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.



A Matter of Faith: Religion in North Africa at the end of Late Antiquity (Part 1)

If the majority of Late Antique Europeans living in the former Roman territories were, at the very least, nominally Christian in the eighth century CE, what was the religion of the peoples of Late Antique North Africa, Rome’s southern lands during the same period?

Given that the region of North Africa — the lands from what is today western Morocco to Egypt– gave the Christian world some of its earliest texts, had more bishoprics than other regions, and was the home of St. Augustine, one of the four doctors of the Catholic Church, it stands to reason that this region was quite Christian in the year 700.

The Decumanus Maximus in Volubilis, (Oaulili), Morocco. © A.L. Castonguay 2014

Yet until recently, this argument was not advanced by scholars of Late Antiquity, the European Middle Ages, or Islamic History.  If anything, North Africa c. 700 was seen as nominally Muslim, due in large part to the Arab conquests of 670-710.  In fact, so few scholars discussed the idea of Christians in North Africa that, as recently as 2004, an article pointing to proof of Christian communities in North Africa post Arab conquest was described by one reviewer as “pull[ing] the rug out from under the feet” of naysayers.

Now, it seems that more scholars are pointing towards the continuation of Christianity in North Africa c. 700, with some even going as far as to point to evidence of Christian communities in the twelfth century.  However, this group is still quite small, and the wide range of territory, both geographical and historical, that a potential researcher must cover is immense, to say nothing of the required linguistic skills in Medieval Latin, Ancient Greek, and now, Arabic, required to decipher extant evidence.

Basilica in Volubilis, abandoned in the 8th century following an earthquake © Jerzy Strzelecki

Yet what about the Muslim conquests?  How did this event shape the religious landscape of North Africa between 700 and 800 CE?

For one thing, it seems as though the Muslim conquests brought about the conversion of the Amazigh (Berbers), who, despite putting up several decades of resistance to the Arab invaders, accepted the new faith with gusto.  Having attached themselves to their new Arab overlords as their mawalia status that indicated conversion to Islam and affiliation with an Arab tribe–these new converts joined the Umayyad armies in Qayrawan and participated in the conquest of the Iberian peninsula, both as generals and as settlers.

Map of the Muslim Conquests in Late Antiquity, 622-750

So quick was this conversion that come 740, the Amazigh were already fully enmeshed in Arab-centric quarrels on the question of who, exactly, should be God’s deputy (khalifat Allah) and lead the faithful during this life and the next.  Although there had been periods of unrest in the preceding decades, in 740 the Muslim Amazigh rebelled against the Umayyad caliphs under the banner of Kharjism, an Islamic sect that had, since c. 658 rejected both the ruling Umayyad caliphs and the Shi’a ‘Ali as God’s correct deputy.  This “Berber Revolt” successfully divorced the regions of North Africa west of Egypt from the Umayyad caliphate in 744, leading to the growth of the first independent and autonomous Islamic dynasties.

Thus, circa 700, there appears to be a Late Antique African Christian population that is either somehow subsumed under a Muslim population by 740 due to mass conversion of the Amazigh to Islam; or exists side by side with their new Muslim brethren for centuries but, due to the fact that independence from the Islamic caliphate was gained under the banner of Islam and not Christianity, were “lost” to history until now.

A third possibility exists, however, namely that both of these pictures of North Africa and its confessional affiliations are only partially true and need to be amended in order to reflect what was actually going on in the region between.   It is this path that will be explored in subsequents posts.

A.L. Castonguay
Ph.D. Student
Department of History
University of Notre Dame


  • Khalid Yayha Blankinship.  The End of the Jihād State.  The Reign of Hishām ibn ‘Abd al-Malīk and the Collapse of the Umayyads.  Albany:  SUNY Press, 1994.
  • Mark A. Handly.  “Disputing the End of African Christianity,” in A.H. Merrills (ed.), Vandals, Romans, and Berbers.  New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa.  Aldershot:  Ashgate, 2004: 291-310
  • Anna Leone. “Bishops and Territory:  The Case of Late Roman and Byzantine North Africa,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 65/66 (2011-2012): 5-27
  • R.A. Markus. “Review:  Vandals, Romans, and Berbers. New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa by A.H. Merrills,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 120, No. 487 (Jun., 2005): 759-760

The Unfinished Book and Medieval Updating

A website updates, a book doesn’t.

This is one of the many ways to dichotomize two of today’s major competing media. However, such a categorical binary has not always been the case, and in the medieval world books were rarely ‘published’ in the way we’ve come to understand. Take for example the manuscript British Library Harley 1758.

Folio 45
Folio 45v

It was produced sometime between 1450 and 1500 and contains a copy of the Canterbury Tales, including the spurious Tale of Gamelyn. It seems to have been written by three distinct scribes and then corrected by a supervisor of sorts. While finely decorated and illuminated, there are notable gaps throughout the manuscript. Such gaps were clearly intentional at some stage in the process and similar blank spaces can be found in other manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The gaps in Harley 1758 (found on folios 45v, 102, 127 and 200) all fall between the end of one character’s tale and the beginning of another’s. The reason behind such premeditated gaps seems to be an intention to fill them with a portrait of the upcoming speaker. For example, on folio 102, the gap in the manuscript comes between the rubricated sentences Here endith the gode wifes tale of Bathe and Here begynneth the prolog of the ffrere.

Folio 102
Folio 102r

Presumably, then, the plan was to place a portrait of the Friar to fill in this gap. Similarly, on folio 200, we find a gap beginning at the top of the manuscript and ending with the sentence Here begy[n]neth the prolog of the ffrankeleyne.

Folio 200
Folio 200r

In this manuscript, portraits of the Cook, Friar, Manciple, and Franklin, were all clearly intended but have been left out in the process of manufacturing. The modern mind, strongly rooted in the print culture of the last few centuries, immediately wants to call this an ‘incomplete’ manuscript. By the simplistic standards set out above for a book, this work is clearly missing pieces intended for inclusion and therefore cannot be called ‘finished’ or ‘published’ in the sense we think of today. However, in a time with limited writing materials and a high cost of production for a single manuscript, books were an evolving entity and constantly updating in purpose and function. Moreover, as stated above, books like Harley 1758 were the product of numerous workers, all of whom had to be paid. In scenarios such as these, the eventual owners of the book funding its production might have simply run out of money. Even still, the book was ‘published’ despite its missing pieces, and its gaps cleverly used for other purposes in later times.

Folio 127
Folio 127r

Folio 127 of the work has been carefully reused to record the birth dates of the children of Edmund Foxe of Ludford, a 16th century clerk. This type of genealogical information is commonly found in medieval manuscripts, since, as stated above, the preciousness of such items made them valuables in medieval and early modern times.

The gaps in Harley 1758 give us insight into medieval and early modern usage of books and thoughts on the concept of publication. It is clear that the print-age dichotomy of finished and unfinished breaks down for medieval books, and perhaps their status is more akin to modern notions of website updates.

Axton Crolley
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame