Owls: Always a Hoot?

Owl, Book of Hours, London, c. 1460; British Library, Harley MS 2887, f. 29r; © The British Library

Today, owls are usually associated with wisdom. Their depictions in modern iconography range from majestic hunters to cute messengers à la Harry Potter. The convention of associating these nocturnal birds with wisdom goes all the way back to ancient Greeks and Romans depicting owls with the goddess of wisdom, Athena/Minerva. However, owl symbolism has not continuously had such positive connotations; in fact, in Medieval England, they were drastically different.

Owls have a strong presence in medieval fables and poems, many of them associating owls with the darkness and uncleanliness. Medieval poets took biblical references to owls as inspiration. For example, Job in his sorrow is referred to as the companion of owls, linking owls with mourning. In Leviticus, owls are mentioned as unclean birds. Building on these negative associations, medieval beast poems include violence towards owls. In Cuono of St. Nabor’s fable “The Peacock and the Owl,” a white peacock, symbolizing light and goodness, is violently murdered by an “envious owl” (Ziolkowski 245), and then a violent curse is wished upon the owl to avenge the death of the beautiful peacock. In the same vein, in the often-repeated story of the owlet in the hawk’s nest, the owl’s true identity is discovered when it fouls the nest—and then it is thrown out of the nest and dismembered by magpies and crows (Mann 178).

Anthropomorphic owl meant to resemble a Jew; bestiary, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, England; British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 47 r; © The British Library

A more disturbing element of owl’s negative symbolism is their association with anti-Semitism. Owls, who are day-blind and live in darkness, were used to represent Jews in medieval England, who were said to have rejected the light of Christ and live in the uncleanliness of religious blasphemy. This accounts for the anthropomorphic appearance of some manuscript drawings of owls: they were sometimes given hooked noses to resemble Jews, and their horns represent the horned hats Jews were forced to wear.

Not all mentions of owls are completely negative, however. The Aberdeen bestiary presents a positive moralization of owls, saying that they represent Christ, who lived in the darkness (or away from view, like the owl) because he wanted to save sinners who also lived in darkness away from the light of God.

One of the most well-know medieval literary owls is in the poem The Owl and the Nightingale. The Owl and the Nightingale offer retellings of some of Marie de France’s fables, illustrating the popularity of animal fables. Significantly, the Nightingale recites the fable of the owl in the hawk’s nest to emphasize the inescapability of nature over nurture: the owl is recognized because it can’t escape its unclean nature despite being raised by a different bird. However, the poem gives the well-known story a twist, turning the usual moral condemnation of the owl on its head. The owl counters that it cannot be at fault for a nature that is common to all infants—even humans.

Owl symbolism continued to have negative associations even after the medieval period. During the Reformation, they came to be associated with Catholics, and later with Puritans (Hirsch 151)—generally with the vilified religious group du jour. Negative symbolism continued into the early modern period: in several of Shakespeare’s plays, the owl is an evil omen. Though the owl has much more positive connotations today, its history is plagued by darkness and negativity.

Owl and other birds decorating the bottom of a page; psalter and hours, France (Arras), c. 1300; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 15, f. 96r; © The British Library

Anne Marie Blieszner
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Hirsch, Brett D. “From Jew to Puritan: The Emblematic Owl in Early English Culture.” “This Earthly Stage”: World and Stage in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Brett Hirsch and Christopher Wortham, Eds. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010.

Mann, Jill. From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

 

 

Illustrating the Gawain Manuscript: New Scientific Evidence!

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f125r_129r
The temptation of Gawain; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x, f. 125r/129r; © The British Library

New scientific analysis may completely change our understanding of one of the most famous manuscripts for students of Middle English literature. British Library Cotton Nero A.x is the sole extant manuscript of the works of the so-called Gawain-poet, the anonymous author of Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These jewels of the Alliterative Revival are today some of the best-known medieval English works, but we would not have them at all if they did not survive in this single late fourteenth-century manuscript. Even better for students of Middle English literature is that this manuscript is illustrated, including scenes from all four texts. For years, scholars have offered only a poor critical assessment of the pictures, an assessment that a few more recent scholars have begun to reexamine. Are these really the crudely executed illustrations of an amateur artist?

