Medieval Bestiary 2: The Turkey and the Partridge

Henri de Ferrières, Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio (Book of King Method and Queen Reason), Paris, 1379
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS fr. 12399, 12 x 8 1/2 in. (30.5 x 21.5 cm)
Folio 91v: A Partridge Trap

Happy Thanksgiving Eve! Since tomorrow’s holiday coincides with Medieval Bestiary week at the Abbeville Blog, we were hoping to serve up a delightfully crazy, colorfully illustrated, piously allegorical medieval interpretation of the turkey. Sadly, we realized that there weren’t any, since the turkey is a New World bird. Nor could we track down any good commentaries on the turkey fowl or guinea fowl, which is what Europeans believed the wild turkey was when they arrived on American shores.

Fortunately, we found the next best thing: a delightfully crazy, colorfully illustrated, piously allegorical medieval interpretation of the partridge. Besides being a popular game bird enjoyed on feast days, the partridge was, in the opinion of the Middle Ages, basically Satan:

The partridge, in contrast to the quail depicted next to it in many bestiary manuscripts, carried very negative associations in the Middle Ages. It is generally shown taking eggs from a nest. Bestiaries record how the partridge regularly ferries its eggs and young from one nest to another to deceive predators, but also accuse the partridge of stealing eggs that she has not laid to hatch them in her nest and thus enlarge her brood. The deception is foiled, because as soon as the fledglings hatch and hear the voice of their true mother, they abandon their kidnapper to return to their own mother’s wings. This behavior is also mentioned in the Bible, where we read in the book of Jeremiah (17:11): “Like a partridge who hatches the eggs she has not laid, such is he who unjustly acquires riches; in the midst of his life shall they leave him, and in the end he will be a fool.” This episode was of course interpreted by the exegetes, who saw in it the image of the devil attempting to lure man from the influence of God… -The Grand Medieval Bestiary: The Animal in Illuminated Manuscripts

It gets stranger: “The partridge is also described as lascivious and lustful by classical and medieval authors. It was even asserted that the heat of its sexual appetite made it forget the laws of nature, driving the males to commit the sin that brought destruction down on Sodom and Gomorrah.” That’s right: if someone ever tries to condemn your sexual preferences on religious grounds, you can throw up your hands and say, “THE PARTRIDGES MADE ME THIS WAY.”

Much as it looked down on the partridge, the Middle Ages had to admit that all that greed and lust was pretty tasty. Bestiary notes that the bird was “frequently served at medieval tables, where it was prized for its tender flesh.” There are even a few surviving recipes from medieval cookbooks:

[In] the Viandier, the famous fourteenth century cookbook written by Guillaume Tirel…we find instructions on how to prepare “pâtés of partridge”: “Place over your partridge thin strips of lard well chopped, and for spices, use ginger and powder of clove.”

We invite Abbeville readers to adapt this as a nontraditional Thanksgiving option. (Send us pictures if you do.) Even if you somehow absorb the partridge’s greed and lust, they’ll provide a fun alternative to the standard deadly sins of Turkey Day: gluttony and sloth.


Click here to learn more about The Grand Medieval Bestiary, published by Abbeville Press.

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