Heron.

A portrait of three herons, the one on the right holding an especially characteristic pose.

A portrait of three herons, the one on the right holding an especially characteristic pose.

Text Translation:

[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.

Folio 53v – the goose, continued. [De ardea] ; Of the heron.

Goose.

Two aggressive geese in a roundel.

Two aggressive geese in a roundel.

Text Translation:

[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.

Folio 53r – the nightingale, continued. [De ansere]; Of the goose.

Nightingale.

Portrait of the nightingale.

Portrait of the nightingale.

Text Translation:

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.

Folio 52v – the jay, continued. De lucinia; Of the nightingale.

Jay.

Bibliothèque Municipale de Troyes, MS 177, Folio 154v. A multi-colored jay with a crest on its head.

Bibliothèque Municipale de Troyes, MS 177, Folio 154v. A multi-colored jay with a crest on its head.

Text Translation:

[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.

[Read more…]

Bat.

Portrait of the bat. Compared with many other bestiary illustrations, this is a fairly accurate ventral view of a bat whose wings are shown as a membrane stretching from its three fingers down to its toes and tail. Its furry face has the typically uncanny human look. The artist has realised that the flight membrane joins the fingers, legs and tail even though there should be five fingers with four supporting the wing. It is classified as a bird because of its wings rather than as a mammal because of its fur.

Portrait of the bat. Compared with many other bestiary illustrations, this is a fairly accurate ventral view of a bat whose wings are shown as a membrane stretching from its three fingers down to its toes and tail. Its furry face has the typically uncanny human look. The artist has realised that the flight membrane joins the fingers, legs and tail even though there should be five fingers with four supporting the wing. It is classified as a bird because of its wings rather than as a mammal because of its fur.

Text Translation:

[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.

Folio 51v – the bat, continued. [De gragulo]; Of the jay.

Hoopoe.

Hoopoe in a roundel. The hoopoe has a comb-like crest and startling black and white bars across its body. The crest illustrated is more like a peacock's crest. Compare the totally different version of the hoopoe on f. 36v.

Hoopoe in a roundel. The hoopoe has a comb-like crest and startling black and white bars across its body. The crest illustrated is more like a peacock’s crest. Compare the totally different version of the hoopoe on f. 36v.

Text Translation:

[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.

Folio 50v – the owl, continued. [De hupupa] ; Of the hoopoe.

Owl.

Portrait of the owl. This owl 'bubo' is tawny brown and beige with a flat face and prominent ears like horns. Bubo, as described by Aristotle (buas or bruas in Greek) was as large as an eagle which must indicate the relatively rare eagle owl. It has prominent ear tufts as shown but it is tawny all over and does not have a flat face. The long eared owl has a flat face and ears but is also tawny all over. The barn owl is closest in colouring to the illustration and also has a flat face, but it does not have ears. As projecting ears or horns are not mentioned in the Bestiary text they may derive from a much earlier source which was still aware of the connection between bubo and the eagle owl.

Portrait of the owl. This owl ‘bubo’ is tawny brown and beige with a flat face and prominent ears like horns. Bubo, as described by Aristotle (buas or bruas in Greek) was as large as an eagle which must indicate the relatively rare eagle owl. It has prominent ear tufts as shown but it is tawny all over and does not have a flat face. The long eared owl has a flat face and ears but is also tawny all over. The barn owl is closest in colouring to the illustration and also has a flat face, but it does not have ears. As projecting ears or horns are not mentioned in the Bestiary text they may derive from a much earlier source which was still aware of the connection between bubo and the eagle owl.

Text Translation:

Of the owl Isidore says of the owl: ‘The name owl, bubo, is formed from the sound it makes. It is a bird associated with the dead, weighed down, indeed, with its plumage, but forever hindered, too, by the weight of its slothfulness. It lives day and night around burial places and is always found in caves.’ On this subject Rabanus says: ‘The owl signifies those who have given themselves up to the darkness of sin and those who flee from the light of righteousness.’ As a result it is classed among the unclean creatures in Leviticus (see 11:16). Consequently, we can take the owl to mean any kind of sinner.

The owl gets its name from the sound it makes, because its mouth speaks when its heart is overfull, for what it thinks about in its mind, it utters with its voice. It is said to be a filthy bird, because it fouls its nest with its droppings, as the sinner dishonours those with whom he lives, by the example of his evil ways. It is weighed down with its plumage, as the sinner is with an excess of carnal pleasure and with fickleness of mind; but it is truly hampered by the weight of its sloth. It is hindered by the weight of its idleness and sloth, as sinners are lazy and slothful in acting virtuously. It spends its days and nights around burial places, as the sinner delights in sin, which is like the stench of decaying human flesh. For it lives in caves like the sinner who will not emerge from darkness by means of confession but detests the light of truth.