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f82r_86r
Jonah is cast into the whale; Patience, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x (art. 3), f. 82r/86r © The British Library

New discoveries, based on analysis of the pigments and ink, may change our understanding of the part these illustrations may have played in the original production of the manuscript. Maidie Hilmo, of the University of Victoria, has studied these illustrations extensively, most recently in a new overview of the pictures that she has written for eventual publication on the Cotton Nero A.x. Project, an international initiative of the University of Calgary to make digital images, transcriptions, and critical editions of the manuscript more widely available. She requested a scientific analysis of the pigments, and one of the most striking results  is that the same iron gall ink was used for both the text and the underdrawings of the images, as Paul Garside, the Senior Conservation Scientist at the British Library, has indicated. Is it possible this may mean the illustrations, or at least the underdrawings, were drawn around the same time the manuscript was originally written, possibly even by the scribe? There is no smoking gun, but it is true that iron gall ink was not what illuminators ordinarily used for their drawings – this ink was far more typically the medium of scribes, rather than manuscript artists, as indicated by Mark Clarke, an internationally acknowledged expert on medieval pigments.

Hilmo Royal 19 D.II, f.395
Jonah emerges from the whale, in an image showing several iconographic similarities to the one in Patience; Bible Historiale of John the Good, Paris, c. 1350;
British Library Royal MS 19 D.ii, f. 395r

Traditionally, there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the relative timeframe of the copying of the manuscript’s text and the drawing and painting (not necessarily the same thing!) of the illustrations. Many earlier efforts at dating the illustrations suggested that they were made around 1400-1420, potentially some decades after the 1375-1400 copying of the text.1 This new analysis suggests such dating of the pictures may be off, and invites future scholars to reassess the dating of the various components of the illustrations in relation to the text. Hilmo considers Jennifer Lee’s argument that the heavy-handed painting may have been done by another hand, different from the artist of the underdrawings.2

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f126r_130r_EnhancedOutlines
Enhanced image of Gawain being welcomed back to court, showing the underdrawing, including some details, like those of Gawain’s leg armor, which have been somewhat obscured by the painting; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x (art. 3), f. 126r/130r © The British Library

Hilmo invites the meditative reader to reconsider the function of the miniatures not only in illustrating individual poems but also in linking all four poems into a cohesive narrative reshaping and unifying them “into a larger interpretive, typological and iconographic framework.” Whether or not a thoughtful scribe was involved in this visual reconceptualization of the poems as a whole, this study encourages us to see fresh meanings in our successive encounters with Cotton Nero A.x.

For the full explanation of this new research, explore Hilmo’s overview and a draft of the complete article now available on the Chequered Board (she encourages responses).

Nicole Eddy
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

1. See A. I. Doyle, “The Manuscripts,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background: Seven Essays, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), 88–100; Sarah Horrall, “Notes on British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X,” Manuscripta 30 (1986): 191–98.
2. Jennifer A. Lee, “The Illuminating Critic: The Illustrator of Cotton Nero A.X,” Studies in Iconography 3 (1977): 17–45.

Sounds of Medieval London

If you and I were to go for a stroll through the streets of London—let’s say, one summer afternoon in 1392—what kinds of sounds would we hear?

City of London with Tower Bridge and Tower of London, Royal 16 F II, f. 73r; poems by Charles, due of Orléans, Bruges, third quarter of the 15th century, courtesy of the British Library

According to William Langland’s late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, we might hear a cacophony of street cries including the shouts of cooks and tavern-keepers: “Hote pyes, hote! / Goode gees and grys! Ga we dyne, ga we!” (Prol. 228-35). (Incidentally, London’s street cries have been featured in musical compositions from Renaissance madrigals to twentieth-century composer Luciano Berio’s “Cries of London.”) But if we happened to be in London at just the right moment, we might hear something remarkable—the arresting sounds of a procession.

