Category Archives: The Owl and the Nightingale

Interview on my book

Bit of a cheat post this one, but Boydell and Brewer have recently published an interview they conducted with me on my book, Birds in Medieval English Poetry, so thought I’d share it. Click here, or simply read the text below.

Thank you for assisting our discussion of your book, Dr Warren. To begin, could you tell us a little about how you came to write this book, which is now the second in our new series Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages. What first drew you to the natural world in literature? 
When I decided to return to medieval studies after some years in teaching, it was an obvious choice for me to pursue a subject that combined a personal love of mine with literature. I knew that there was plenty to say about birds, in fact, because I’d written on this subject for my undergraduate dissertation a number of years before. Medieval literature is full of birds, and it seemed strange to me that no one had yet produced a full study examining how they are represented and what their significance is, or at least not one that seriously considered the presence and relevance of ornithological interests, rather than simply birds’ totemic aspects. Birds—as just one, conspicuous set of species in the natural world—were clearly of profound interest to medieval thinkers and writers, and I wanted to explore how and why. So that’s how it all began, but the project inevitably took on much bigger proportions for me as it progressed.

Do animals receive enough attention in medieval scholarship? 
I think it’s more a question of do they receive the right sort of attention. Animals haven’t been ignored in medieval scholarship, but there is a long tradition of thinking that medieval poets weren’t really interested in actual species themselves; it was what they meant that was important. Birds, specifically, have always received short shrift in ornithological histories, which tend to deal with Aristotle, and then skip to the 16th century. The medieval chapter in these histories is always by far and away the shortest—it’s a respectful nod to the more familiar textual references that exist, and which suggest that birds must have been observed on some level, but the popular attitude, at least, is that medieval people ‘knew little about birds, and cared even less’ (Stephen Moss, A Bird in a Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching).

With the spike in 21st century ecological sensibilities, though, there has been a revolution right across disciplines. Ecocriticism and animal studies have achieved considerable popularity and influence in medieval scholarship over the last decade, striving to emphasise the reality of nonhuman creatures in life and text, and demonstrate that how medieval people thought about the natural world and their relationship to it was much more complex and diverse than we have previously thought. So yes, I do think animals are receiving the right sort of attention in medieval scholarship now, but there’s still some way to go (if you look at how many panels there on nonhuman topics at the big medieval congresses each year in Kalamazoo and Leeds compared to other more traditional topics, there is a very striking disparity).

Your book discusses a rich span of poetry, from Anglo Saxon texts through to Chaucer and Gower. Do you have a favourite? 
I do have a particular fondness for The Seafarer. There’s something about the early Christian asceticism and the tempestuous seascape in which this plays out that really appeals to me; I suppose it chimes with my love of bleak, people-less spaces, like marshes. There is something so affecting and powerful about the intimate linking of the exile and the wild nonhuman, and the fact that birds are a conspicuous part of the environment and the Seafarer’s experience is fascinating to me. Seabirds are especially compelling to us humans I think, being that that they are perfectly at home in a location so alien and hostile to us—their mysterious experience is what, paradoxically, makes them such rich metaphors. I’m sure this must have genuinely been the case for those monastics seeking solitude and hardship on remote Atlantic islands like Skellig. If you’ve ever visited locations like this you’ll know you just can’t avoid the raucous presence of seabirds!

How did you come to settle on this particular selection? Did you have many to choose from? 
There are so many texts to choose from, especially if you move outside European traditions and consider, e.g., Arabic or Persian texts as well. I chose only English texts because I was interested in representations of native British wild birds, and because I purposefully wanted to bring new perspectives to much-studied poems by revealing and exploring their intricate and knowledgeable depictions of birds. These birds have received attention before now, but I wanted to take this further—to look at how the ornithological elements might be part of the wider thematic interests of the texts. There is also a subsidiary thread to the book which seeks to fill in some of those gaps about medieval ornithological knowledge, for which it was useful to survey the whole span of the Middle Ages.

What place, if any, did birds hold in the everyday lives of people in the Middle Ages? 
As for the everyday lives of most people, it’s very hard to know. The surviving texts of the medieval age, of course, were not written by or for, and can’t be said to represent the ‘everyday lives’ of, most people. But the written evidence does imply that for intellectual or elite milieux, at least, birds had a diverse and important status in all sorts of ways ranging from the practical to the philosophical: food, quills, hunters (and quarry) in falconry, caged songbirds, intriguing comparative subjects in theories about voice and music, allegories in bestiaries, subjects of ‘special mention’ in encyclopaedias (Bartholomew the Englishmen). In poetry, of course, birds became elevated metaphors for a whole variety of subjects, but what I aim to do in the book is show how knowledge of real birds and species (the ‘everyday’ if you like) still important in informing how these metaphors work.

