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© C. Ford.
[Of the] coot. It is a winged creature, fairly clever and very wise; it does not feed on corpses and it does not fly or wander aimlessly but stays in one place until it dies, finding both food and rest there.
Let every one of the faithful, therefore, maintain himself and live like that; let them not scurry around, straying this way and that, down different paths, as heretics do; let them not be enticed by the desires and pleasures of this world; but let them stay in one place, finding peace in in the catholic Church, where the Lord provides a dwelling-place for those who are spiritually in harmony, and there let them subsist daily on the bread of immortality, drinking the precious blood of Christ, refreshing themselves on the most sweet words of the Lord, ‘sweeter than honey and the honeycomb’ (Psalms, 19:10)
Ganda the Rhinoceros was going to be the Pope’s rhinoceros, that is Leo X, but Ganda drowned in 1515. Ganda was immortalized by Dürer, and so remains the most famous European animal of the renaissance. And I don’t blame the elephant for running away. I’d run too. There’s a short video below, but you can read all about Ganda at Medievalists.
Oh, I remember laughing so much when I was trying to get this photo. The boys looked like I interrupted a major scheme. Left to Right, Theo, Vasco, Oliver, Neville, and Chester had debunked to the back of them all.
© C. Ford, all rights reserved.
[Of the halcyon] The halcyon is a seabird which produces its young on the shore, depositing its eggs in the sand, around midwinter. It chooses as the time to hatch its young, the period when the sea is at its highest and the waves break more fiercely than usual on the shore; with the result that the grace with which this bird is endowed shines forth the more, with the dignity of an unexpected calm. For it is a fact that when the sea has been raging, once the halcyon’s eggs have been laid, it suddenly becomes gentle, all the stormy winds subside, the strong breezes lighten, and as the wind drops, the sea lies calm, until the halcyon hatches its eggs.
The eggs take seven days to hatch, at the end of which the halcyon brings forth its young and the hatching is at an end. The halcyon takes a further seven days to feed its chicks until they begin to grow into young birds. Such a short feeding-time is nothing to marvel at, since the completion when the hatching process takes so few days.
This little bird is endowed by God with such grace that sailors know with confidence that these fourteen days will be days of fine weather and call them ‘the halcyon days’, in which there will be no period of stormy weather.
Of the partridge The partridge gets its name from the sound it makes. It is a cunning and unclean bird. For one male mounts another and in their reckless lust they forget their sex. The partridge is so deceitful that one will steal another’s eggs. But the trick does not work. For when the young hear the cry of their real mother, their natural instinct is to leave the bird that is brooding them and return to the mother who produced them.
The Devil imitates their example, trying to rob the eternal Creator of those he has created; if he succeeds somehow in bringing together men who are foolish and lack any sense of their own inner strength, he cossets them with seductive pleasures of the flesh. But when they have heard the voice of Christ, growing spiritual wings, they wisely fly away and entrust themselves to Christ.
The nests built by partridges are skilfully fortified. For they cover their hiding-place with thorny bushes so that animals attacking them are kept at bay by the prickly branches. The partridge uses dust to cover its eggs and returns secretly to the place, which it has marked. Frequent intercourse tires it. The females often carry their young in order to deceive the males, who frequently attack the chicks, all the more impatiently when the chicks fawn on them. The males fight over their choice of mate, and believe they can use the losers for sex in place of the females. The latter are so affected by lust, that if the wind blows towards them from the males, they become pregnant by the males’ scent. Then, if any man approaches the place where the patridge is brooding, the mothers come out and deliberately show themselves to them; pretending that their feet or wings are injured, they put on a show of moving slowly, as if they could be caught in no time; by this trick they act as decoys to the approaching men and fool them into moving far away from the nest.
The young are not slow, either, to watch out for themselves. When they sense that they have been seen, they lie on their backs holding up small clods of earth in their claws, camouflaging themselves so skilfully, that they lie hidden from detection.
A partridge seems to be an unlikely symbol of unbridled lust. Those birds were a common dish on medieval tables; I wonder if all the lustiness was also assigned to eating them.
[Of the heron] It is called heron, ardea, as if from ardua, meaning ‘high’, because of its capacity to fly high in the sky; it fears rain and flies above the clouds to avoid experiencing the storms they bring. A heron taking wing shows a storm is coming. Many people call the heron Tantalus, after the king who betrayed the secrets of the gods. Rabanus says on this subject: ‘This bird can signify the souls of the elect, who fear the disorder of this world, lest they be caught up by chance in the storms of persecution stirred up by the Devil, and raise their minds, reaching above all worldly things to the tranquility of their home in heaven, where the countenance of God is forever to be seen.
Although the heron seeks its food in water, nevertheless it builds its nest in woodland, in tall trees, as the righteous man, whose sustenance is uncertain and transitory, places his hope in splendid and exalted things. The soul of man sustained by transitory things, rejoices in the eternal. The heron tries with its beak to prevent its nestlings from being seized by other birds. So the righteous man lashes with his tongue those who, to his knowledge, are evilly inclined to deceive the gullible. Some herons are white, some grey, but both colours can be taken in a good sense, if white signifies purity, grey, penitence.
[Of the goose] The goose marks the watches of the night by its constant cry. No other creature picks up the scent of man as it does. It was because of its noise, that the Gauls were detected when they ascended the Capitol. Rabanus says in this context: ‘The goose can signify men who are prudent and look out for their own safety.’ There are two kinds of geese, domestic and wild. Wild geese fly high, in a an orderly fashion, signifying those who, far away from earthly things, preserve a rule of virtuous conduct. Domestic geese live together in villages, they cackle together all the time and rend each other with their beaks; they signify those who, although they like conventual life, nevertheless find time to gossip and slander.