Religious procession at Saragossa, Royal 16 G VI, f. 32v, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, Paris, after c. 1332 and before c. 1350, courtesy of the British Library

A procession–broadly defined as a group of individuals moving along a specific route to a certain destination–would capture our attention in numerous ways. As Kathleen Ashley has written, processions offered a “fusion of sensory experiences, or synaesthesia” (13). Indeed, they were both visually compelling, featuring canopies, torches, reliquaries, crosses, and flowers, and also aurally compelling, with singing voices, ringing bells, and the sounds of lutes, drums, and cymbals.

London would have seen many different kinds of processions—all of them with distinctive sounds. There would be royal processions creating an atmosphere of splendor and pomp.

Queen Isabel entering Paris; Harley 4379, f. 3r; Jean Froissart’s Chroniques; Bruges, between c. 1470 and 1472, courtesy of the British Library

Often (as in the image below) musicians would accompany these regal processions, and sometimes dancers would also perform.

King in a cart escorted by mounted musicians, Harley 4372, f. 79v, Valerius Maximus’s Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, trans. by Simon de Hesdin and Nicolas de Gonesse, Normandy, c. 1460-1487, courtesy of the British Library

Religious processions would also pass through the streets, celebrating various holy days (e.g., Christmas, Easter, and Corpus Christi). These often featured ringing bells and chanting voices, and such sounds were thought to ward off demons and elicit divine grace.

Corpus Christi Procession with a Bishop carrying the monstrance under a canopy, Harley 7026, f. 13r, Lectionary, England, c. 1400-1410, courtesy of the British Library

Of course there were funeral processions, where corpses were carried through the streets as mourners wailed and bells tolled–undoubtedly an almost constant sound during the time of the plague. As the popular medieval philosopher Boethius wrote, “The cause for weeping might be made sweeter through song” (8).

Funeral procession of Queen Jeanne, Royal 20 C VII, f. 200r, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, Paris, last quarter of 14th century, courtesy of the British Library

Like Langland, Chaucer infuses his writing with the sounds he experienced in London, and in the Prioress’s Tale, he specifically incorporates the sounds of processions.

In the beginning of the story, the clergeon sings the antiphon Alma redemptoris mater as he walks to school and back home: “Ful murily than wolde he synge and crie” (553). It is a kind of solo procession.


Later, we find a foreshadowing of the clergeon joining a heavenly procession of virgin martyrs where he will follow “The white Lamb celestial” and “synge a song al newe” (581, 584).

Towards the end, the clergeon’s body is carried through the streets to the abbey “with honour of greet processioun” (623). Miraculously, he continues to sing the Alma, serving as the musician at his own funeral.

It seems fitting that such a series of processions should take center stage in the Prioress’s Tale since the Prioress herself would have come from a nunnery where processions formed a significant part of life. In fact, we have medieval documents (e.g., the Barking Ordinal) that provide instructions for nunnery processions. As the image below suggests, these processions would have been aurally compelling. Notice the one nun pulling the bell rope and the others singing from books with musical notation.

Illustration of a Procession and (above) Mass in a Nunnery, Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v, “Traité de la Sainte Abbaye,” France, c. 1290, courtesy of the British Library

We can add a new dimension to our understanding of life in the Middle Ages by reconstructing some of the sounds of the streets of medieval London. Such sounds have not altogether died away. In closing, here is a performance from the 2015 Mummer’s Parade in Philadelphia — a parade with roots reportedly dating back to the Early Modern period.


Ingrid Pierce
PhD Candidate
Department of English
Purdue University

Sources

Ashley, Kathleen and Wim Hüsken. Moving Subjects: Processional Performance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi, 2001.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Wadsworth Chaucer, formerly The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed.
Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Wadsworth, 1987.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-text. Edited by
Derek Pearsall. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

Reynolds, Roger. “The Drama of Medieval Liturgical Processions.” Revue de Musicologie   86.1 (200): 127-42.

Yardley, Anne Bagnall. Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval
English 
Nunneries. New York: Palgrave, 2006.