Beyond this, though, it is possible to get a feel for how birds must have played a part in vernacular lore and discourses. Old English names for birds, for instance, suggest remarkable degrees of observation and listening, and their presence in Anglo-Saxon place names or charter boundaries conveys how they were acknowledged as important elements of environment (‘take the path left past the pond where the coal tit lives’, sort of thing), and there is no reason to believe that much of this didn’t descend from or wasn’t shared by your ordinary man and woman living and working in the natural world where birds are. There is no doubt that wild birds generally were much more plentiful in the Middle Ages; our modern ‘baseline’ perception is heavily distorted because we live in a world where pretty much all species, but particularly groups like farmland birds, have dramatically declined due to modern industrial practices.

Expanding on the last question, why would the presence of birds in poetry have appealed to a medieval poet or audience? 
Beyond what I’ve suggested above, I think the overall thing for me is that birds are such consummate and enigmatic transformers. They complicate, escape and thwart human attempts to categorise—something I pick up on with particular reference to the Exeter Book Riddles in the book. Birds, in life and in poetry, always seems to be in some sort of ‘trans’ status and I think this has a lot to do with why they were (and are) so compelling. David Wallace has eloquently said in his recent book on Chaucer that medieval conceptions of the human condition engaged the ‘perilous art’ of aligning ‘bawdy bodies and stargazing intelligences’. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why birds were illuminating parallels—they are animals below human status in one sense, and yet occupy the ethereal heights above humans as well; they are both mundane and numinous at once.

A captivating aspect of your volume is the depiction of everyday birds and how their reality is used and transformed into metaphor. What’s your favourite example? 
Again, I’m drawn to the alien, pelagic qualities of the seabirds in The Seafarer which the poet aligns with the solitary speaker, but perhaps one of the most interesting examples is the owl in The Owl and the Nightingale. Part of the poem’s sophisticated comedy, for me, is that the ‘realities’ of the eponymous birds are consistently (and knowingly, on the part of the author) confused, which causes problems when these particular qualities are transposed into metaphorical use in texts like the popular bestiaries. So, when the nightingale attacks the owl’s day-blindness (which becomes a well-known metaphor for the sinner who cannot or refuses to see the light of Christ), we are aware that profound moral ‘truths’ are being drawn up on false premises: the owl states herself in the poem that this particular ‘truth’ about owls is just plain wrong.

This book clearly demonstrates a real love for birds. Are you an avid birder yourself? 
I certainly am. I birdwatch a lot in Kent where I live, particularly on the marshes up in the north of the county. It was my uncle who got me into birding when I was very young, and it’s his photos, in fact, that illustrate the book, including the striking image of flying godwits on the front cover.

Of course, you don’t need to be a birdwatcher to write about birds in medieval poetry, but I do think it has helped attune me to various nuances, such as the importance of sound or accurate observation in Old English bird names, or the ornithological aspects of certain species that clash with allegorical treatments.

What are you working on now, or will you be working on next? 
Still birds! I was approached by a publisher some years back whilst writing my PhD about the possibility of producing a trade version of my thesis. So, now the monograph is finished up, I’m turning my attention to this new project. It will take some of the informative, ornithological elements of the monograph and weave these into a nature/travel-writing narrative. The first chapter is set on the Essex Marshes, particularly concerning a place called Foulness Island, to explore Old English place names, and how birds, but also the natural world more generally, are intimately observed and become a part of human conceptions of place.

 

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Wasps, owls and the dangers of anthropomorphism

I came across a humorous meme on Facebook the other day. It’s an ID card for commonly seen British bees. There’s the honey bee, of course, and bumble bee. And then there’s the wasp – the ‘c**t with wings’. It’s funny. We all know the scenario: late summer, a round of drinks in the pub garden on a lazy Sunday, but the calm is ruined by the presence of dratted wasps.

Beyond the joke, though, the meme raised some more profound queries for me. Vespine malice, indeed, may not be as harmless as we think. It’s a good example of what I call the cultural persuasion of anthropomorphism: the pejorative impact that can come from attributing human qualities to nonhuman creatures. Sometimes, reputations are established for innocent nonhuman parties that can be impossible to reverse; involved in conflicts that are ultimately about human priorities or prejudices, the history of a particular species can be significantly affected and defined by our cultural representations.

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Gary Larson’s well-known Far Side cartoons brilliantly satirise anthropomorphism and other human treatments of the nonhuman.

It can begin harmlessly enough. Animals, of course, are very often employed in metaphors to depict human behaviours: pigs are filthy, foxes are cunning. We understand that we are actually dealing with humans who are squalid or sly, but the process of metaphor is never one way – these enduring comparisons affect the animal itself. Foxes may well show all sorts of sophisticated predator cognition (and remarkable urbane adaptability in the modern world), but we should not equate this with human concepts of deceit, as the familiar metaphor encourages us to do. Pigs suffer an even worse cultural fate, repeatedly invoked as the epitome of uncivilised (that is inhuman) behaviour: we must not eat like a pig, or live in a pigsty, or conduct ourselves with the emotional insensitivity of a pig.

