I HAVE ALREADY considered the part played by rabbits in the rich tapestry that is the literature of the English speaking world (see my blog of 3 December 2011). Poultry have been equally prolific in producing flights of fancy since the middle ages or even longer ago than that, and in many different languages and cultures. Both rabbits and chickens have also been prominent on the dining table for even longer, but it is the chicken and duck in art and literature that are exercising my brain at present.
“The sky is falling in” said Henny Penny. Alison Uttley’s tale of the talking hen is but one of many anthropomorphic stories involving birds written in last 150 years. Jemima Puddleduck is Beatrix Potter’s contribution to the genre. There are many other examples by perhaps less well known writers, but the story does not end there. Perhaps the best known of all occur in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the birds are the Dodo, the Lory, the Eaglet and the Duck. When the technological developments of the last century produced the talking motion picture we got a new medium dominated in birdlife terms by the cartoon characters of Woody Woodpecker and Tweety Pie.
What can I tell you of Chaucer’s hens, the cockerel called Chanticleer and his wife Pertilote? The birds belonged to a poor widow along with three pigs, three cows and a sheep called Molly. Dame Pertilote is the archetypal practical wife and she stands for no nonsense; what Chanticleer needs is a laxative, she states, to stop his silly dreams of being taken by a fox . Chanticleer is full of examples of dreams which have been ignored at the dreamer’s peril. Neither Chanticleers caution nor Pertilote’s down-to-earth attitude do not stop him being seized by the fox. Luckily he escapes by using a clever ruse. I would recommend anyone unfamiliar with the story to read it – in modern English if necessary. It is called the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
Once again we come that great marvel of medieval East Anglian art found in the Macclesfield Psalter and works of that school. Here we find anthropomorphic poultry that could have been produced by the imaginations of people living today. Indeed even the comment of the duck is given in a timeless fashion; “Queck” it says as it is being carried off by the fox.
This is all so similar to the history of the rabbit. These types of animal appear to have a special relationship with man down the ages; an exploitative one certainly, but also an interest that has shown itself in anthropomorphic literature and art. Fables are a rich source of this kind of story, and the names of Aesop and La Fontaine show that the use of animals as human stand-ins is a widespread emotion. My special interest is in the East Anglian connection with birds.
I have already mentioned the medieval manuscript produced in East Anglia, the Macclesfield Psalter. Coming forward into the modern era, but still a long time ago, we have poet John Skelton. He is regarded as our first Poet Laureate, for although the position did not officially exist in the early 16th century, that was the title bestowed on him by the University of Oxford. He was native of Diss and was in later life rector of that town. This was before the Reformation and the fact that he had a child by a woman companion caused a degree of scandal.
The poem of his that is relevant to my subject is about the nuns of Carrow Abbey and one in particular, Dame Margery. Dame Margery had a pet sparrow called Philip. Unfortunately Philip was caught by Gib the cat and did not survive the encounter. “Phip” the sparrow is endowed with human qualities, even to the extent of having a soul. I do not think orthodox theologians would have agreed with Skelton on this point. Now of course we are a bit dubious if even humans have immortal souls.
For those unfamiliar with the geography of East Anglia I should explain that Diss is town on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, just on the Norfolk side. Carrow is about 20 miles to the north. In the 16th century it was a village just outside the city of Norwich although it has been incorporated within the city for a long time. It is best known today for Carrow Road, the home of Norwich City Football Club, although the stadium is just across the river from Carrow itself. There were still lots of sparrows in Carrow thirty years ago when Read’s the flour millers still operated by the river. Flocks of the birds used to settle on the roof and gorge themselves on the wheat dust. Of course I recognize that the choice of Carrow as the setting for this story has everything to with the poetic possibilities of the place-name, rather than being the genuine place where the cat caught the bird; though that is an unfortunately common occurrence.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA