If you look carefully you’ll begin to notice birds in all sorts of medieval manuscripts, used as anything from decorative flourishes to representations of the divine. In this series of posts I’ll explore a variety of bird imagery, beginning today with ornamental figures and moving on to birds as symbols of power. In the next post, birds of morality, philosophy, and religion. (As usual, click the images to go directly to the sources.)
Our first examples come from Huntington Library HM 65, a copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest made in southern France in 1279. This is an astronomical text, so the birds and other animals in the margins are purely decorative. Like acanthus leaves and running hares, these birds are a familiar visual trope of the period. Out of all the medieval birds they’re probably my favorites.
Sometimes birds illuminations aren’t just decorative but refer to the text. Harvard University’s Houghton Library MS Typ 0446 is a 13th-century Latin Bible. On one page we see a decorative bird perched on an illuminated initial, but in Exodus a stork appears with a frog in its beak—a reference to the plague of frogs.
Birds also grace the bindings of books. These clasps date from 14th-century Germany. Columbia University X242.1.S.
Bird in a blind stamped binding, bound between 1510 and 1519 by a Dutch binder named John Reynes who was active in London. Huntington Library HM 36336.
The margins of manuscripts were a kind of no-man’s land where artists could explore subversive fears and fantasies. The creepier aspects of birds are apparent in these grotesques from the pages of a 16th-century Dominican gradual. University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center HRC 013.
But manuscript birds were just as likely to have a humorous character. The Macclesfield Psalter, for instance, depicts a man riding a ‘hobby duck’.
A charming bird sneaks a bite from a penwork initial, from the University of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library MS 12. You are what you eat, after all.
Birds were also common as heraldic devices and symbols of authority. This lovely 13th-century wax seal featuring a bird on a branch is affixed to a “Quit claim by Gwenllian, widow of Madoc ap Seycil to the monks of Abbey Dore of her widow’s third of the 4 1/2 bovates of land on Grosmont hill which Madoc gave to them for his burial for her soul and the soul of Madoc.” Lawrence, University of Kanses, Kenneth Spencer Research Library MS 191:13.
The Luttrell Psalter is famous for its idealized depiction of English manor life. Here a peasant feed chickens and a man uses a slingshot to drive crows from the newly tilled fields. In this case the birds are a significant part of the manuscript’s meta-narrative: depicting its patron Geoffrey Luttrell as a benevolent and pious lord presiding over a bountiful estate.
Another way that birds embodied power and status was via falconry scenes — depictions of the nobility engaging in one of their favorite pastimes. You could argue that owning a falcon was the medieval equivalent of driving a super car or owning a yacht, and wealthy book patrons would have enjoyed seeing this high status activity reflected in the pages of the luxury texts they commissioned. Below is the illumination for the month of May from the Fecamp Psalter, created in France circa 1180.
Ptolemy with a falcon, from Der Naturen Bloeme, a 14th-century Flemish bestiary, KB KA 16.
Two examples of falconry from British Library Yates Thompson 13, a 14th-century English book of hours: the first is part of a calander page for the month of May.