When other birds see the owl, they signal its presence with loud cries and harrass it with fierce assaults. In the same way, if a sinner comes into the light of understanding, he becomes an object of derision to the virtuous. And when he is caught openly in the act of sinning, his ears are filled with their reproaches. As the birds pull out the owl’s feathers and tear at it with their beaks, the virtuous censure the carnal acts of the sinner and condemn his excesses. The owl is known, therefore, as a miserable bird, just as the sinner, who behaves in the way we have described above, is a miserable man.

Folio 50r – the blackbird, continued. De bubone; Of the Owl.

Blackbird.

Portrait of the blackbird in a roundel. It is painted brown either in ignorance of the text or because it is a female bird.

Portrait of the blackbird in a roundel. It is painted brown either in ignorance of the text or because it is a female bird.

Text Translation:

Of the blackbird. Isidore says of the blackbird: ‘The blackbird in ancient times was called medula, because it sang rhythmically.’ Others say that it was called merula, because it flew on its own, mera volans, so to speak. Although it is black wherever it is found, there is a white species in Achaia. The blackbird is small but black. It represents those tainted by the blackness of sin. The blackbird both moves and charms itself by the sweetness of its own voice. It represents those who are tempted by the suggestion of carnal pleasures. In fact, the blessed Gregory refers to this in his book of Dialogues, when he recounts how the blackbird came on the wing to the blessed Benedict and how after the departure of the bird, he was tempted with the fire of lust.

Gregory says: One day when the blessed Benedict was alone, the tempter appeared. For a small, black bird, commonly called a blackbird, began to fly around his head and to come up close to his face in a cheeky fashion, so that Benedict could have taken it in his hand if the saint had wanted to hold it. But he made the sign of the cross and the bird flew away. Such a temptation of the flesh as followed the departure of the bird, the saint had never experienced. For the evil spirit now brought before his inner eye the image of a woman whom Benedict had once seen. And the mind of the servant of God burned with such fire at the sight of her, that the flame of his love could scarcely contain itself in his breast and, overcome by desire, he now almost resolved to quit the wilderness. When suddenly, touched by the grace of heaven, he recovered himself, and seeing thick bushes of nettles and thorns growing nearby, he stripped off the garment he was wearing and threw himself naked amid the pricking thorns and stinging nettles. And having rolled in them, he emerged with his body covered in wounds, and through these wounds to his skin he discharged from his body the wound to his soul, because he transformed his desire into pain.

Yikes. Seriously, not a selling point for christianity. Blackbirds are among my favourite birds, and I can quite honestly say that not one of them has made me be overcome with horniness.

The blackbird in flight, therefore, represents enticement, tempting you to desire. If you want, therefore, to reject the desire symbolised by the blackbird, you must follow the example of the blessed Benedict and turn instead to the correction of discipline and thus rid yourself of pleasures of the mind by inflicting pain on your flesh. In the regions of Achaia, according to Isidore, there are white blackbirds. A white blackbird represents purity of will. But by Achaia we understand the industrious sister. There are two sisters, Rachel and Leah, namely the active and the contemplative life. Leah we take to be the industrious one. The active life teaches us to devote ourselves to works of charity, to teach men who lack discernment, to have the purity of chastity, to work with our own hands. This is Achaia, the active life. In Achaia, therefore, like the white blackbirds, live those who live chastely the active life.

Folio 49v – the stork, continued. De [merula]; Of the blackbird.

Stork.

Two recognisable storks in a roundel. One is eating a frog, not the snake mentioned in the text and the other may be snapping its beak together.

Two recognisable storks in a roundel. One is eating a frog, not the snake mentioned in the text and the other may be snapping its beak together.

Text Translation:

Of the stork Storks get their name, ciconie, from the creaking sound they make, like crickets, cicanie. The sound comes from their mouth rather than their voice, because they make it by clashing their bills. Storks are the heralds of spring; they share a sense of community; they are the enemies of snakes; they fly across the sea, making their way in flocks to Asia. Crows go in front of them as their guides, the storks following them as if in an army. Storks possess a strong sense of duty towards their young. They are so keen to keep their nests warm that their feathers fall out as a result of the constant incubation. But their young spend as much time caring for them when they grow old, as they spend caring for their young.

Storks make a sound by clashing their bills. They represent those who ‘with weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew, 8:12) proclaim from their own mouths the evil they have done. Storks herald the spring, like those who demonstrate to others the moderation of a mind that has undergone conversion. They have a sense of community like those who live willingly in the community of their brothers. It is said also that the stork is the enemy of snakes. Snakes are evil thoughts or evil brothers; the stork strikes snakes with its bill, as the righteous check evil thoughts or reprimand their wicked brothers with penetrating rebukes.

Storks fly across the sea and make their way in flocks to Asia. Asia signifies heavenly things. Those people also fly across the sea to Asia, therefore, who, scorning the commotions of the world, aim for higher things. Storks are are notably devoted to their young, with the result that their feathers fall out from constant incubation. Storks lose their feathers from the constant incubation of their young in the same way that prelates, when they nourish those in their charge, pluck out from their own bodies the feathers of excess and weakness. Young storks spend as much time caring for their parents as their parents spent on rearing them. Storks must nourish their young in proportion to their need, in the same way that prelates should feed their disciples with instruction according to their need. Likewise the prelates’ flock should support them with their efforts and provide them with the necessities they lack. Thus the turtle-dove, the swallow and the stork are a living reproach to those who do not believe that Christ came in the flesh and do not go in fear of the judgement of the Lord to come.

