Tag Archives: marianne moore

Medieval Bestiary 4: The Ostrich and the Poet

Jacquemart Gielée, Renart le nouvel, northern France, fourth quarter of the thirteenth century
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS fr. 1.581, 11 3/4 x 8 1/4 in. (30 x 20.8 cm)
Folio 14 (detail): The Scornful Ostrich, detail from The Siege of Maupertuiz

We mentioned in our first post on The Grand Medieval Bestiary (Heck and Cordonnier, ed.) that bestiaries have had an impressive literary influence, including on the American Modernist poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972). Moore was very much a kindred spirit with the old bestiary authors and illustrators: a stern moralist whose tendency to sermonize was offset by a deadpan sense of humor and a gimlet eye for quirky detail. Her Complete Poems is something of a bestiary in its own right, as many of her most famous poems are about exotic creatures: the giraffe, the jerboa, the basilisk, the unicorn, the frigate pelican, the musk ox…and the ostrich, a.k.a. Struthio camelus or camel-sparrow, star of “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron.’”

Moore’s title is taken not from a medieval bestiary proper but from John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), a Renaissance-era didactic romance that contains the line: “The estrich digesteth harde yron to preserve his health.” Nevertheless, it’s in bestiaries that Lyly’s legend originated. From Heck and Cordonnier, we learn:

However, the most curious characteristic of the ostrich is the horseshoe or nail that the bird grasps in its beak. The first bestiary that mentions this habit is the Bestiaire divin by Guillaume le Clerc of Normandy: “Know that its stomach is in its throat, it is there that it retains its food: and it is of a nature so extraordinarily warm that it swallows iron and digests it in its stomach.” This detail is not present in earlier versions; the earliest representation of an ostrich holding a horseshoe in its beak is found in a bestiary produced in England around 1170, and not until the thirteenth century did the iconography become widespread. This dissemination is doubtless attributable to the growing medieval interest in the physical aspects of things, driven by the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy. However, neither Aristotle nor Aelian mentions this feature. Pliny alludes only to the bird’s formidable digestive capacity; Aelian refers to stones, but does not mention iron at all. The claim about iron must certainly be an elaboration of Aelian and Pliny: iron was considered the most impossible substance to digest, and as such the best with which to illustrate the extraordinary digestive capacities attributed to the ostrich. It appears that these words were taken at face value; in the excavations beneath the Lion Tower in London, ostrich skeletons were discovered surrounded by nails scattered near their necks!

Miroir de l’humaine salvation, anonymous French translation of Speculum humanae salvationis, France, fifteenth century
Musée Condé, Chantilly, MS 139, 15 1/2 x 11 7/8 in. (39.5 x 30 cm)
Folio 3: An Ostrich Saving Its Young with the Blood of an Asp

Moore takes this characteristic and turns it into a metaphor for hardiness and stoicism; the ostrich itself, into a “symbol of justice.” She describes the creature in her magnificent detail, from its “foot hard / as a hoof” to its “comic duckling head,” and recalls that the ostrich plume was an ancient symbol of truth and justice. (The endnotes to her Complete Poems inform us that “it was the emblem of the goddess Ma-at, the patron saint of judges.”) The poem argues for the heroic qualities of the ostrich—swiftness, nervous vigilance, ability to stomach the inedible—and implies that there is a certain justice in this strange, noble bird’s having survived where all the other “great birds” have gone extinct:

Six hundred ostrich-brains served
at one banquet, the ostrich-plume-tipped tent
and desert spear, jewel-
gorgeous ugly egg-shell
goblets, eight pairs of ostriches
in harness, dramatize a meaning
always missed by the externalist.

The power of the visible
is the invisible; as even where
no tree of freedom grows,
so-called brute courage knows.
Heroism is exhausting, yet
it contradicts a greed that did not wisely spare
the harmless solitaire

or great auk in its grandeur;
unsolicitude having swallowed up
all giant birds but an alert gargantuan
little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird.
This one remaining rebel
is the sparrow-camel.

