Tag Archives: illuminated manuscripts

A little medieval poem on birds’ voices

A quick browse through any field guide to birds reveals that the standard ornithological method for conveying bird vocalisations is still transliteration – a careful substitution of complex avian sound patterns into a phonetic sequence that is broadly understandable in another system – a human language. You’ll come across some striking examples, including some that are just ludicrous, or seemingly untranslatable into human spoken utterances. There are the well-known classics: from the Collins Guide, ‘goo-ko’ (cuckoo), and ‘kewickhoooouh’ (tawny owl; better known, of course, as ‘tu-whit, tu-who’). But then what about a willow warbler: ‘sisisi-vüy-vüy-vüy svi-svi-vi tuuy tuuy si-si-sviiy-sü’? Or maybe a greenfinch: ‘jüpp-jüpp-jüpp jürrrrrrrr tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy juit chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp dürdürdürdür jürrrrrrrr …’?

These modern examples of ornithologists’ mimicry, though, are in fact no different to much earlier efforts to translate animal and human sounds – they merely continue a long and rich legacy (see here for a fuller discussion of this topic in an earlier post). I have been prompted to think again about the lines of transmission between medieval and modern approaches birds because I am currently working with three manuscripts from important monastic centres of the late Anglo-Saxon age containing a copy each of a little birdsong poem titled ‘De cantibus avium (On the songs of birds), which is, largely, a catalogue of phonetically-rendered, onomatopoeic bird calls. The three versions are all the same, and suggest a lost, earlier source. What seems pretty clear is that this poem, wherever or whenever the original was composed, was designed to teach the typical Latin translations of particular animal and bird sounds. The poem appears in manuscripts that all deal with grammar subjects, and in two cases, it actually appears directly after a standard prose list of nonhuman sounds – what is known as the voces animantium ‘voices of animals’ genre (see here for one of the manuscript examples). The formula, developed from classical models, goes a little like this:

apes ambizant vel bombizant, aquilae clangunt, anseres crinciunt vel trinsiunt,
aves minuriunt vel vernant vel vernicant, accipitres pipant vel plipiant,
anates teritisant …

[bees buzz or buzz, eagles sound, geese hiss or honk, birds chirp or make noise
or twitter, hawks screech or cry, ducks quack …]

Much of the ‘De cantibus’ poem reads almost word for word like these lists, but it also draws attention to the great and enduring fascination of birdsong – its supreme variety and diversity. However hard we might try, it is beyond our capabilities to record, catalogue and know all bird songs:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.

[Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? A thousand are sung of birds, a thousand differences of voice. Nor do I myself claim to discern such voices.]

Many of these medieval examples might sound ridiculous to us. But they probably did to medieval writers as well: many of the invented onomatopoeic verbs in the sound lists are such nonsense that they basically mean nothing more than ‘cranes make a crane noise’, or ‘blackbirds make a blackbird noise’, as though the writer draws attention to his own complete inadequacy in trying to replicate birdsong. Perhaps this translation tradition highlights a serious point about all translation though: even though these efforts aim to bring us closer to another being or mode of communication, they ultimately reminds us of essential difference – when you try to turn birdsong, or any nonhuman utterance, into human language, the result doesn’t quite manage to do the job. Crucially, though, this difference does not make birdsong irrational goobledygook (a word, in fact, that was coined to mean nonsense precisely because it sounds like turkey gibberish). It is simply that their voices are not our voices.


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.

Bird bodies

A student I taught last year for AS Level literature gave me a card a few weeks ago to say thank you. She knows me well – her handy work combines my great loves. You can see Chaucer up the top – a flying … trout, he seems to be. Not sure how he got up on the cliff with the puffins. I’m not sure where she obtained that photo of me either. Still.


What this student didn’t realise is how closely she touches upon my current fascination and area of research. In fact, her misfit human-bird bodies are precisely what I’ve been writing about for the last month or so. Hybrid anthropo-birds were all the rage in late medieval art as well. In a previous blog, I wrote about conceptions of multiple-bodies in the Middle Ages. This was a particular fascination for medieval minds – metamorphosis, hybridity, psychosomatic unities. Ovid had a lot to do with this: there was a massive surge of interest – a craze even – in his Metamorphoses from the 12th century onwards, but this was also in response to increased preoccupations and concerns with theological dilemmas – the relation between body and soul (particularly after death); transubstantiation (was bread and wine really transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ?)

I hope to write more fully in the future on bird bodies in John Gower’s ‘Tereus’ – about his goshawk body during the rape of Philomena; about Philomena’s various metaphorical bird morphs; about the power of birds’ voices; about the final transformations into three birds at the end which entwines human identities with species’ ontologies. Gower devotes a lot to this, far beyond Ovid; well over one hundred lines about the habits and characters of the nightingale, swallow and lapwing (a hoopoe in most versions).

This was serious stuff, this metamorphosis. For  now, though (because I promised myself I’d keep this post short!), what really struck me about my student’s artwork was how close it comes to the witty, bizarre and more frivolous nature of marginal illuminations in late medieval manuscripts. Medieval artists could have a great deal of fun, too, imagining how human and bird forms might combine.

