Of the swallow ‘The turtle-dove and the stork and the swallow observe the time of their coming. But my people know not the judgment of the Lord’ (see Jeremiah, 8:7). We have talked of the turtle-dove; that leaves the swallow and after it the stork to be discussed.
Isidore says this about it: ‘The swallow is so called because it does not feed on the ground but catches its food and eats it in the air. It is a twittering bird that flies in twisting, turning loops and circuits, is highly skilled in building its nest and rearing its young, and has also a kind of foresight because it lets you know when buildings are about to fall by refusing to nest on their tops. In addition, it is not harrassed by birds of prey nor is it ever their victim. It flies across the sea and winters there.’ The swallow is a tiny bird but of an eminently pious nature; lacking in everything, it constructs nests which are more valuable than gold because it builds them wisely. For the nest of wisdom is more precious than gold. And what is wiser than to have, as the swallow does, the capacity to fly where it likes and to entrust its nest and its young to the houses of men, where none will attack them. For there is something attractive in the way that the swallow accustoms its young from their earliest days to the company of people and keeps them safe from the attacks of hostile bird.
Then remarkably, the swallow creates a regularly-proportioned home for itself without any assistance, like a skilled craftsman. For it gathers bits of straw in its mouth and smears them with mud so that they stick together; but because it cannot carry the mud in its claws, it dips the tips of its wings in water, so that dust sticks to them easily and turns into slime, with which to gather to itself bits of straw or tiny twigs, a few at a time, and makes them stick. It makes the whole fabric of the nest in this fashion, in order that its young can live safely as if on a solid floor in houses on the ground, lest any of them insert a foot between the small gaps in the woven fabric or the cold should get to the very young. This conscientiousness is fairly common among most birds, yet what is distinctive about the swallow is its special loving care, shrewd intelligence and the extraordinary quality of its understanding.
Then there is its skill in the arts of healing: if its young are infected by blindness or pricked in the eye, it has some kind of healing power with which it can restore their vision. The swallow, as this example proves, can be taken to represent, in some cases, pride of mind; in others, the repentance of the afflicted heart. That the swallow signifies pride is illustrated by Tobit: When he lay down beside a wall, says Tobit, and fell asleep, it happened that warm excrement fell on his eyes from a swallows’ nest as he slept and he became blind (see Tobit, 2:10).
Bede Commentarys on this: ‘The swallow, on account of its lightness in flight, represents pride and levity of heart; their impurity causes immediate blindness, and prevents one from seeing what he is. That we should interpret the swallow as the contrite heart is demonstrated by the prophet, who says: ‘Like a crane or a swallow, so will I chatter’ (see Isaiah, 38:14). We understand by the swallow, therefore, a discerning teacher; by the swallow’s young, the teacher’s disciple, crying out; by the cry, a contrite heart. The fledgling cries out as the disciple asks his teacher to preach to him. The fledgling cries out as, by confession, the disciple shows his teacher the contrition in his heart. If you know the cry of the swallow, it signifies, unless I am mistaken, the lament of the penitent soul.
The swallow does not feed on the ground but eats what it catches in the air, as those who have no love for earthly things, seek, far away from them, the things of heaven. It is said to twitter, like those who frequently take pleasure in plaintive pleas. It flies in winding circles, as those who bend their minds in submission to the rules of obedience. The swallow is expert in building nests and bringing up its young. In constructing a nest, it resembles those who fix their hope in the faith of Christ’s passion. It is skilled in bringing up its young, that is, like those who are skilled in teaching the brethren in their charge. The swallow has a kind of foresight, because it tells us which buildings which are about to fall by refusing to nest on their tops. Those who are truly penitent have a kind of foresight, in that they flee from the fall of this world and seek life without end. It is not harassed by other birds and is never their prey. Birds of prey never fall upon it, in the same way that the contrite of heart are never the prey of devils. The swallow flies across the sea, as the truly penitent long to quit the sorrows and commotions of this world. There it stays during in winter. As, when winter assails us, and the cold comes, the righteous man migrates to the warm region of love. There he waits patiently until the coldness of temptation passes from his mind. The pious bird knows how to proclaim, in witness of its coming, the beginning of spring. The swallow returns after the cold of winter to announce the beginning of spring. Likewise, the righteous man returns after the coldness of great temptation to the temperate climate of a well-regulated mind, in order that, having escaped the cold of temptation, he may ascend by means of good works to summer, that is, the warmth of the due measure of love. This, then, is the nature of the swallow, that is to say, of the penitent soul: it longs all the time for the beginning of spring, as the soul holds to the way of good judgement and moderation in all things. See how something simple, like the swallow, can teach those to whom divine providence from the beginning gave the capacity of discernment.