Tag Archives: medieval

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.

Far Side 1.jpg
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.

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.

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



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.

The winter angel

There are some birds that are early fixed in the imagination, and hold their allure for a lifetime. These are not childhood memories of actual encounters, but of something more mythic – birds that made claims on my experiences long before I ever set eyes upon them. I knew them only from illustrations (John Gooders’ Kingfisher Guide to Birds in Britain and Europe; a scrappy pocket Collins), or experienced them vicariously in my uncle’s scrawling field notes. I loved their rarity, made them live – the impossible colours of bee-eaters, rollers, waxwings; the wildness of eagles – in my assiduously copied sketches from a hand-me-down set of Ladybirds. I dreamed of discovering these birds myself, desired them as much as those accumulating notebooks in my uncle’s study – dinky and black, with an elastic band that made a firm snap when you pulled it into place.

In an attempt to conjure one of these exotic species, I once invented reports to my mother, hoping that the fantasised chase across the South Downs would turn up a real life counterpart to the impressive sunset vision depicted in that Ladybird plate. It was years before I finally saw a great grey shrike – a strange songbird from the north with a grisly habit and a dapper bandit mask to suit. I’ve seen several since, but I am still compelled to see these birds when small numbers make their winter homes here each year from Scandinavia.

The first of all my shrikes (John Leigh-Pemberton, Birds of Prey, Penguin, 1970); an early Ladybird book of birds (1954).

This morning was ideal out on the brooks, the first properly cold weather of the season and everything reduced to a shrike’s wintry colours: the stone-hard whites of frost, the bare blackness of trees, and low mists tracing every degree of grey-silver. As shrikes do, the bird I was after appeared quite suddenly, there atop a nearby birch. It was gone as quickly, in the second I glanced away, but there it was again, at some distance, silent and sentinel on another tree top. Shrikes establish large territories and can go unseen for long stretches of time, though they will be present all winter, remaining faithful to particular sites year after year.

Despite its scarcity, the bird has a long-lived gruesome legacy in British folklore, which pertains to the red-backed shrike, too, once a breeding species in these isles (unlike the great grey). Its various names speak of its macabre reputation, derived from its family propensity for impaling prey on thorns, recalling a butcher’s meat store, or the huge iron hooks from which his carcasses hang. The great grey’s scientific name reminds us of this habit – Lanius derives from Latin for butcher or executioner. A meat-hacker: the butcher-bird.

(Photo: Duncan Usher)

Its infamy goes back much further, however, as indicated by the strikingly similar cluster of names across northern European countries. Its late medieval English name was the waryangle which existed in various dialect forms for centuries, all of which, like Germanic werkangel or warkangel, mean something like ‘suffocating angel’ (compare Modern German, würger and würgengel). The name is not attested in Anglo-Saxon records, but may well extend back this far; waryangle, may, in fact, derive from Old English wearg (criminal) and incel (diminutive suffix): ‘little-villain’. Certainly by the fourteenth century the name was invoked as an abusive term. In Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, the summoner is denounced by way of comparison, ‘as ful of jangles [tricks] / As ful of venym been thise waryangles’ [as shrikes are full of venom] (a shrike’s butchering thorns were thought to be forever after poisonous).

Remarkably, in an age without binoculars, and which is traditionally dismissed for its unscientific indifference to ornithological precision, the earliest illustration we have of the species actually comes from a medieval English missal (1400) produced in Sherborne, Dorset. It very clearly and accurately depicts a grey shrike labelled waryghanger, one of many British species depicted in this remarkable manuscript. For this illuminator, at least, the shrike held a place in the native imagination, as it always has in mine. Its flight from thorn to thorn points on to shrikes I have not yet seen, that exist in those books and pocket notes that occupy me still.

The Sherborne shrike (Image: Janet Backhouse, Medieval Birds in the Sherborne Missal, British Library, 2001).