Friday, November 12, 2010

Some thoughts about the Aviary

When I first approached the Aviary, I had expected the book to be a kind of mini-bestiary, more limited in scope and more extended in its allegory, perhaps, but nevertheless true to the bestiary's general project of uncovering the injunctions to the righteous path, the traces of divine intervention, and the witnessing of Christian truth that are embedded in the very warp and weft of the natural world. It should be clarified that even the bestiary, I have come to learn, can vary drastically from one recension to the next; the moral didactic structure of the early Physiologus is much more explicitly stated than in later editions such as Albertus Magnus', in which the list of animals is greatly expanded and reorganized to accommodate the schemae of Aristotelian natural science and create a comprehensive encyclopedia of all living things. The impression I had that the Aviary is part of the Physiologus-bestiary tradition is partly due to the way it seems to be introduced and categorized in secondary literature: take, for example, the chapter on science in Animals in the Middle Ages, which claims the "huge popularity of bestiaries prompted the composition of similar works with a more limited scope and interest, like the Aviarium" (Resl, 134). There are other examples, almost all of them introductory, that make the same basic claim.

It is clear, however, when reading the the Aviary first-hand, that it is a bird of a different color. Its long and complex meditations on the first four birds, the dove, the hawk, the turtledove, and the sparrow, are interspersed with similar meditations about the winds (north and south) and trees (the palm and the cedar), which belies any claim that it is informed by the basis of natural orders or categories of creature. The passages are much longer than in a typical bestiary, and its source material is exclusively scriptural. The four birds, the winds, and the trees form the first section of the entire work, accompanied by a series of images that, as we discussed in class, both complement the text and offer an independent reading of the ideas within. Both text and image, as Willene Clark notes in her introduction, are stable entities, "transmitted with surprising fidelity, both textual and visual, throughout its tradition" (Clark, 22). This sets the first section of the Aviary well apart from the bestiaries, which display a huge amount of variety in its organization and illustration across editions.

The style of the second section is closer to a regular bestiary, in that its entries grow shorter and there is more time spent discussing the physical habits and natures of the birds in question. The focus is still undoubtedly on the moral interpretation of the birds, as almost every entry begins with a line of Scripture. A more subtle shift is noticable in the author's tone; rather than its strong emphasis on meditation and reflection, as much reflexively directed to the self as to the outside reader, the narrative voice becomes more didactic, more unilateral, speaking as an auctoritas about how the raven or the crane can be understood in this or that passage from the Bible, why they appear in such a way, and what lesson can be drawn from the text. We have shifted from metaphysics to exegesis.

How, then, can we read the Aviary? It is a bit of a loaded question, because a key element in approaching any work is having an idea of who the intended audience could be and in what capacity would they make use of its contents? Clark has an interesting argument that places the Aviary and the Latin bestiaries in the same camp, in opposition to the Physiologus: the latter, she argues, seems to have been used to teach letters and composition to young pupils, rather than as a vehicle for moral edification. This is why the Aviary and Latin bestiaries are often lavishly illustrated, while the Physiologus is not. The illuminated manuscripts, on the other hand, could have been used in similar capacities for imparting Christian morality to monastic lay-brothers, hence the illustrations and mnemonic devices (Clark, 23).

From the perspective of style, however, I do not find this suggestion entirely convincing. It is clear that the first section of the Aviary is no Aesop's Fables or Physiologus, to be rearranged and embellished as the patron sees fit. It is a poetic text, much like Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae, a sermon interpolated with scriptural references and exegesis to inspire one to contemplate the order of creation. Real birds, I would say, do not play even a nominal role in this section; the birds are entirely metaphorical, the component parts of their bodies, their placement and relation to one another, and their poetic interaction with the world of north and south winds, cedars, and palms, all provide the reader with a schema, a mappa mundi, a bird's-eye view of the world in which everything falls into place and essential purposes become evident. Even the act of reading the meditiation performs a certain function, for it draws the reader into the appropriate state of contemplation and reflection that is needed for him to "float" above this metaphorical landscape and see it as it truly is. Reading this text reminds me of a journey---it has a beginning and an end, it takes you on a trip; it is not a static ennumeration of beasts and birds in an eternal world that can be added and subtracted at will, because there is no need for a particular order. This is why the text remains intact in all its recensions, and why the illustrations are similarly consistent. They are not portraits of bird X or Y, but very specifically laid-out maps that visualize the structure laid out in the text, in which, as Ohly's article makes plain, each and every detail plays a role and bears a message. The important difference, in my view, is that you are not extracting truth out of the natural world around you, as you do in the Physiologus and bestiary; you are rather projecting truth onto nature, the same way you could on a map of the worlds, an ascent to heaven and descent to hell, a dream narrative, or other allegorical journeys.

Just some thoughts. I'll keep writing about this over the weekend.


Hugh of Fouilloy. The Medieval Book of Birds: Hugh of Fouilloy's Aviarium. Edition, translation, and commentary by Willene B. Clark. Binghampton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992.

Ohly, Friedrich. Sensus Spiritualis: Studies in Medieval Significs and the Philology of Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Resl, Brigitte, ed. A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Oxford, UK; New York: Berg, 2007.

1 comment:

  1. "They are not portraits of bird X or Y, but very specifically laid-out maps that visualize the structure laid out in the text, in which, as Ohly's article makes plain, each and every detail plays a role and bears a message." Very well said! Yes, it seems that designs like the dove page that Ohly talks about and that we concentrated on in class are much more like maps than portraits of this or that bird, thus their consistency from manuscript to manuscript. It is difficult to see in most of the bestiary images that we have looked at anything like the overall structure that Hugh worked into his picturae. That said, I wonder if it is correct to say that Hugh does not care about the birds as birds. Would his argument work as well if the birds did not exist as animals, but only as colored signs? My sense is that it would not, anymore than if there were no real trees or winds. Nature would not have the truth that it does if it were not nature, that is, a creature of God, something made by God, not simply a product of the imagination. That said, I think you are right about the way in which contemplation of these natural signs is intended to move the reader to "float" above the metamorphical landscape and see the whole. It is just that it matters very much that that landscape is also physically real.

    On another note, you are right to notice a shift in the tone of the work, from more contemplative to more authoritative and didactic. This is largely a consequence of the fact that most of the later entries depend almost entirely (often verbatim) on Gregory the Great, whom Hugh is quoting. The question then becomes, why did Hugh not do the same kind of work on the other birds as he did on the dove and the hawk? Why did he just quote Gregory?

    I look forward to your further meditations on the birds!