Agnes, who was one wicked smart girl, enjoyed a good gnaw now and then. Good thing we have a woodpile.
© C. Ford.
Of the swan. The swan, olor, is the bird which the Greeks call cygnus. It is called olor because its plumage is wholly white; no-one can recall seeing a black swan. In Greek olos means ‘entire’. The swan is called cignus, from its singing; it pours forth the sweetness of song in a melodious voice. They say that the swan sings so sweetly because it has a long, curved neck; inevitably, a voice forcing its way through a long, flexible passage produces a variety of tones. They say, moreover, that in the far north, when bards are singing to their lyres, large numbers of swans are summoned by the sound and sing in harmony with them. The Latin name for the swan, I repeat, is olor; the Greeks call it cignus. Sailors say that seeing a swan is a good omen for them; Emilianus said: ‘When you are observing birds for omens, the swan is always the most favorable bird to see; sailors set great store by it because it does not plunge beneath the waves’.
The swan has snow-white plumage and dark flesh. In a moral sense, the white colour of its plumage signifies the effect of deception, whereby the dark flesh is hidden, in the same way that a sin of the flesh is concealed by pretence. When the swan swims in a river, it holds its neck and head high, as a proud man is led astray by transitory things and even glories at the time in his temporary possessions. They say that in the far north, when bards are singing to their lyres, large numbers of swans fly there and sing in harmony with them. In the same way those who long for sensuous pleasure with all their hearts, like the swans flying north, harmonise with other pleasure-seekers. But when, at the very end, the swan dies, it is said to sing very sweetly as it is dying.
Likewise, when the proud man departs this life, he still delights in the sweetness of this present world and, dying, remembers the evil he has done. When the swan is plucked of its white plumage, it is set on the spit and roasted at the fire. Likewise, when a rich, proud man is stripped at death of his worldly glory, he will descend to the fires of hell where he will be tormented; he who used to seek food in the lowest places, descending into the abyss, is fed into the fire.
Of the crow The crow is a long-lived bird, called cornix in Latin and Greek. Soothsayers assert that the crow can represent by signs the concerns of men, show where an ambush is laid and foretell the future. It is a great crime to believe this – that God confides his intentions to crows. Among the many omens attributed to crows is that of presaging by their caws the coming of rain. Hence the line: ‘Then the crow loudly cries for rain’ (Virgil, Georgics, 1, 388).
Another strike against the christian god. What’s wrong with confiding in crows?
Let men learn from the crow’s example and its sense of duty, to love their children. Crows follow their young in flight, escorting them attentively; they feed them anxiously in case they weaken. A very long time passes before they give up their responsibility for feeding their offspring. In contrast, women of our human race wean their babies as soon as they can, even the ones they love. Rich women are altogether averse to breastfeeding. If the women are poor, they cast out their infants, expose them and, when the babies are found, deny all knowledge of them. The rich themselves also kill their children in the womb, to avoid dividing their estate among many heirs; and with murderous concoctions they destroy in the uterus the children of their own womb; they would rather take away life than transmit it. What creature but man has taken the view that children can be renounced? What creature but man has endowed parents with such barbarous rights? What creature but man, in the brotherhood created by nature, has made brothers unequal? Different fates befall the sons of a single rich man. One enjoys in abundance the rights and titles of his father’s entire heritage; the other complains bitterly at receiving an exhausted and impoverished share of his rich patrimony. Did nature distinguish between what each son should receive? Nature has shared things equally among everyone, giving them what they need to be born and survive. Let nature teach you to make no distinction, when dividing your patrimony, between those whom you have made equal by the title bestowed by brotherhood; for truly as you have bestowed on them the equal possession of the fact of their birth, so you should not grudge them the equal enjoyment of their status of brotherhood.
Of the quail Quails are so called from their call; the Greeks call them ortigie because they were first seen on the island of Ortigia. Quails have fixed times of migration. For when summer gives way to winter, they cross the sea. The leader of the flock is called ortigometra, ‘the quail-mother’. The hawk, seeing the quail-mother approaching land, seizes it; because of this, the quails all take care to attract a leader from another species, through whom they guard against this early danger. Their favorite food is the seed of poisonous plants. For this reason, the ancients forbade them to be eaten; for alone among living things, the quail suffers, like man, from the falling sickness.
[Of the caladrius] The bird called caladrius, as Physiologus tells us, is white all over; it has no black parts. Its excrement cures cataract in the eyes. It is to be found in royal residences. If anyone is sick, he will learn from the caladrius if he is to live or die. If, therefore, a man’s illness is fatal, the caladrius will turn its head away from the sick man as soon as it sees him, and everyone knows that the man is going to die. But if the man’s sickness is one from which he will recover, the bird looks him in the face and takes the entire illness upon itself; it flies up into the air, towards the sun, burns off the sickness and scatters it, and the sick man is cured.
The caladrius represents our Saviour. Our Lord is pure white without a trace of black, ‘who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth’ (1 Peter, 2:22). The Lord, moreover, coming from on high, turned his face from the Jews, because they did not believe, and turned to us, Gentiles, taking away our weakness and carrying our sins; raised up on the wood of the cross and ascending on high, ‘he led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men, (Ephesians, 4:8). Each day Christ, like the caladrius, attends us in our sickness, examines our mind when we confess, and heals those to whom he shows the grace of repentance. But he turns his face away from those whose heart he knows to be unrepentant. These he casts off; but those to whom he turns his face, he makes whole again. But, you say, because the caladrius is unclean accoording to the law, it ought not to be likened to Christ. Yet John says of God: ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up’ (4:14); and according to the law, ‘the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field’ (Genesis, 3:1). The lion and the eagle are unclean, yet they are likened to Christ, because of their royal rank
because the lion is king of the beasts; the eagle, king of the birds.
[Of the phoenix] The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, so called either because its colouring is Phoenician purple, , or because there is only one of its kind in the whole world. It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire. But on the ninth day after that, the bird rises from its own ashes.
[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.