Tag Archives: Etymologies

Birds – wondrous transformations

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’.

Image result for herring gull
The gull (larus) is described in Trevisa’s translation of Bartholmaeus to demonstrate birds’ in between-ness: it ‘lives sometimes in water, sometimes on land … is in rivers and on land, and now seems like a fish, and now flies as a bird.

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’.

St. Isidore, from the 12th-century Aberdeen Bestiary (see the Aberdeen Bestiary website)
Isidore of Seville, depicted in the 12th-century Aberdeen bestiary. Source: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/ms24/f81r

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.


Pelagic Anglo-Saxon souls

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:

Đonne onwæcneð eft     wineleas guma,
gesihð him biforan     fealwe wegas
baþian brimfuglas     brædan feþra
hreosan hrim ond snaw     haggle gemenged

[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 huilpan has never been definitively identified by scholars, but cognates with other Germanic languages like Dutch suggest that the curlew is a very likely candidate. There is no doubt that this species’ haunting call must have attracted the attention of Anglo-Saxons as much as it does us today. (Source: Wikipedia Commons.)

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 coins dating 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.