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.

Learning to Fear in Two Medieval Fables

Fables often warn by example, with an animal character’s mistakes leading to their death. Grievous errors, the morals further emphasize, can be avoided by a reader who learns from the fable’s message. The two medieval fables discussed below have no deaths within the narrative, only the threat of it. Both feature parent animals—a raven or crow in one, a doe in the other—teaching their children to be cautious of humans, and to pay close attention to their actions. These fables, in which the animal parents and their children have the ability to speak to one another, depict a means of learning to fear that is usually ascribed to humans only: verbal information. (Two other ways of learning fear, which have been studied in a number of species, are through direct conditioning and through observing the behavior of others; the latter is sometimes called “vicarious learning” or “social fear transmission.”)

The two fables in question appear one after the other, in two collections. One version is in a Latin prose collection in the “Romulus” tradition, called the Romulus Anglicus cunctis, edited by Léopold Hervieux from a fifteenth-century manuscript.[1] Another version is found in the Fables attributed to Marie de France.[2] The fable of The Raven and His Chicks, as found in Hervieux’s edition, is below, followed by my translation.

Corvus consedit in arbore quadam secus viam et cum eo Pulli sui. Sedens igitur Pullos quos habebat monebat attencius ut cauti essent. Deambulabat autem homo eadem via, et dixit Corvus ad pullos : Hic est ille, quem nos cavere maxime oportet, et vos, si videritis eum molinantem ad terram, fugite velociter. Cui unus Pullorum respondit : Eciam si se non inclinaverit, appropinquantem fugere volo. Bonum est, inquit pater, et de cetero per te non sollicitabor; sed alios Pullos meos, ut cauti sint, ammonebo.

A raven settled onto a certain tree beside a road, and with him his chicks. While he was sitting, he then carefully advised the chicks that he had, so that they would be cautious. Then a man came walking along the same road, and the raven said to his chicks: This is the one that we need to be the most careful about, and you, if you see him bending to the ground, flee quickly. To which one of the chicks responded: Even if he doesn’t bend over, I intend to flee when he approaches. Good, said the father, and I won’t otherwise worry for you. But my other chicks, I’ll warn them to be cautious.

Raven from Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f. 37r

The implication of the Romulus version of this fable, as I see it, is that it’s good to be on the safe side. While the father had used the example of a human bending over as something to be particularly watchful for, presumably because he could be picking up something to throw at the birds, one of his sons declares that he will flee at the man’s approach regardless, and it is this assertion which dispels his father’s worry for his future safety; it is yet to be seen whether his other offspring will be as cautious.

Marie’s version of The Raven and His Chicks, while it similarly portrays a parent teaching their young to fear humans, ultimately has a much different message about caution. The parent corvid in Marie’s version (a crow rather than a raven) specifies that his son ought to watch out for a man bending over to pick up a stick or a stone, and flee at the sight (lines 5–8).

“If I don’t see him bend over, and he doesn’t have anything in his hand, then do I need to move?” inquires the chick (Si jeo nel vei, fet il, beisser / n[e]’en ses meins rien manïer, / [me] dei jeo dunc[es] remüer, lines 9–11). At this point, the parent declares that he needn’t teach his son anything further, and that he is off to aid his other children. The implication is that the young crow is discerning when it comes to human actions and what they portend, and that he knows to be cautious, but not excessively so. And indeed, animals who regularly encounter human (or non-human) threats must strike a balance between their own safety and the need to find crucial resources such as food.

