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.
I’ve rather neglected the blog this year, particularly in the second half as the pressure of finishing up the PhD has intensified. Very nearly there though. So … I’m going to cheat a little for this post, and offer an adaptation of my thesis introduction that ponders generally why birds are so significant in medieval thinking and writing. Probably for much the same reasons as they are in any age or culture, but (without digressing into broader philosophical contemplation on birds), here are my thoughts.
For starters, medieval writers must have been struck by birds’ bipedalism. Their two-footedness would have resonated with a commonplace medieval image: bipedal heaven-facing man and quadrupedal earth-facing beast, often invoked to defend human, rational superiority. Birds, in this way, set themselves apart from mankind’s anatomically closest quadruped relatives. Like humans, they achieve an elevated status separating them from other nonhuman creatures, and consequently, this aligns them with certain human privileges. Medieval encyclopaedic discussion of birds certainly recognised the literal manner in which birds were elevated: they are ‘of the eire’, the ‘foules of hevene’ who physically occupy a space that even mankind is denied in his or her earthly time. Birds, of course, were classed as animals, but their unique aerial skills also divided them from the lowly beasts, earned them ‘special mencioun … in the texte of the bible’. Their strange mobility must surely have registered with the conventional hierarchy in which humans are poised midway between animals and angels, as recalled in artistic representations in which angels are typically depicted with birds’ wings.
Birds were outliers in medieval conceptions: on the one hand, base and subject to human dominion as any other creature; on the other, aligned with human abilities and privileges. Birds’ uniqueness confounds intellectual attempts to categorise at all, making them both the most rewarding and challenging creatures against and with which to contemplate species and identities, whether human, nonhuman or human-nonhuman. Birds not only defy categories, but in doing so, they display remarkable transformative abilities that at once distinguish them, and provide them with the means of persistent escape from these laboursome human efforts to classify. In Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus’s popular De proprietatibus rerum (the standard medieval encyclopaedia), birds are described as ‘bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt’ [between the two elements that are most heavy and light]. Trevisa concludes: ‘it nediþ onliche to knowe þat among oþir kynde of beestis generalliche foules ben more pure and liȝt and noble of substaqunce and swift of meuynge and scharp of siȝt’ [it is only necessary to know that among other kinds of beasts generally, birds are more pure and light and noble of substance, swift of moving, and sharp of sight’.
Perhaps even more alluring, though, is the medieval belief that birds’ flight engages these creatures in transformative evasions that literally leave no traces by which we might purchase more tangible understandings of avian being. Bartholomaeus states that birds are ‘without waye’ … for here [their] wayes in the eyre be not distinguyd in certayne’. Like other encyclopaedic treatments of the natural world, Bartholomaeus borrows from the hugely influential authority of Isidore of Seville (6th-7th cen.), whose observations on birds proliferate right across the Middle Ages: ‘They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways’. For Isidore, the very name for these creatures in Latin reveals their defining characteristic; not simply flight, but secretive flight known only to birds themselves.
There is another aspect of bird kind that Isidore identifies and which is repeated by his imitators. He notes that ‘There is a single word for birds, but various kinds, for just as they differ among themselves in appearance, so do they differ also in the diversity of their natures’. The great diversity of birds, as much as their flight, perpetuates the avian enigma. It is quite impossible (because ‘anone aftir þe fliȝt þe eire closiþ itself and leueþ noo signe neiþir tokene of here passage’ [immediately after their flight the air closes itself and leaves no sign nor trace of their passage]) for mankind ‘to penetrate all the wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia, so as to know the kinds of birds and their differentiating characteristics’.
In all their diversity, birds embody, perform and represent transformation, variously and wondrously in their colours, moults, migrations, flights, oviparous reproduction, songs and displays. Medieval writers marvelled at how their prolific diversity of kind and appearance, and their distant, untraceable directions, make these aerial shape-shifters masters of evasion, misdirection and resistance, always moving across and beyond.
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’!)
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.
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.
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.
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:
[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 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 coinsdating 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.
Today’s publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change has, expectedly, sparked fierce debate about the enviroment. It has required people to (re)consider, defend and articulate the human perspective on the natural world: how are we defined in relation to it, by it and as part of it? To what extent is the earth our property and resource (natural capital)? How ought we manage our relationships with our local and global environments? What part, if any, should religion still continue to play in our engagement with the natural world? For many, the Pope’s comments on the environment are refreshing and hopeful. For writers concerned with cultural and historical perceptions of nature, there might be a further resonance, however: a new dialogue with the centuries-old, dominant Christian doctrine which has locked us into the idea that we are somehow separate to and inherently superior to other species. The notion that human rights and conveniences naturally come first, that every other being we lump into that vast ‘animal’ category are there to be exploited and used by us, still has a hold (who has not resorted to naming, however flippantly, uncivilised behaviour as ‘animal’?).
In a George Monbiot article on this topic, I was directed to the website of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation (a US Christian organisation), which talks of ‘God-given dominium‘ and the ‘imago Dei’ as part of its plea to the Pope to reject plans to reduce burning fossil fuels. It is hard for a medievalist to read such words without thinking on typical medieval theories about man’s dominant position in the hierarchical chain of being. There is Isidore of Seville, for instance, who reminds us that the ‘human stands erect and looks towards heaven so as to seek God, rather than look at the earth, as do the beasts that nature has made bent over’ (Etymologies, Cambridge, 2006). Other writers, from Thomas Aquinas to Boethius to Bartholomew the Englishman echoed these sentiments. There is a striking resemblance to the Cornwall Alliance’s view: ‘Good climate policy must recognize human exceptionalism, the God-given call for human persons to “have dominion” in the natural world (Genesis 1:28)’. And this: ‘the physical world … [is] an ordered cosmos that rational creatures can understand and harness for human betterment; private property rights, entrepreneurship, and widespread trade’.
As a medievalist, it’s fascinating to see how the medieval lingers in our own times. The Alliance’s standpoint certainly shows the longeivity of some medieval doctrine. But I am also uncomfortable with how their argument positions itself in relation to the medieval view, what they refer to as the ‘one culture nurtured for centuries in the Biblical picture of reality’, as though continued explotation of the earth right now can be justified through this comparison. Putting aside the fact that many – religious and secular alike – would query such a ‘picture of reality’ several hundred years on, the bigger problem for me is that this vision wasn’t exactly cut and dry even in the medieval period, so it seems a little shaky to be using it to substantiate arguments in the 21st century. What recent medieval scholars have been busy showing, in fact, is that the medieval ‘picture’ was far from uniform; it was riven with contradictions, variations, inconsistencies and ironies. My own work in this field has suggested how writers were very capable of complicating and destablising the usual representation of the human and non-human relationship, ridiculing it even (see here). In fact, a good number of medieval works suggest that ‘conceptualizing the animal realm was an ongoing, undecided question’ (Susan Crane, Animal Encounters, 2013). It seems to me that little has changed, and that if medieval thinking admitted these sorts of variations, then so should ours. It’s one reason why continued and renewed study of early attitudes towards the natural world is vital; it can do much to inform what we think and do now.