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/
Marshes, levels, fens, bogs, mires, wetlands – these places, and the countless names for them, have long registered their eldritch presence in this island’s imagination. They are there in the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf – the looming morhopu [marshpool] from which Grendel, that mánscaða [evil being], lopes to seize his wretched human victims. They open Dickens’ Great Expectations, the first indelible landscape in child Pip’s ‘first most vivid and broad impression of things’:
the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and … the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and … the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea.
Pip’s ‘savage lair’ has something of Grendel about it. Intriguingly, recent historical interpretation of the epic has attempted to site the action in north Kent, in the territories where the early stages of Dickens’ novel is set and where I most enjoy birdwatching in the county. The Isle of Sheppey in winter still maintains a sense of wild down by the Swale estuary. The 11th-century name for Harty was Heorot (exactly the name of Hrothgar’s mead-hall in the poem) and the region itself was recorded as Schrawynghop in 1240, an Old English term, supposed to mean something like ‘marshland of malign creatures’. I cannot find anything convincingly academic on all this, but it’s an appealing notion.
At the end of October my partner and I spent time on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex. It’s become a favourite haunt – out east beyond the London fringe, the strain of M25 traffic, the crush of industry and towns with bad reps, out towards the flat miles and North Sea – where I meet a friend twice a year for a day’s walk round Old Hall Marshes. I wanted more time here, and booked a cottage nearby for a week. These days felt like ceremony or rite out on the coast, with the year finally turning bonfire colours, Ginny’s birthday, and the brent geese in from Artic colds. We went to embrace the solstice.
Seen from above or on a map, the estuary’s mazing channels, more complex here than anywhere along the Essex coast, appear like the brain’s lobal crevices, or a nutmeg cut open to reveal its woody fissures. The saltmarsh shares these intricacies, secrets. Its bewildering waterways belong to the birds and seals.
It is surely this foreignness of marshland that makes it most alluring. Either side of the seawall at Old Hall, the land at times can feel thrillingly treacherous: dense, shifting reedbeds on one side, and thick, clutching mudflats on the other. Although managed and shaped by humans for centuries, these spaces still retain a sense of the un-human and impenetrable, and can still be reclaimed by unpredictable tides, as they were in 1953. The birds match the mystery of their lands. Bearded tits are most often unseen in the depths of their close, vertical world, and the bittern is so accustomed and coloured to this environment, imitates its home so well, it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks.
From the other side of the seawall, curlews and redshanks call in darkness. I fancy their songs sound desolate. They are not. But they are of the saltmarsh entirely, estuarine substance, coming to me along double-hidden creeks – out of view and under dark.
This morning we went walking in a local wood, intent on seing the fulsome signs of spring. It’s the perfect time to be out and we were content in the primrose-brilliance of it all. The undergrowth beneath the beeches was rich with white wood anemones and bluebells.
We heard it before we’d gone fifty paces. The very thing we came for surprised us from the dense bramble – a secret nightingale out its tremendous song; a cry, as the poet Ted Hughes remarks, that ‘momentarily threatened the earth’. I think of my first nightingale this year, freshly arrived on the north Crete coast only two weeks ago; Homer’s nightingale – the bird that began centuries of thinking on just how that remarkable voice raises such powerful ideas of love and suffering, of yearning for the warm days of spring and the beginning of a year’s work in the fields. It’s a bird I seek every year in May.
This morning’s nightingale, though, is back here in a small but ancient wood near a tiny village in West Kent. It’s a bird intimately associated with our own landscape in its own special way – the oak, beech and hazel woodlands of southern England. And English poets, too, have always found something inspiring, even numinous, in that disembodied voice. Of Keat’s ode most people have some inkling, can perhaps even quote the odd snatch about ‘shadows numberless’ and ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’. The Romantic poets generally were pretty keen on the symbolic potential of the bird. But the nightingale’s legacy in English poetry goes back much further. It’s as old as English poetry itself, in fact. The bird crops up in Latin lyrics from the British Isles in the early medieval period (the 7th cen. Bishop Aldhelm, for instance, who includes the nightingale in his Enigmata), but it’s first known appearance in English itself is in ‘Riddle 8’ from the Exeter Book Riddles (see here). Well, it’s first appearance as far as most Anglo-Saxon scholars agree, that is; the problem is that this collection, most unusually, has no answers, so it’s taken a good couple of centuries of academic guesswork to produce convincing solutions, and some are still heavily contested! ‘Riddle 8’ has generated a whole range of suggestions (mostly birds). To my mind though, the phrase eald æfensceop ‘old evening-singer’ points the way – a veiled reference, using other words, to the nihtegale, the Anglo-Saxon name for the bird that stuck.
In the later medieval period (influenced by the courtly poetry of French troubadours and trouvères), the nightingale becomes such a ubiquitous feature of love lyrics, it sort of just fades into the background of the stock ‘wodes that waxen grene’ when ‘lef and gras and blosme springe’ (see here). And then it finds its way into a run of bird debate poems (that’s right, avian poetic altercations were all the rage for the literary elite in late medieval England!): ‘The Thrush and the Nightingale’ (anon.); The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ (Clanvowe); ‘The Clerk and the Nightingale’ (anon.). By far and away the best, however, and perhaps my favourite of all medieval poems is The Owl and the Nightingale (probably late 13th cen., but no one really knows). It forms a substantial part of my PhD thesis on birds in medieval poetry.
What’s remarkable about this poem is how self-consciously it uses the nightingale as a character. In short, the whole thing becomes a parody of the overused bird symbol in the debate genre. With great humour that prefigures the trademark irony of Chaucer, this poet pulls the bird back off its literary high horse and back into its real scrub environment. This allows for some brilliant ornithological-based comedy through playing off the tendency to treat the bird as a symbol against neatly observed real bird behaviours. The beginning of the poem starts off in typical fashion, describing the woody scene in what’s known as a natureingang (basically a pretty nature scene). But this is no locus amoenus (‘beautiful place’ – medievalists’ speak for the natural world idyll). The nightingale sits right in the middle, unseen, in a ‘vaste þicke hegge’ / Imeind mid spire & grene segge’ (dense, thick hedge / Mixed up with reeds and green sedge’. Real, biodiverse, natural territory – just where you’d expect to find a nightingale, in fact. There’s a further description of the nightingale’s habitat to snigger at later on. Here’s the owl in full invective:
Wan ich flo niƷtes after muse,
I mai þe uinde ate rumhuse,
Among þe wode, among þe netle.
Þu sittest & singst bihinde þe setle:
Þar me mai þe ilomest finde –
Þar men worpeþ hore bihinde.
When I fly at night after mice
I can find you at the crapper
Among the weeds, among the nettles.
You sit and sing behind the toilet seat:
I will find you there most often –
Where men thrust out their behinds.
There’s more from the owl – when all is said and done, the nightingale is nothing more than ‘lutel soti clowe’ (a little sooty ball)! All of this makes me think of John Clare’s oft-quoted criticism of Keats’ fictive nightingales all those centuries later, takes issue with ‘nature as she appeared to his [Keats] fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described’. The owl doesn’t get off lightly either, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out more.
For more information on the poem, also see http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126541.html
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.
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.