The Raven’s False Greeting: Animal Language and Medieval Fable

Talking animals are a ubiquitous element in fables. They do not evoke wonder from human characters within the narrative, nor seem to require any explanation; this contrasts with other sorts of stories (everything from Marie de France’s Guigemar to contemporary fantasy novels) where the appearance of a talking animal signals the beginning of some rare adventure for humans. Notably, there is, however, one fable I can think of that seems to portray an animal whose ability to talk is liminal. That is, he can utter words, yet he is not really treated as a speaker. His status seems closer to that of a “real” animal who can mimic human speech, and that is in fact key to the story.

The fable in question is ascribed to Phaedrus, the author of the first extant literary fable collection. While Phaedrus wrote in the first century, his five books of fables were the basis for much of the “Romulus” tradition in prose and verse, which flourished in the Middle Ages. The aforementioned fable is called “The Traveler and the Raven” (Viator et corvus). The tale is found in “Perotti’s Appendix,” named for the Italian humanist, Niccolò Perotti (1429–80), who transmitted it; I offer a translation of it below, with the text based on Ben Edwin Perry’s edition.[1]

Manuscript illustration, from the 14th century Luttrell Psalter, of two humans and a horse harrowing a field, with two ravens hovering above them, British Library, Additional MS 42130, fol. 171r .

Quidam per agros devium carpens iter
AVE exaudivit, et moratus paululum,
adesse ut vidit nullum, corripuit gradum.
iterum salutat idem ex occulto sonus.
voce hospitali confirmatus restitit,
ut, quisquis esset, par officium reciperet.
cum circumspectans errore haesisset diu
et perdidisset tempus aliquot milium,
ostendit sese corvus et supervolans
AVE usque ingessit. tum se lusum intelligens
“At male tibi sit” inquit, “ales pessime,
qui festinantis sic detinuisti pedes.”

A certain man, taking a byway through the fields on a journey, heard “Hello!” and lingered for a moment, but when he saw that no one was there, he hastened the pace. Again, the same sound greeted him from some hidden place. He stopped, encouraged by the hospitable voice, so that whoever it was might receive an equal courtesy. When he had remained for a long time, looking around uncertainly, and lost enough time for several miles, a raven showed himself, and flying above him, incessantly repeated “Hello!” Then, realizing he had been tricked, the man said, “Damn you, wretched bird, for delaying my feet like that when I was in a hurry.”

Why did the man perceive the raven’s “hello” as a trick? (The word lusum, in line 10, comes from ludo, to play, and can suggest mockery or deception; I translated it as “tricked.”) Why did he not take this as a genuine greeting?

It seems that the man was expecting a human speaker, and was disappointed and annoyed to find out that the salutation came from a bird instead. But species difference doesn’t, in and of itself, seem like an adequate explanation, at least in the usual fable context where all sorts of creatures talk. Nor does the explanation for the man’s reaction lie in some perceived status imbalance between the two; reciprocity is expected in greetings, after all, even between parties of unequal standing, and it isn’t mockery for an inferior to greet a superior, or vice versa.

Complicating this is the fact that real birds can imitate human speech—parrots, most famously, but also corvids, including ravens. This raven repeats the same simple word, over and over, as a trained animal might. But the man simultaneously seems to impute malice or mischief to this animal and deny him as a legitimate interlocutor. The raven is capable of toying with him (and ravens have a longstanding, cross-cultural reputation for cleverness and tricks), but he is not capable of (or worthy of?) a conversation.

Manuscript illustration of a raven, from an early 14th century manuscript of Jacob van Maerlant’s Der Naturen Bloeme, British Library, Additional MS 11390, fol. 33r.

A traditional narrative about animal language is that it doesn’t exist—that the sounds that animals make (and this leaves aside non-aural communication, through movement, scent, etc.) are fundamentally different than human speech. Nonetheless, medieval grammarians and philosophers acknowledged that, say, a dog’s bark is not meaningless, that it might convey something of his emotional state, and that humans could pick up on this.[2] Some thinkers, too, suggested that animals can communicate with their own species in their own “language.” For example, says, Roger Bacon, hens can cluck to let their young know that food is near, or to warn them of a predator.[3]

So much for “real-life” animal language. In medieval literature, though, there may also be special talking animals (or humans gifted with a special ability to understand animals, e.g., the man who can translate between species in Culhwch and Olwen, or Canacee, with her magic ring, in Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale”). In fables, animals’ capacity to speak is typically unremarkable, and conversations readily occur across species lines.