Feudal Custom of Aragon; c. 1290.
Feudal Custom of Aragon; c. 1290.
British Library, Harley 7026   f. 16
British Library, Harley 7026 f. 16

De proprietatibus metallis et homo – on the properties of metals and man (or how I gained a metallic leg)

One of those entirely unexpected, cannot-be-foreseen-until-the-cursed-moment-it-happens instances put me on my backside last Friday morning whilst simply making my way from my grandmother’s garden to the kitchen sink with the intention of washing up my breakfast bowl, and numerous further intentions of doing many more things that day, and I’ve not been vertical since. One slip on a patch of some sort of grease on a polished tile floor, some split-second spiral action in between that I don’t recall or can’t explain, and I’m on the floor with a shattered tibia protruding like an egg underneath the skin of my shin (turns out the fibula is fractured in two places as well) and an ankle that is very much in the wrong position.

My broken fibula (you can't really see the tibia fracture from here).
My broken fibula (you can’t really see the tibia fracture from here).

As is often the way, uncanny parallels present themselves though, bringing one’s situation into relation with other events or occurrences that prompt us to believe that ‘these things happen for a reason’, and so it was that, forced to just sit (lie) still for a while, I got down to some reading for my next PhD chapter. In fact, at the time of the accident, whilst on the kitchen floor with three paramedics injecting and strapping me, I still found the time to request that a member of my family did not forget to pack the academic books I had left on the living room table before breakfast! It’s just a question of priorities.

I had surgery on my tibia this morning and have been thinking about the now-prosthetic element of my leg. There’s a contradictory fascination with this for me. I marvel at the expertise and speed with which my leg has been reconstructed (God bless the NHS) and am intrigued at the idea of a titanium rod becoming a life-long partner to my anatomy, but also disturbed by notions of what is natural and unnatural, as though my body is now de-humanised, mechanised in some form. And yet, we would usually place the human on the ‘unnatural’ side of that opposition which splits the ‘natural’ world and us. So where does that place me now? I also can’t help being aware that the rod in my leg will be the most enduring aspect of me – it will outlive me by a long way, perhaps transmuted into something else after my life time, but still persisting, and carrying with it the narrative of its relatively brief encounter with the inside of my leg.

And it just so happens that all this musing on my own ‘new’ body coincides with a selection of critical texts I have with me on the subjects of medieval inter-corporealities, hybrid bodies, on the post-human, on the fusions of human and nonhuman forms, both animate, inanimate, tangible and intangible. I intend for my coming chapter to explore the idea of mutilated bodily forms, and the strange literal and metaphorical misfit avian-human bodies that occur in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession) tales, which in turn are re-tellings (transmutations) of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So I’m happy enough with my leg elevated and the chance to ponder medieval hybrid forms that proliferate in literature and marginal illustrations. My leg is a crass, very literal example of all this, but it did strike some interesting resemblances with what I am reading. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, for instance, states in Medieval Identity Machines, that ‘human identity is … unstable, contingent, hybrid, discontinuous; that the work of creating a human body is never finished’ or, elsewhere, that ‘always supported by objects, substances, and ecologies, the human is never unaccompanied’ (Inhuman Nature). If I considered my human body as a discrete and defined, closed flesh-and-blood anatomy (forgetting the fact that 90% of the DNA in my body belongs to microbial bodies anyway), I find it hard to do so in quite the same way now!

The Rutland Psalter (13th cen.). Source: British Library public domain.
Medieval marginal hybrids. The Rutland Psalter (13th cen.). Source: British Library public domain.

Cohen’s key example of externally-affected bodies in his Machines’ introduction comes from medieval astrological texts which show the human body in synchronicity with cosmological forces – the great machine of heaven. I am prompted to think of these celestial forces on the lives of minerals in medieval thought, too, bringing me back to that titanium in my leg. In medieval encyclopedias (like Bartholomaeus’s De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things), metals were as much a part of the great chain of being as anything else, albeit relegated to a low position in the hierarchy. Albert the Great’s De mineralibus (Book of Minerals) considers the inanimate specifically. Stones and minerals had their own powers – alchemical and magical; inorganic and organic at the same time; composed of fire, air, earth and water; and potent with divine essence. I don’t think many of us would commit to the belief now that minerals obtain a heavenly ‘virtue’, but the most recent theories in broad cultural studies are encouraging us, as part of the broad ecological/environmental paradigm, to think of all interrelations in what Timothy Morton has most recently titled ‘the mesh’ (The Ecological Thought). Perhaps the example of my leg isn’t such a silly example after all; the experience has, quite literally, ‘opened the flesh to [not] animal or vegetal transformation’ (Cohen, Machines), but certainly mineral transformation.

Mandrake from the Tacuinum Sanitatis (15th cen.). Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Mandrake from the Tacuinum Sanitatis (15th cen.). Source: Wikipedia Commons.