You can put on your ostrich plume and judge for yourself, but from where we’re sitting, Moore is pretty persuasive. There is a kind of bizarre nobility to the “sparrow-camel,” as well as all the other animals that look like they should have vanished into a prehistoric era (platypi, hippos). These great survivors arouse our sympathy, our admiration, and—if we’re listening to the better angels of our human nature—our protective instinct.

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

Medieval Bestiary: Legend of the Bonnacon

Bestiary of the Second Family, Peterborough Abbey or Canterbury Abbey, c. 1200–1210
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 1511, 10 5/8 x 7 1/4 in. (27.5 x 18.5 cm)
Folio 18: A Bonnacon Spraying Hunters with Its Excrement

This week Abbeville celebrates the publication of The Grand Medieval Bestiary: The Animal in Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Christian Heck and Remy Cordonnier. Bestiaries are among the most lovely and peculiar texts the Middle Ages have bequeathed us; their fanciful imagination, visual splendor, and moral verve have inspired artists from da Vinci to Toulouse-Lautrec and authors from Jorge Luis Borges to Marianne Moore. Moore’s poetry in particular, with its offbeat sermons on ostriches and pangolins and jerboas, often resembles a bestiary rendered in verse.

Bestiaries are illustrated compendia of animals both real and imaginary, portrayed in allegorical terms as moral examples (or warnings) for human beings. Included in their pages are whole taxonomies of creatures: some, like the dog, domestic and familiar; others, like the camelopardus (giraffe; the Latin name means literally “camel-leopard”), well-known but enduringly strange; still others, like the unicorn, fabled and impossibly beautiful. And then there’s the bonnacon. I’ll let our authors explain:

The bonnacon is one of those horned quadrupeds, each stranger than the next, that bestiaries and encyclopedias recycled from ancient sources to populate the wild regions of terrae incognitae. Thus we encounter, in Pliny’s Natural History (VIII, 16.40), a beast from Paeonia called the bonasus. It is said to have the mane of a horse and the body of a bull, as well as horns so twisted as to be useless in combat. Still, the animal possesses two means of defense. The first one, flight, is self-evident. But the second one is bizarre. While fleeing, it can project its dung as far as seventy-five ares, or roughly a hundred modern feet (Pliny’s Latin term is jugerum, a unit of measure that, usually reserved for surface areas, here probably indicates a distance of about 104 Roman feet). And this dung burns like fire on contact.

Bestiary of the Transitional Version, First Family, England, late twelfth century
National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg, MS lat. Q.v.5.1, 7 7/8 x 5 3/4 in. (20 x 14.5 cm)
Folio 38 (detail): A Bonnacon Spraying Hunters with Its Excrement

Something about that last sentence, coming after the fastidious explication of a Roman unit of measurement, makes this editor laugh every time. The creators of medieval bestiaries shared a similarly dry sensibility, matter-of-factly including outrageous silliness in volumes that purported to be pious reference works. The medieval compilers seem to have been rather fond of the bonnacon; or at least, far less hard on it than they could have been. Amidst volumes that portray whales and partridges as agents of the devil, these horned beasts with their hellish projectile excrement are compared to, of all things, overly ascetic clergymen:

Moralizing glosses on the bonnacon are few, apart from that of Thomas of Cantimpré (De natura rerum 6.11), for whom the animal is a figure for good prelates who live so austerely that they might as well have horns with which to mortify their own flesh. They impose a like austerity on those under their authority, but without hurting them, for they demonstrate through their own conduct that the hardships they enforce are meant to guarantee their charges’ salvation. This interpretation is at least as twisted as the horns of the bonnacon. Surprisingly, Thomas acknowledges only the animal’s least bothersome characteristics, without attempting to put a negative construction on the less attractive traits of this strange animal.

Moral: if you encounter the mythical bonnacon, there’s really no reason to stay out of its path, as long as you don’t mind a little Christian rectitude coming your way.


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