This fable, however, reflects none of the above scenarios. The raven doesn’t caw or croak—he says an intelligible word, in a human language, Latin. And what he says is “Ave,” a greeting. Ave is not far off from Latin avis, “bird,” although the words are etymologically unrelated; in modern Spanish and Portuguese ave means “bird”. Etymology aside, there is still the possibility of wordplay. Is the bird proclaiming what he is all along, without the man realizing it? Is that the “trick”? Was that what the bird really meant to do, or was it apt, but not necessarily done knowingly—is the raven a kind of natural sign who reiterates himself, both by appearing and by unwittingly speaking his own appearance?

In any case, the man doesn’t treat the raven’s “Ave” as a sincere speech-act from an animal who can, unsurprisingly, talk to him—he doesn’t treat it as a greeting, he treats it as a deception. (The opening moral, possibly added by Perotti, emphasizes this, declaring, “People are very often deceived by words,” Verbis saepenumero homines decipi solere).

What accounts for the man’s reaction to the raven? Fables often have talking animals, yes, but fundamentally, fables are didactic, using memorable narratives to get messages across. The raven’s real-life reputation for mischief, but above all his real-life ability to imitate speech, is what is being drawn on here. The raven in “The Traveler and the Raven” is not the genre-typical talking animal, because for him to be an actual, expected interlocutor goes against the point of the fable, which is about how words can deceive.[4] In conveying this point, “The Traveler and the Raven” both acknowledges certain animals as clever and strips a non-human character of his genre-typical linguistic capability.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Ben Edwin Perry, ed. and trans., Babrius and Phaedrus, Loeb Classical Library 436 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 404–6.

[2] For an analysis of the shifting conceptions of the semiotics of dogs’ barking, from Aristotle to Roger Bacon, see Umberto Eco et al., “On Animal Language in the Medieval Classification of Signs,” in On the Medieval Theory of Signs, ed. Umberto Eco and Constantino Marmo (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1989), pp. 3–41.

[3] Quoted in Eco et al., “On Animal Language,” p. 36, n. 39.

[4] Fables tend to teach the “mistrust of words,” argues Jill Mann, in From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 96.

Medieval Rabbits: Ancient Symbolism, English Migration, and Manuscript Marginalia

From its earliest recordings in African, Indian, and Egyptian cultures, the hare, which later became interchangeable with the rabbit, has been recognized as a symbol of generative powers.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the hare symbolized fertility, as well as love and lust. The hare was the favored sacrifice to the gods of love, Aphrodite and Eros.[1] Consumption of the animal’s flesh was thought to enhance the beauty in the eater for several days. The animal’s body was also incorporated into medicines meant to cure conditions connected with sex.

Roman mosaic depicting a hare, dated to the 4th century and discovered in Cirencester, England. The mosaic was excavated in 1971 and is housed at the Corinium Museum. Photo credit: Isobel Wilkes, “Hares in Roman Art”.

Hares and rabbits were known as prolific breeders, but the classical world often exaggerated the creature’s capacity for reproduction. Aristotle, for example, believed the rabbit was capable of superfetation – that is, he thought a pregnant rabbit could become pregnant again, thereby gestating multiple litters at once. These ideas persisted into the Middle Ages, passed down by Aristotle and other philosophers such as Herodotus, as well as Pliny the Elder.

In his Naturalis historia, written during the first century, Pliny the Elder characterizes hares and rabbits as the only animals that superfetate, “rearing one leveret while at the same time carrying in the womb another clothed with hair and another bald and another still an embryo.” He also discusses how wild rabbits laid waste to Spain. Describing their fertility as “beyond counting,” he says that “they bring famine to the Balearic Islands by ravaging the crops.”[2]

England, however, did not share Spain’s poor experience with rabbits. Although hares are indigenous to the British Isles, rabbits are not. They were introduced to England by the Normans in the 13th century and were raised for their meat and fur.[3] They were also kept as pets and were a particular favorite of nuns.[4]

Woman flushes a rabbit from its warren using a ferret or a small dog in the Taymouth Hours, England, c. 1260, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 70v.

