Bird’s Delight


A crane guards the rest of her flock, holding a rock in her claws, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century)

From the London Review of Books:

Almost everything​ we know about medieval culture is written on the skins of dead animals. Turning sheep and calves into parchment is a messy, smelly business. But when we read medieval texts in print editions all that mess disappears – so we no longer see what the authors of the Middle English ‘Charters of Christ’ saw when they compared God’s sacrificial Lamb to the lambs that supplied their writing material. As the Word made flesh, Christ declares that his body, like parchment, was stretched on a frame and dried on a tree. Then the letters that spell redemption were inscribed on his skin, with nails for quills, in the ink of his blood. The circle is complete and the sacred flesh reverts to words. But to transmit all those words, a book as large as the Bible required a very large herd. More than five hundred calves died to create the magnificent Codex Amiatinus, the oldest complete Latin Bible, which dates from the time of Bede.

Detail of a miniature of different types of hawks, from Brunetto Latini’s Livres dou Tresor, N. France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325

The Middle English charters allude to a much longer tradition. In an Old English riddle-poem it is the dead animal who speaks: ‘an enemy’ killed him, stole his strength and deprived him of hair. But the speaking voice modulates into the parchment itself as it is pierced by a knife, folded by fingers and inscribed by ‘the bird’s delight’ – a quill full of ink. Finally, the speaker becomes the ultimate product: a Gospel book that makes its users ‘in heart the bolder, in mind the happier,/in spirit the wiser’. This transformation of beast into book fills 28 lines of intense reflection on a craft perceived as both violent and holy. The poem is deeply sensual, as Elaine Treharne notes: ‘It represents the noise of slicing, sloshing, scraping, stitching, sawing, smithing, singing, sighing, and ... the smell and taste of guts and wood, fire and melting wax.’

A manuscript is a unique artefact: war, fire, flood and, worst of all, the dissolution of the monasteries have taken an immense toll, making each work that survives precious. Some of the best medieval poems – Beowulf, Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – have come down to us in a single manuscript. Four books contain about two-thirds of all surviving Old English poetry, and for a few months in 2018 those four lay side by side in a single (doubtless heavily insured) glass case for an exhibition at the British Library. One of these, the sole witness to Beowulf, was almost lost in 1731 when the ominously named Ashburnham House caught fire, destroying or damaging more than two hundred volumes from the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton. As a result, some words of the poem are irretrievably lost, while others are known only from transcriptions made in the 18th century, before the charred edges had crumbled. Wellesley gives a stirring account of the Cotton fire, noting that heroic Westminster schoolboys rushed into the flames to throw manuscripts out of the windows. Given that Old English poets were obsessed with ruin and the ravages of time, such tales seem grimly appropriate.

“Peasants wear ultramarine”, Barbara Newman, London Review of Books

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