The raven fable, in the Romulus Anglicus cunctis, is left without a moral. In both the Romulus and Marie’s collection, the raven/crow fable is immediately preceded by the fable of The Hind Instructing Her Fawn. In this fable, a mother deer similarly warns her offspring to be wary of humans, such as the hunter they see nearby. However, rather than simply absorbing her advice, the son talks back, arguing that the hunter must in fact be afraid of them. After all, why else would he be sneaking around and hiding in the bushes? The mother reiterates that the man, and particularly the weapons he bears, are deadly. The moral, in the Romulus, is that “fools don’t foresee harms or dangers and don’t fear them, until they feel them” (Sic stulti dampna vel pericula non prevident nec pertimescunt, donec ea senciunt).[3] The naïve young fawn seems to represent such fools, whereas his wiser mother can more accurately read human behavior and identify threats.

Of course, in real life, a young bird or deer would learn fear from another animal’s sudden change in body language, or their alarm call, or even their scent, not from a verbal explanation. Humans, though, can learn through storytelling. Research in psychology has suggested that children readily learn to fear through verbal information—particularly when the information comes from an adult, rather than a peer.[4] Fables both show and tell, in a sense, when they combine memorable narratives about another’s ill-fated end (or prudent evasion of disaster) with explicit moralizations. These stories are not meant to be taken literally; after all, The Raven and His Chicks isn’t meant to teach young readers that they should run away at the sight of a man bending to the ground to pick up a rock. Rather, readers are prompted to extrapolate from the animal scenario and apply this to more abstruse, though no less real, dangers. Fables teach, perhaps, not simply what to fear, but how to fear.  Fear can be life-saving, but excessive or unnecessary fear can prove maladaptive. As for what might constitute a maladaptive level of fear, the two versions of the raven/crow fable discussed above seem to draw the line in different places; the Romulus version advocates greater wariness than Marie’s version, which suggests that wisdom lies in knowing both when to flee and when not to.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Léopold Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d’Auguste jusqu’à la fin du Moyen Âge, vol. 2 (Paris : Firmin-Didot, 1884), p. 612.

[2] Charles Brucker, ed., Marie de France: Les Fables, édition critique accompagnée d’une introduction, d’une traduction, de notes et d’un glossaire, 2nd ed. (Paris–Louvain: Peeters, 1998), pp. 334-7.

[3] Léopold Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins, vol. 2, p. 612.

[4] A. P. Field et al., “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf: a prospective paradigm to test Rachman’s indirect pathways in children,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 39, 11 (2001): 1259-76.

Imagining the Medieval Bestiary

Medieval bestiaries, which flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, particularly in England, are compendia of brief descriptions of various animals (sometimes plants and stones are included as well), which offer moral or allegorical lessons, and are often colorfully illustrated.

Basic modern definitions often suggest a sort of binary, ontological taxonomy for the creatures in these texts: bestiaries feature “real” animals (or “actual” or “factual” ones, such as dogs, crocodiles, beavers, and elephants), but also “imaginary” ones (or “mythical,” “legendary,” or “fabulous” ones, etc., such as unicorns, phoenixes, and manticores).

Unicorn from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f15r).

Bestiaries themselves don’t appear to distinguish between “real” and “imaginary” animals, in terms of the arrangement of entries or the way that creatures from these two categories are verbally described or artistically depicted;[1] the distinction is a modern and anachronistic one. Furthermore, bestiaries’ inclusion of hard-to-believe anecdotes about well-known creatures who actually do exist (e.g., the stag’s alleged habit of drowning snakes) renders the boundary between “real” and “imaginary” animals, as we might consider it, less firm in these texts. At stake in the discourse of the “real” versus the “imaginary” in bestiaries is our view of medieval thinkers.

One approach to the “imaginary” animals in bestiaries—a very old approach to interpreting mythical creatures, in fact—is rationalistic: positing that even the legends have some basis in reality, and that real animals were, through a combination of misunderstanding and literary transmission, rendered (almost) unrecognizable. Notable proponents of this view in modern times have included T. H. White (1954), and more recently, zoologists Wilma George and Brunsdon Yapp (1991).

Phoenix from Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, f68r).

