The Hierarchy of Birds

Species: The 35 most popular types of bird.

Source: ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Date: c.1380-82.

Highlights: Considering Chaucer had no idea what he was talking about, his categorisation of birds into four categories was perhaps the best we could hope for.

Parliament of Birds

Public domain woodcut from another text (‘The Woody Choristers’).

THE TEXT

‘The Parliament of Birds’ was written by Chaucer in the late fourteenth century. After a long and convoluted frame-story, the narrator arrives at the temple to Venus, Roman love goddess, on Valentine’s Day. The narrator is just in time to witness… the annual mate-choosing ceremony of the birds. Exactly what he always dreamed of.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Mid-February is about when the first birds begin making their nests, so this folklore might seem to be based on the observations of early naturalists. Don’t get too excited. When some medieval authors describe wildlife, you can sometimes get the feeling you are watching an experienced artist paint something intimitely familiar to them all their life. When Chaucer describes the natural world, you instead end up with the feeling a two-year-old has presented you with a picture of the universe – in crayon.

In order to choose their partners, the birds all travel to Venus’ palace. The narrator isn’t too clear on exactly how they get there, because he’s too busy leering at the goddess who is:

Naked from the brest up to the heed
Men mighte hire seen; and soothly for to say,
The remenant was wel covered to my pay
Right with a subtil coverchief of Valence.  (ll.269-74)

Cool, priorities totes straight there.

Eventually the narrator manages to sit down and stop dominating the camera. Chaucer has Venus explain that it’s time for the birds to choose their mates for the year. This includes all the birds, including those which mate for life because, once again, Chaucer is clueless about wildlife.

So the birds begin choosing. The choice is entirely made by the male birds because real avian mating strategies are an affront to THE PATRIARCHY, and goddess Venus is all about patriarchal dominance. Unfortunately we only get to the first bird when disaster strikes. The first three eagles, all probably different species, are all in love with the same female eagle.

All the birds have a parliament about this for about three hundred lines before they decide to ask the female love-interest what she thinks. She finally suggests she doesn’t want a mate for the year, so they all go home.

Pictured here, one eagles worst day ever. Picture by Richard Crossley in the Crossley ID guide. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Pictured here, one eagle’s worst day ever.
Picture by Richard Crossley in the Crossley ID guide. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Why are we reading this again?

THE HIERARCHY OF BIRDS

This text does not live up to our expectations of a basis in the real world and resistance to the patriarchy (crayon picture, remember). However, the text is more important for another aspect. It is often suggested that the text describes a hierarchy of birds from top to bottom (e.g. Crane, 2007:35-6. Johnston, 2014:19)

In all, 35 species of bird are described as attending the parliament. Initially, these birds are seated into a hierarchical order of four groups based on diet. Although the text does not specify which group each bird belongs in, the groups were probably intended to look something like this:

The ‘Fowles of Ravine’ (Birds of Prey). Top of the Hierarchy: These birds eat smaller birds.

Eagle (royal ♂ formal ♀ and others), goshawk, peregrine, sparrowhawk, merlin and owl.

Wormfowl. Group 2: These birds eat invertebrates.

Cuckoo, nightingale, swallow, peacock, thrush, fieldfare, parrot, stork, chicken, pheasant.

Waterfowl. Group 3: These birds live on the water and eat vegetation.

Goose, swan, crane, heron, duck, cormorant.

Seedfowl. Bottom of the hierarchy: These birds are pests.

Turtledove, dove, kite, chough/jackdaw, magpie, jay, lapwing, starling, rook, sparrow, raven, crow.

The members of each group are conjectural as the text only describes the groups, it does not spell out who goes where. I have used the species mentioned in the ‘Grayn Act’ (1566; 8 Eliz 1 c15) to help distinguish seedfowl from wormfowl . The groups appear to be based on the popular medieval conception of the chain of being. Every species was considered to fit into a hierarchy based on what it ate. The birds of prey are at the top, because they eat other birds. The wormfowl are above the waterfowl, because invertebrates eat freshwater vegetation. The pests are at the bottom of the hierarchy because they are seen to live by stealing human foods. The further down the list you go, the less ‘developed’ the animals are.

This text is the most important medieval representation of a hierarchy of birds. It is therefore surprising that there are a number of problems with it. Some species which I placed in the ‘wormfowl’ category are actually grain eaters like chickens and pheasants. Some of the species in the seedfowl category like ravens are actually carrion eaters and would almost be better placed with the birds of prey. Most of the waterfowl love to eat seeds and grain, and the presence of the doves in the bottom category is problematic considering their religious importance.

The vague nature of the categorisations and the difficulty assigning some of the members a group might explain why Chaucer never developed the hierarchy after introducing it.

Actually, Chaucer describes each bird in an apparently random order. He devotes five verses to the 35 species, and describes the birds literary or folkloric significance in the fourteenth century as he introduces it.

Here is the list of birds mentioned by category and folklore:

Bird Description
Eagles
Royal/Formal Eagle Most gentile, most benign, goodliest, virtuous, wise, worthy, true
Other Eagles Known to clerks
Royal birds
Goshawk Dun and grey tyrant
Peregrine King’s bird
Sparrowhawk
Merlin Takes larks
Dove Meek eyed
Swan Sings at death
Owl Prophesies death
Civilised birds
Crane Call the sound of a trumpet
Chough/Jackdaw Thief
Magpie Talkative
Jay Scorning
Heron Eel’s foe
Lapwing Treacherous
Starling Can [learn to speak and] tell secrets
Rook Tame
Kite A coward
Cockerel/Rooster Timer
Lovers’ birds
Sparrow Venus’ son =ardent lover
Nightingale Calls at springtime
Swallow Murderer of small birds, makes honey?
Turtledove Married and loyal
Peacock Wears bright angel clothes
Pheasant Scorns the cockerel by night
Criminals’ birds
Cuckoo Unkind [for killing other birds eggs?]
Goose Stands guard
Parrot Full of delicacy
Male Duck Destroys own kind
Stork Kills adulterers
Cormorant Gluttonous and hungry
Raven Wise
Crow Worried voice
Thrush Old
Fieldfare Frosty

Whatever problems the first Hierarchy had, at least the birds were sorted based on their own characteristics. The hierarchy was scientific. In Chaucer’s introduction, he instead sorts the birds based on what they represent to human society. The birds of prey are still at the top, and the powerfully symbolic dove and swan are placed in the same category. The ‘civilised’ category contains mainly birds which chose to live alongside medieval humans like kites, jackdaws and starlings but also chickens. Finally the lovers’ and criminals’ birds have been arbitrarily categorised based on their literary symbolism.

 

CONCLUSIONS

Around the year 1380, Geoffrey Chaucer, a man who knew little about the natural world, decided to write ‘A Parliament of Birds’. Despite the text’s shortcomings as a contemporary naturalistic witness, it is still valuable for three main reasons.

  1. The text describes the literary perception of 35 species of bird, giving us an easy way to check which the most popular species were, and how they were seen at the time.
  2. The text describes a hierarchical way of categorising birds based on their diet, which allows us to further understand which were the highest-status birds.
  3. After describing the Hierarchy of Birds, the text proceeds to categorise the species after their literary significance, suggesting the hierarchy was not always an authoritative guide to status by itself.

SOURCES

Crane S (2007) The Biennial Chaucer Lecture. For the Birds. Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 29:23-41.

Johnston M (2014) Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England. Oxford University Press.

Lynch K (2006) Dream Visions and Other Poems, Geoffrey Chaucer. W.W. Norton, London.

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