once did. John Trevisa, in the Properties of Things (14th cen.), writes that: ‘The goshauk is a real foul  and for þe takynge of oþir foules for pray (because it takes other birds for its prey) he[o] (she) is icplepid (called) aucipiter (accipiter) ‘a raptour and rauyschere (ravisher)’.

Both Chaucer and Gower take advantage of this apparent ferocity. In Troilus and Criseyde, the sparrowhawk is a metaphor for the first sexual union of the two lovers, and is striking because it conflates sex with both disturbing violence and sexual pleasure. The narrator rhetorically asks ‘What myghte or may the sely (wretched) larke seye / Whan that the sperhauk hath it in his foot?’ No answer comes, but the narrator goes on implicitly to link this metaphor to the lovers’ ‘gladnesse’ (III.1196) as well as their ‘hevynesse’ (III.1197): they come ‘out of wo in[to] blisse’ (III.1221). The implication is that both human and avian sexual instincts are alike – love, lust, aggression and death are not unrelated, and not human preserves.

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(British Library, Harley 7026, fol. 16, 15th century)

In Gower’s Confessio Amantis, the well-known tale of Philomela is re-told to focus on Tereus, the king who rapes and mutilates his sister-in-law. Gower describes this act ‘As if a goshawk hadde sesed (seized) / A brid, which dorste noght for fere / Remue (does not move for fear): and thus this tirant there / Beraft hire (bereft her)’ (V.5642-7). Similar to Chaucer’s sparrowhawk, the goshawk becomes a complex and paradoxical image of shared sexual kind between beings – ravine (lust) and ravine (raptor) are intimately linked – so that the goshawk is invested with enabling and natural qualities through which Tereus performs worrisome and yet excusable acts (morality and natural law are frustratingly uncertain in the Confessio). The mutilation of Philomela’s tongue also anticipates the dismemberment of other human bodies later on in the tale, particularly that of Itys, Tereus’s son, whose is served up for his father to eat. Bodies, we are reminded, are flesh, eaten and eating.

Most tellingly, Gower’s goshawk image presages real avian transformations at the end of  the tale which are not punitive, not indications of depraved bestiality, but empowering changes which reveal and define character most fully through bird-human bodies. In this light, the Tereus-goshawk must be considered more than simple metaphor.  The raptor and the ravisher, bird and human, desirous knight and seizing bird, conjoin in Gower’s tale. Medieval goshawks are symbolic, heraldic, projections of cultural elite values, but these writers do not forget the natural either. There is something of the bird I will seek next year, that reminds us of common impulses, the shared viscera and carnality dispersed and experienced across species: the ‘herte on fyre’ in lust (Confessio, V.5622) and ‘takynge of oþir foules for pray’ (Trevisa) are of a kind.

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(Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 366 (The Ormesby Psalter), fol. 38r, c. 1300)

Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls

I presented for LOMERS (London Old and Middle English Research Seminar) yesterday evening to a small group of medievalists on the topic of avian rationality and language-song in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. The concept of cross- or inter-species communications and knowledges in this poem is the subject of my PhD’s fourth chapter.

 

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Scene from the 12th cen. Persian poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of Birds. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Pompous and pretentious birds of prey

Today’s my birthday and I was lucky enough to have a morning’s falconry experience bought for me by my lovely girlfriend at the Hawking Centre in Doddington, Kent. Just the most stupendous thing, to be up that close, handling and flying magnificent birds of prey – Asian brown wood owl; barn owl; Harris’s hawk; African hooded vulture.

It’s probably not a surprise that the day got me thinking about raptors that crop up in my research. Birds of prey were perhaps the most significant and prized of all birds in the medieval period (well, for the relative few who had wealth and leisure anyway); they were kept and maintained for the hugely popular pastime of hunting/hawking. They also came to accrue great cultural, heraldic import as well though, because of their associations with the nobility. By the 15th century, there was a clear and strict hierarchy of bird status to human status, as outlined in The Boke of St Albans, ranging from the eagle for an emperor, down to the kestrel for a knave (hence the title of Barry Hine’s popular novel about a young, troubled working-class lad in a mining community who rears a kestrel).

In my PhD work on Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, I write about how Chaucer invokes the embedded associations between raptors and the elite classes to great comic effect. The poem, in my reading, is partly a takedown of the medieval symbolism attributed to birds of prey, both in literature and in life. What happens in the Parliament is that the birds, having already been placed above their station in that they achieve equivalent human social statuses, push things a step further – they are so thoroughly imbued with their humanised sense of grandeur that they speak and act as if they actually are the human nobles upon whose arms they have been trained to sit. The thing is, they keep on behaving like birds, despite their pretentions. So Chaucer is able to create great humour by having the birds oblivously do things that keep puncturing their humanised delusions. For instance, in the typical, rhetorical catalogue of birds that begins the debate, the birds of prey seem to find it difficult to resist biological fundamentals. In the passage below, there are numerous references to instinctive killings and violence:

the ‘goshauk, … doth pyne
To bryddis for his outrageous rauyne;
The gentyl facoun, that with his feet distraynyth
The kyngis hand; the hardy sperhauk eke,
The quaylis foo; the merlioun that paynyth
Hymself ful ofte the larke for to seke.
(335-40)

the goshawk, … does harm (pain)
to birds [to satisfy] his excessive appetite;
The genteel falcon, who strains with his feet
[upon] the king’s hand; the hardy sparrowhawk too,
the quail’s foe; the merlin that pains
himself very often to seek the lark.

Even the falcon, who is not depicted in pursuit of prey, is still a falconer’s bird and his talons ‘distraynyth’. As the bird’s talons grasp the king’s hand, there is the impression that its natural habits are barely concealed by its taming: the bird’s ultimate ‘kynde’ (instinct) is to hunt and kill for itself, far less any aristocratic role it has been assigned.

New Networks for Nature

The sixth annual conference of New Networks for Nature (or N3 as it’s known) in Stamford this weekend, an alliance set up by Tim Birkhead, Mark Cocker, Jeremy Mynott and John Fanshawe. It is always inspiring, exciting and promising. The theme this year was ‘A Sense of Scale’ and I was chuffed to present on birds in medieval poetry. A great experience, and it was only a shame that we ran out of time for questions!

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Jeremy Mynott, Helen Macdonald, Michelle Remblance, me. Source: New Networks for Nature archive

Particularly enjoyed listening to Richard Mabey in conversation with Tim Dee on the Thursday evening, and Philip Hoare’s dramatic depiction of his face-to-face encounter with a spem whale! New Networks comes together to provide an alternative, powerful voice on and for nature in the UK in the lamentable absence of any serious efforts or consideration from mainstream British politics. To get a fuller sense of what New Networks does, and the sheer range of contributors and presentations, go to http://www.newnetworksfornature.org.uk/