In the case of the wasp, there are cultural implications too, if not quite as familiar. Some are innocuous enough, even positive: it was once fashionable to have a wasp waist; a person who is easily peeved or angered is ‘waspish’. The Greek comic playwright Aristophanes made use of wasp characteristics to depict one of his most famous eponymous choruses – a busybody swarm of geriatric jurors. What we can easily overlook though, is how this generalised portrayal of wasp-ness reduces the diverse complexity of wasps’ astounding being to a singular, misrepresented aspect. The common wasp we love to hate (vespula vulgaris) is only one of hundreds of thousands of species worldwide, all playing important ecological roles (here and here). Good old vulgaris, for instance, is essential to keeping down insects that would otherwise decimate harvests on farms and in gardens, and they rid our towns and cities of organic waste.

People don’t lash out at wasps buzzing round their pint of coke because they are consciously acting in response to these processes, but it is possible that deeply embedded prejudices or persuasions do contribute to these culturally validated reactions: “What the hell do wasps do anyway? They’re just bloody pests!” The mechanisms here are no different to those operating in racism or sexism: the cultural and the biological are confused to the point where moral judgements placed upon a particular person, group or creature lead us to think that they are naturally and inherently depraved or inferior.

A group of creatures that has repeatedly been the victim of misrepresentation throughout the age of Western culture is the owl family. The remnant of this legacy in modern times is largely positive – owls are wise. But they have more often been made symbols, associates and scapegoats for a whole range of ills. The doom and gloom aspect has been around since classical times, but it was the Middle Ages that were particularly responsible for setting these associations in stone. Several owl species were identified in the popular natural history books of the period (the bestiaries), and each had its own negative significance: you will find noctua and nyticorax, night owls who fly by night and cannot see in the day; bubo, the horned owl who befouls its nest; and ulula and strix, screech owls known for their wailing calls. It’s not difficult to imagine how owls’ nocturnal habits made them ideal metaphors for sinners who shun the light of Christ.

A typical bestiary owl with a hook-nose to denote the Jew. Bibliothèque Municipale de Reims, ms. 993, Folio 153r

At best, these cultural distortions of owls were just wrong (owls can certainly see in the daylight); at worst, they could turn nastily on owls themselves, infecting the real bird and dangerously instructing the ways humans act upon nature. Take bubo (the eagle owl). From biblical sources, this species was thought to have an unclean nest – a metaphor for the sinner in the mire of his own filth. The problem is that this characteristic, like others, gets transferred across all owls in the bestiaries, so various species end up getting lumbered with the invented trait of one owl in particular through association (something similar happens in the wasp meme – disparate species are all shoved alike under the term ‘bee’). All owls shun the light, all owls are dirty. As the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale reveals, this mishmash of owl representation meant that the birds themselves were defamed as ‘loathsome and foul’: all people, the owl is told by the nightingale, think about how to kill you; they ‘pelt you and stone you, and smash your horrible bones to pieces’.

Medieval representations even managed to make the familiar practice of mobbing owls by small prey birds a justification for the innate sinfulness of owls. Because mobbing became a metaphor for approved attack on human sinners, the birds involved in this activity against owls by default show the same inclination: they attack the owl because it is wicked.

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An owl being mobbed. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 73v

The ultimate and most dangerous manifestation of this metaphorical blurring is evident in medieval obsessions with a specific type of sinner – the Jew. In Norwich, where anti-Semitic hostilities and riots were prevalent in the late Middle Ages, the cathedral still bears witness to such hatred – there are no less than six owls included in various wood carvings, some of which explicitly portray the proverbial mobbing scene: the action of mobbing owls in the real world has genuinely become an endorsement for the violence inflicted against a particular social group. Whilst there is no hard evidence to show us how this impacted on real owls, the popularity of this cultural pairing must have, to some extent, increased traditional beliefs in owls’ ‘loathsome and foul’ characters.

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One of the Norwich owl carvings. An owl is clearly being mobbed by smaller birds here.

Anthropomorphism can have its positives: it can establish connections across boundaries of difference; it can elicit empathy. It can even prompt us re-evaluate whether nonhuman creatures do in fact lack those faculties we have always assumed to be exclusively human. Charities use the tactic all the time, and the viewing figures of Springwatch must be due in part to the popularity of Spineless Si the Stickleback or Sophia la Wren. But the technique is always fraught with difficulties. Yes, these names encourage a bond, but they also recommend that we see these creatures in human terms to make them more memorable: as Chris Packham has commented, “People don’t remember the blue tits we didn’t give a name to.”

Overlooking blue tits because they are unnamed is unlikely to have terrible ramifications, but when cultural portraits become so powerful that they distort and turn destructively on the real creature, there is an urgent need to re-think how we perceive and interact with the natural world.

Gary Larson, The Far Side

 

‘When the woods wax green’ – nightingales in a Kentish wood

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.

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The Owl and the Nightingale. London, British Museum, M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX ff. 233-46. ll. 1-16 (Source: Wikipedia Commons; photograph by Jesse Fawn.)

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.
(591-6)

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