Bird iconography in a 13th-century English Bestiary

Pelican from R.14.9
A pelican feeding its young by piercing its own breast. This was symbolic of the Crucifixion in the medieval mind.


Copied out in religious centres by monastic scribes, medieval bestiaries are part catalogue of wondrous beasts and part moral allegory. They represent a world in which God created animals as object-lessons for man in morality, piety and Christian doctrine. Birds in bestiaries tend to be symbolic either of spiritual renewal and the ever-lasting life of the spirit (eagles and peacocks), or of the proper care of parents for their young children and children for their ailing parents (crows). Some, however, represent specific episodes or concepts from the Bible. The Pelican, shown above piercing its own breast to feed its young on its blood, represents Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of others.

The Caladrius, pictured below, is a mythical, pure white bird, reputedly kept in the houses of Kings, which would perch on the bed of anyone who fell ill. If the Caladrius looked away from the convalescent, the person would die of their illness. However, if the bird looked at them, they were sure to recover. The Caladrius would then draw the sickness into itself by virtue of its gaze and then fly up to the sun where the sickness was burned away. This was an allegory for the cleansing away of sin by Christ’s sacrifice in the Bible.

R.14.9 image
Illustration of the Caladrius, a mythical bird, healing a sick king (f.89v)

That the Caladrius is able to predict the life or death of an individual is emblematic of the larger world of medieval bird symbolism. The word ‘auspicious’ – describing an event about which there are omens, especially good omens – comes from auspex, from the Latin avis, bird, and specere, to watch, someone who could predict future events by observing birds in flight. In addition to representing aspects of human spirituality, birds in the middle ages were linked to the spirit world in a very unique way, representing fate, dreams, prophecy and the future. We retain aspects of this symbolism to this day, with our rhymes about magpies portending different future events based on their numbers, for example.


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