Speaking Starlings

Here are three things you should know about starlings: (i) They have cool little stars all over their feathers. (ii) Boring people get very excited watching them gather together in clouds. (iii) They can learn to speak medieval Welsh, unlike most undergrads.

Species: The common but surprisingly cool starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Source: ‘Branwen’, second of the ‘Mabinogi’ stories.

Date: 1000-1250 A.D.

Highlights: If you are ever a victim of domestic abuse, our text suggests that your best option is to train a starling to talk, and send it to your brother with orders to summon his army and invade.

When new students start reading medieval Welsh they usually start with the four ‘Mabinogi’ stories. That’s because the others are mostly either unoriginal or are hard-to-read poems. This means the ‘Mabinogi’ are so influential that the main modern translation of medieval Welsh stories is called the Mabinogion after them.

The second story of the ‘Mabinogi’ is called ‘Branwen, daughter of Llyr’. The story is named after one of its main characters, a young woman from one of the richest families in the country.

Branwen is not an inspiring character, and early on in the story she is married off to Matholwch, the King of Ireland, as part of a peace treaty. Unsurprisingly, being Irish, King Matholwch is also into domestic abuse because #MedievalRacism.

So, imagine you’ve been married off to a foreign monarch and you are being abused. Assuming mobile phones and the internet haven’t been invented yet, how do you get word to your bloodthirsty brother that you are in trouble?

  1. Just run away
  2. Write a letter begging for help
  3. Send a messenger

If your answer was option one, you are clearly not cut out for life as a boring damsel in distress. Option two is suitably dull but forgets that victims of domestic abuse  are often not allowed communication with their previous lives. Branwen is not an exception, and King Matholwch actually forbids British ships to even leave harbour. Option three is the best one for Branwen, but to do that we need someone really trustworthy and dependable…

Picture shows Starly, a pathetic looking Pokémon.

Here is a popular modern depiction of our reliable and steadfast bird created by the Pokémon team at Nintendo. They gave it a name befitting its mighty nature: Starly (the Strong).
Surprisingly, this stalwart and vigorous pokémon is not a favourite in elite tourneys.
Display and discussion of this image comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.

Or we could be totes Disney about it, and just ask our animal friends for help.

Nowadays, if you ask your friends which birds can be taught to talk, they will probably be able to tell you all about parrots and parakeets (Psittacae spp.) but not much else. Surprisingly though, lots of what we think of as the cleverest birds can be taught to speak. If you think about it, you probably know several birds which frequently mimic sounds. One of the most famous is the loud and invasive myna bird (Acridotheres tristis). What you probably don’t know is that its close relative, the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) can also be taught to speak. This was the bird that Branwen sent to get help:

This [domestic abuse] continued for homenot less than three years. In the meantime Branwen reared a starling at the end of her kneading-trough, and taught it to speak, and told the bird what kind of man her brother was. And she brought a letter telling of her punishment and dishonour. The letter was tied to the base of the bird’s wrings, and it was sent to Wales, and the bird came to this island.

It found Bendigidfran [her brother] in Caer Saint in Arfon, where he was at a council of his one day. The bird alighted on his shoulder, and ruffled its feathers until the letter was discovered and they realised the bird has been reared among people. (Davies, 2007:28)

This is Branwen’s one chance to shine in her entire story, and she fills the role. She perseveres with her starling for three years, teaching it to speak. The bird is eventually so well trained it is able to recognise her brother from description alome. Starlings typically only live up to five years in the wild (Hume, 2002:365), so presumably this is the starling’s one great adventure. Presumably also, the purpose of training the bird to speak was so that it could deliver her message orally. Messengers in the medieval period were not just there to deliver packages and get a signature, they were intrinsic parts of the communication (Richardson, 1996:136). Often they delivered messages orally, and were expected to know about the subject of a letter and add authority to the voice of the writer.

I am divided on how impressive all this is. On the one hand, Branwen’s brother was an actual giant, able to wade across the Irish Sea, so the starling’s task of finding him was not an especially hard one. Starlings were commonly kept as pets, and also commonly taught to speak (Walker-Meikle, 2012:15). Branwen’s brother recognises the bird was ‘meithryn… yg kyuanned’ (raised in civilisation; Thomson, 1986:9) as if this is a common thing. Further, in the wild starlings migrate thousands of miles across continents, so a quick jaunt across a narrow channel should not have been much hassle. It is most definitely not the most reliable cry for help though.

On the other hand, however ridiculously convoluted this plan was, Branwen conceived it, stuck to it for three years and actually carried it out. That shows more resourcefulness and courage than most of us would be able to show in her situation. No matter how Disney-princess the plan might have seemed, it worked. She later died of grief because her abuse caused a war, but the war was not her fault. Mostly.

starling displaying crest

You can never be 100% blameless again after you unleash a monster on the unready world.
Photograph shows urban starling habituated to humans in Bristol, UK, photo taken by Matthew Britton, and licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

CONCLUSIONS

So what can we learn from a story of an abused rich girl teaching a starling to talk?

  1. Medieval Welsh audiences were probably familiar with keeping native birds as pets, supporting the European historical evidence (Walker-Meikle, 2012:15)
  2. Medieval audiences probably knew that starlings could learn to talk, meaning they were better informed than we are today.
  3. Even medieval princesses made friends with animals. #WinningStrategy #NoEscapeFromDisney

Your friends probably don’t get starling mail. Click here to read what Branwen should have done.

REFERENCES

Davies S (2008) The Mabinogion. Oxford University Press.

Hume R (2002) Complete Birds of Britain and Europe. DK, London.

Richardson M (1996) Women, commerce, and writing in late medieval England. Poster C & Utz R eds. The Late Medieval Epistle. Northwestern University Press, Illinois: 123-47.

Thomson D (1986) Branwen uerch Lyr. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Walker-Meikle K (2012) Medieval Pets. Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

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