Bestiaries, for these scholars, can be read as works of natural history, albeit flawed ones, and we should perhaps extend some generosity to their creators, in light of the limitations of their knowledge. George and Yapp characterize the bestiary as “an attempt, not wholly unsuccessful or discreditable for the time at which it was produced, to give some account of some of the more conspicuous creatures that could be seen by the reader or that occurred in legends.”[2] They suggest, for instance, that the manticore—described in bestiaries as a creature with a man’s face, a lion’s body, three rows of teeth, and a tail like a scorpion stinger—was based on the cheetah; that the unicorn could actually be an oryx; and that the half-human, half-fish siren could be a Mediterranean monk seal.

Reading bestiaries as genuine, sometimes highly faulty attempts at something comparable to modern natural history is not a popular position amongst medievalist scholars of bestiaries. However, the idea of bestiaries as failed pre-modern zoology lingers in some sources aimed at popular audiences. The entry on bestiaries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, claims that the “frequently abstruse stories” in these works “were often based on misconceptions about the facts of natural history.”

Manticore from Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, f22v).

As for the ontological status of “imaginary” bestiary creatures to medieval readers, i.e., whether they believed unicorns, etc. actually existed, this is hard to ascertain, and perhaps of less interest to many scholars than the prospect of examining the messages these rich works articulate on their own terms. Still, the unsupported assertion that bestiary stories were “generally believed to be true” in the Middle Ages, as the Wikipedia page for bestiaries claims, is very much in line with widespread perceptions of the period.

It is an appealing contemporary fantasy, not so much to believe in dragons or unicorns, but to believe that people really believed in them, once—a sort of vicarious experience of enchantment, accomplished not simply by imaginatively engaging with medieval works that depict fantastic animals, but by imagining more credulous medieval readers, and perhaps even by imagining oneself in their place.

Dragon from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f65v).

To take both “real” and “imaginary” bestiary creatures as the texts present them—not seeking to sieve the factual from the fabulous, not seeking an ordinary, well-known animal behind the remarkable verbal and visual depictions that bestiaries offer—allows for, amongst other things, a certain defamiliarization of the natural world we inhabit.

Playing on the fertile ambiguities of bestiary accounts is a project by The Maniculum (a podcast series which brings together medieval texts and modern gaming, co-hosted by E. C. McGregor Boyle, a PhD Candidate at Purdue University, and Zoe Franznick, an award-winning writer for Pentiment). On the Maniculum Tumblr, readers are offered “anonymized” selections from the Aberdeen Bestiary (i.e., the name of the animal being described is replaced with a nonsense-word to disguise its identity). Contributors are invited to create artwork inspired by the bestiary description itself, rather than their knowledge of what the animal is “supposed” to look like. The results are diverse; the “hyena” entry, for instance, yielded representations of creatures resembling everything from pigs to predatory snails, in a wide range of styles.

Hyena from Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f11v).

Bestiaries continue to fascinate and inspire, centuries after their creation. Below are some medieval bestiary facsimiles and related resources to explore:

  • The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 24), written and illustrated in England ca. 1200. Digital facsimile, accompanied by commentary, and Latin transcriptions and modern English translations of each folio.
  • The Ashmole Bestiary (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511), early 13th century, England, possibly derived from the same exemplar as the Aberdeen bestiary. Digital facsimile.
  • The Worksop Bestiary (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.81), ca. 1185, England. Digital facsimile.
  • The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages, a website on bestiaries by independent scholar David Badke. Includes indices of bestiary creatures, cross-referenced with manuscripts and relevant scholarship, as well as galleries of medieval illustrations.
  • Into the Wild: Medieval Books of Beasts, YouTube video by The Morgan Library & Museum.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Pamela Gravestock, “Did Imaginary Animals Exist?” in The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature, ed. Debra Hassig (New York: Garland, 1999), 120.

[2] Wilma George and Brunsdon Yapp, The Naming of the Beasts: Natural History in the Medieval Bestiary (London: Duckworth, 1991), p. 1.