All wild geese are grey in colour; I have not seen any that were of mixed colour or white. But among domestic geese, there are not only grey but variegated and white ones. Wild geese are the colour of ashes, that is to say, those who keep apart from this world wear the modest garb of penitence. But those who live in towns or villages wear clothes that are more beautiful in colour. The goose, more than any other animal, picks up the scent of a someone happening by, as the discerning man knows of other men by their good or bad reputation, even though they live far away. When, therefore, a goose picks up the scent of a man approaching, it cackles endlessly at night, as when a discerning brother sees in others the negligence that comes with ignorance, it is his duty to call attention to it.
The cackling of geese on the Capitol once helped the Romans, and in our chapter-house daily, when the discerning brother sees evidence of negligence, his warning voice serves to repel the old enemy, the Devil. The cackling of the goose saved the city of Rome from enemy attack; the warning voice of the discerning brother guards the life of his community from disruption by the wicked. Divine providence would not, perhaps, have revealed to us the characteristics of birds, if it had not wanted the knowledge to be of some benefit to us.
Of the nightingale The nightingale is so called because it signals with its song the dawn of the new day; a light-bringer, lucenia, so to speak. It is an ever-watchful sentinel, warming its eggs in a hollow of its body, relieving the sleepless effort of the long night with the sweetness of its song. It seems to me that the main aim of the bird is to hatch its eggs and give life to its young with sweet music no less than with the warmth of its body. The poor but modest mother, her arm dragging the millstone around, that her children may not lack bread, imitates the nightingale, easing the misery of her poverty with a night-time song, and although she cannot imitate the sweetness of the bird, she matches it in her devotion to duty.
[Of the jay] Rabanus says of the jay: ‘The jay gets is name from its talkativeness, garrulitas; not, as some would have it, because jays fly in flocks, gregatim; clearly, they are named for the cry they give. It is a most talkative species of bird and makes an irritating noise, and can signify either the empty prattle of philosophers or the harmful wordiness of heretics.’ More can be said of the nature of the jay. For jays signify both gossips and gluttons. For those who devote themselves to gluttony take pleasure, after eating, in repeating gossip and in lending an ear to slander. The jay lives in the woods and flies chattering from one tree to another, as a talkative man ceaselessly tells others about his neighbours, even the shameful things he knows about them. When the jay sees someone pass, it chatters, and if it finds anyone hiding from the world, it does the same, just as a talkative man slanders not only worldly men but also those hidden whom a religious house conceals.
[Of the bat] The bat, a lowly animal, gets its name from vesper, the evening, when it emerges. It is a winged creature but also a four-footed one, and it has teeth, which you would not usually find in birds. It gives birth like a quadruped, not to eggs but to live young. It flies, but not on wings; it supports itself by making a rowing motion with its skin, and, suspended just as on wings, it darts around. There is one thing which these mean creatures do, however: they cling to each other and hang together from one place looking like a cluster of grapes, and if the last lets go, the whole group disintegrate; it a kind of act of love of a sort which is difficult to find among men.
[Of the hoopoe] The Greeks call the bird by this name because it roosts in human ordure and feeds on stinking excrement. The filthiest of birds, it is capped with a prominent crest. It lives in burial places amid human ordure. If you rub yourself with its blood on your way to bed, you will have nightmares about demons suffocating you. On this subject, Rabanus says: ‘This bird signifies wicked sinners, men who continually delight in the squalor of sin.’ The hoopoe is said to take pleasure in grief, as the sorrow of this world brings about the death of the spirit; for this reason those who love God should ‘rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing and in every thing give thanks’ (see 1 Thessalonians, 5:16-18) ‘for the fruit of the Spirit is joy’ (see Galatians, 5:22).
In addition, Physiologus says of the hoopoe that when it grows old and cannot fly, its offspring come and pull out the oldest feathers from its body and constantly care for it, until it has recovered its strength as before and can fly. The young hoopoes provide, therefore, an example to those evil men who, when their parents grow old, throw them out of their home; who refuse to support, when they are weak, the parents who raised them when they were still in their infancy. Let man, who is endowed with reason, learn his duty to his mother and father, from the way in which this creature, which lacks reason, provides (as we have already shown) for its parents’ needs when they are old.
Then there’s a bit more on the Night Owl:
Of the night-owl The night-owl, noctua, is so called because it flies at night and cannot see in the daytime. For its sight is dimmed by brightness of the sun when it has risen. The night-owl, noctua, is not the same as the owl, bubo, which is bigger. But the night-crow, nicticorax, is the same as the night-owl, because it loves the night. For it is a bird which shuns the light and cannot bear to see the sun. This bird symbolises the Jews who, when the Lord our Saviour came to save them, rejected him, saying: ‘We have no king but Caesar’ (John, 19:15); and ‘loved darkness rather than light’ (John, 3:19). Then our Lord turned to us, the Gentiles, and gave us light as we sat in darkness and the shadow of death; of the Gentiles it is said: ‘A people which I knew not shall serve me’ (Samuel 2, 22:44; Psalms, 18:44); and in another prophet: ‘I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved’ (Romans, 9:25; see Hosea, 2:23). Of the people of the Jews, the sons of strangers etc.