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!
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.