Rabbits did not initially thrive in the British climate, and they required careful tending by their owners, who constructed warrens for them. As Mark Bailey explains, “In modern usage the rabbit-warren refers to a piece of waste ground on which wild rabbits burrow, but in the Middle Ages it specifically meant an area of land preserved for the domestic or commercial rearing of game.”[5] These artificial burrows called “pillow-mounds” protected domestic rabbits from the elements and provided a dry, earthen enclosure that supported both survival and breeding.  

Rabbit warren depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40, Lincolnshire, England, British Library, Add MS 42130, f. 176v.

Despite their modern reputation as pests, rabbit populations were primarily confined to privately owned warrens in medieval England. They were not considered vermin but, rather, valuable commodities, and they were protected by law. Poachers were a problem, as were the rabbit’s natural predators, which included the fox, stoat, weasel, polecat, and wildcat.

Hunter approaches a rabbit warren with his dog in the Rutland Psalter, c. 1260, England, British Library, Add MS 62925, f. 57v.

Yet in medieval English literature, rabbits retain their symbolic association with reproduction, as exemplified by Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, a Middle English poem dated to the mid-14th century. Set in a garden during springtime, the poem centers a congregation of birds that meets to select their mates and explores themes related to love and marriage, as well as breeding.

Rabbits, or “conyes,” are depicted at play amidst the gathering of birds:  

On every bough the briddes herde I singe,
With voys of aungel in hir armonye,
Som besyed hem hir briddes forth to bringe;
The litel conyes to hir pley gonne hye. (Chaucer 190-93)[6]

I heard the birds on every branch singing
Like the voice of an angel in their harmony,
Some had their young beside them;
The little rabbits were busy at their play. (my translation)

Now virtually obsolete, the term coney was used in medieval England to differentiate an adult rabbit from a younger one. Deriving from the pun made possible by the Latin word for rabbit, cuniculus, and the Latin word for the female genitalia, cunnus, the term was also used as sexual slang in the medieval period and well beyond.[7] Essentially, coney, or cunny, was a crass term that referred to the vulva or vagina, to a woman or women, or to sexual intercourse.[8]

Bestiary rabbit catalogued under the Latin name cuniculus in the Liber de natura rerum, c. 13th century, France, Bibliothèque Municipale de Valenciennes, MS 320, f. 58r.

Despite its long-standing sexual symbolism, the rabbit was simultaneously imparted with sacred symbolism in the Middle Ages. In England, the rabbit became a symbol of purity when portrayed alongside the Virgin Mary. The animal also functioned as a symbol of salvation. As David Stocker and Margarita Stocker explain, “their sacred meaning is not as divorced from their profane meaning (libidinousness) as may at first appear. One the one hand, their symbolism of lust and fertility refers to the carnal body; on the other, their symbolism of salvation and resurrection refers to the ‘body of this death’ from which the soul is saved.”[9]

Indeed, the theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine, writing between 397 and 400 CE, connects the rabbit with Christianity, further attesting to how the animal’s sexual and spiritual symbolism culturally coexisted. Discussing the rabbit in relation to salvation, Saint Augustine renders the creature a symbol of cowardice. He describes the rabbit as “a small and weak animal” that is “cowardly” and then draws a parallel between the rabbit and the fearful man: “In that which he fears, man is a rabbit.”[10] Later in the Middle Ages, the rabbit “denoted a soldier who burrowed underground or someone who fled from his pursuers.”[11]

Perhaps the rabbit’s connection with cowardice, then, provides some insight into the images depicting bunnies as antagonistic and often murderous beasts in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Immortalized on screen by Monty Python’s Rabbit of Caerbannog and more recently popularized on social media, the rabbit adopts many forms and runs rampant across the pages of manuscripts from England and Europe.

Rabbit strikes a knight with a lance in the Breviary of Renaud, c. 1302-05, France, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 107, f. 141v.

