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

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.