Folio 48v – the swallow, continued. De ciconia; Of the stork.

Swallow.

The portrait of the swallow depicts the bird quite accurately with a forked tail, dark back and red breast.

The portrait of the swallow depicts the bird quite accurately with a forked tail, dark back and red breast.

Text Translation:

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).

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Kite, Parrot, Ibis.

A portrait of the kite in a roundel. Both the Aberdeen and Ashmole Bestiaries have a good depiction of this bird whose forked tail suggests that it is a red kite.

A portrait of the kite in a roundel. Both the Aberdeen and Ashmole Bestiaries have a good depiction of this bird whose forked tail suggests that it is a red kite.

The parrot has a hard beak and a tough skull. The ibis regurgitates snakes' eggs and carrion to feed its young. The parrot is correctly painted in green and red, perched on a branch. The Indian rose-ringed parakeet was the only member of the parrot family known in Europe in the middle ages.

The parrot has a hard beak and a tough skull. The ibis regurgitates snakes’ eggs and carrion to feed its young. The parrot is correctly painted in green and red, perched on a branch. The Indian rose-ringed parakeet was the only member of the parrot family known in Europe in the middle ages.

The ibis regurgitates snakes' eggs and carrion to feed its young.

The ibis regurgitates snakes’ eggs and carrion to feed its young.

Text Translation:

Behold how, through the nature of birds, we can teach the nature of the religious life. Of the kite It is weak in strength and in flight – a puny bird, mollis avis, from which it gets its name, milvus. It is, however, a bird of prey, always preying on domestic birds. As we read in the book of Etymologies of Isidore: ‘The kite, milvus, derives its name from mollis volatu, weak in flight. For the kite is a weakly bird.’ The kite signifies those who are tempted by effete pleasures. It feeds on corpses, as pleasure-seekers take delight in carnal desires. It constantly hovers around kitchens and meat-markets so that if pieces of raw meat are thrown out from them, it can seize them quickly. In this the kite represents to us those who are motivated by concern for their stomach. Those who are of this world, therefore, seek pleasure, frequent meat-markets and gaze with longing at kitchens. The kite is timid in big matters, bold in small. It dares not seize wild birds but customarily preys on domestic ones. It lies in wait to seize their young and when it encounters unwary youngsters, it kills them quickly. In the same way, the effete and pleasure-seeking seize infants of tender years, in the sense that they teach the more simple and undiscerning their own habits and lead them into perversion. As kites deceive the unwary by flying over them slowly, the pleasure-seekers lead the young astray by flattering them with sweet words. See how birds who lack the capacity of rational thought instruct through examples of evil conduct men who are experienced and intelligent.

Of the parrot India alone produces the bird called the parrot, green in colour, with a deep-red neck and a large tongue, broader than those of other birds, with which it utters distinct words; so that if you did not see it, you would think it was a man talking. Characteristically, it greets you by saying in Latin or Greek: ‘Ave’ or ‘Kere!’ – ‘Hail!’ It will learn other words if you teach it. Which explains the lines: ‘Like a parrot, I will learn other people’s names from you, but this I have learned by myself to say: Hail, Caesar!’ (Martial, Epigrams, 14, 73). The parrot’s beak is of such hardness that if it falls from a height on to a rock, it takes the impact on its mouth, using it as base of uncommon toughness. Its skull is so thick, that if ever you have to admonish it with blows to learn – for it tries hard to speak like men – you should beat it with an iron rod. For when it is young, up to two years of age, it learns what it is told very quickly and keeps it firmly in mind; when it is a little older, it is forgetful and is difficult to teach.

Of the ibis There is a bird called the ibis; it purges its stomach with its beak. It feeds on the eggs of snakes and on carrion, and from them carries back food to its young, which they eat with great pleasure. Yet it fears to go into water, because it does not know how to swim, but walks about near the shore day and night, looking for dead fish of a small size or corpses which have been washed up. The ibis signifies carnal men who feed, as it were, on deadly deeds, on which they nourish themselves to the condemnation of their wretched souls. But you, a Christian, reborn by water and the holy spirit, enter the spiritual waters of the mysteries of God and thereafter eat the purest of food of which the apostle spoke, saying: ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace longsuffering etc’ (see Galatians, 5:22). If the sun and moon did not send forth their rays, they would give no light. If birds did not spread their wings, they could not fly. Thus, you, O man, if you do not protect yourself with the sign of the cross, and spread the wings of twofold love, you will not be able to pass through the tempests of this world to that most peaceful haven of the heavenly land. ‘And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed’ (Exodus, 17:11).

Folio 46v – the cranes, continued. De milvo; Of the kite. De psitaco; Of the parrot.