Rabbits spar with knights, wield axes at kings, and lay siege to castles. They ride snails with human faces and carry hounds on their shoulders into battle. They beat, they behead, they hang, they flay. Ranging from delightfully strange to strangely sadistic, the images of rabbits enacting violence reveal a world turned topsy-turvy through their reversal of expectations.

Rabbit beheads a man with a sword—the final image in a series of five that features rabbits hunting, capturing, and killing a man—in the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1340s, London, England, British Library, MS 10 E IV, f. 61v.

But medieval bunnies are not all bad. In bestiaries, they pose timidly in their portraits or express fear as they flee from hunting dogs. They frequently adorn decorative borders sans weapons and sometimes appear surprisingly realistic, as in the stunning illumination from the Cocharelli Codex below.

Pair of hares in the Cocharelli Codex, c. 1330-40, Genoa, Italy, British Library, Add MS 28841, f. 6v.

Although the killer coney and the cowardly knight have become a familiar motif, it is not a reflection of the rabbit population ransacking the English countryside, as some might be inclined to suspect. After all, wild rabbits did not become abundant until centuries later. But whether turning the world upside down or nestled benignly within a manuscript border, rabbits in medieval marginalia undoubtedly showcase their multifacetednous as a cultural symbol.

Emily McLemore
Ph.D. in English

[1] Claude K. Abraham, “Myth and Symbol: The Rabbit in Medieval France,” Studies in Philology, vol. 60, no. 4 (1963), pp. 589-597, at 589.

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Loeb Classical Library, at 153.

[3] Mark Bailey, “The Rabbit and the Medieval East Anglian Economy,” The Agricultural History Review, vol. 36, no. 1 (1988), pp. 1-20, at 1.

[4] Kathleen Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets, Boydell Press (2012), pp. 14.

[5] Bailey, 2.

[6] Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls,

[7] Beryl Rowland, Animals with Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press (1973), pp. 135.

[8] cunny, n. Oxford English Dictionary.

[9] David Stocker and Margarita Stocker, “Sacred Profanity: The Theology of Rabbit Breeding and the Symbolic Landscape of the Warren,” World Archaeology, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 265-72, at 270.

[10] Stocker and Stocker, 271.

[11] Rowland, 135.

Learning about Learned Medieval Women with Dr. Megan J. Hall

This week, we’re looking back at an earlier episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages.” In late 2022, we chatted with Dr. Megan J. Hall, Assistant Director of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. We spoke with her about women’s literacy and learning in medieval England, the trials and tribulations of writing an academic article, and why impromptu bell-ringing can reveal the true value of scholarship.

Studying history can show us the bigger picture. It can help to explain why nation states behave as they do, why complex geopolitical situations emerge, and how entire landscapes have been shaped over time. But it also allows us to connect with the past on a local level. It can show us where we come from. Speaking with Dr. Hall, we were reminded several times that through historical research, people can identify with those who came before. Moments of identity like that can drastically reshape our relationship with the past. Dr. Hall’s meeting with a group of bellringers in rural England is a perfect example. During this surprise encounter, she was able to share her own work with the group and participate in a tradition of bell ringing which has centuries of history. Her work prompted one of the group to ask ‘so, could women read in the Middle Ages?’ Dr. Hall was able to correct a common misconception of women and the possibilities open to them in medieval England. Yes, some women could read! Some books were written specifically for women! This revelation changed the questioner’s view of medieval women, and was a triumphant ‘I knew we could!’ she experienced a moment of solidarity with them.

Dr. Hall’s story, as has been the case for so many of the conversations we’ve had on Meeting on the Middle Ages, is also a reminder of the privilege that medievalists have. We are able to visit museums, archives, libraries, and go beyond the public spaces. We can consult ancient materials. We don’t have to rely on facsimiles (well, sometimes we do). We can work with the original, turning it over in our hands and connecting with its creator. In doing so, we become another link in a chain that has been forged over centuries. With the Ancrenne Wisse it begins with the object’s creator, perhaps the scribe or composer of a manuscript. It binds together dozens of men and women who received the text and used it in their lives. Dr. Hall is part of that chain. And in telling her story, we all become a part of it too.

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame