Exploring Oxford’s nature through medieval eyes

By Andrew Dunning

You won’t see them in a typical tourist guide, but Oxford is home to several fabulous nature spots within walking distance of the city centre. Among my favourite discoveries during this year’s lockdown were a circuit through Wytham Woods, Godstow Abbey, and Port Meadow and a cross-country route along the Thames River to the Harcourt Arboretum (the fields can be mucky, but perseverance gives a prize of peacocks and piglets). When it was announced that the Oxford Open Doors festival would be online this year, I set out to present Oxford’s nature with a medieval twist.

Fans of Fantastic Beasts may know about bestiaries: collections describing both local and exotic animals, given a moral or allegorical interpretation and sometimes sumptuously illustrated. The Bodleian Library’s MS. Bodley 764 is one example, made in thirteenth-century England. Such writings reflect a desire to harmonize research on the natural world from classical and biblical texts with lived experience.

These excerpts feature geese, bees, sheep, and peacocks at Port Meadow, the Botanic Garden, Wytham Woods, and University Parks. If David Attenborough had lived in the Middle Ages, Planet Earth might have sounded something like this.

The goose calls its night watch to witness by its persevering noise. No animal senses a human’s smell like a goose. The Gauls’ assault on the Capitol was detected by its noise. Thus Rabanus says: ‘This bird can symbolize foreseeing people, keeping a good watch over their guard.’ [Rabanus Maurus, De uniuerso 8.6.46]

Now there are two kinds of geese: domestic and wild. Wild geese fly high and in a row, and they symbolize those who live far removed from earthly status by living well. But domestic geese live together in villages, often calling out; they wound one another with their beaks. They symbolize those who, although they love a gathering, spend their time on gossip and back-biting.

All wild geese are ash-grey in colour, and I have never seen one that was multicoloured or white. But in domestic geese, there is not only the ash-grey colour but also multicoloured and white. Wild geese have the ash-grey colour because those who are far from the world take a low garb of repentance. But those who dwell in cities or in villages wear clothing of a more beautiful colour.

A goose senses the smell of a person arriving before the rest of the animals; it does not cease to call out at night, because a prudent person recognizes others, however far away, through their evil or good reputation. Therefore, when a goose senses the smell of one arriving by night, it does not cease to call out, because when a prudent brother sees thoughtless offences of ignorance in others, he should call out. The noise of geese was once of use to the Romans on the Capitol, and in the chapter every day the noise of a prudent brother is useful when he sees thoughtless offences. The noise of a goose drove back the enemy Gauls from the Capitol; but the noise of a prudent brother drives the ancient enemy from the chapter. The noise of a goose saved the city of Rome unharmed from enemy attack; the noise of a prudent brother guards his attention from being disturbed by wicked people.

Perhaps divine providence would not have displayed the natures of birds to us – unless, it may be, he wished to make them useful to us in some way.

Bees (Botanic Garden)

Bees [apes] are so named either because they cling to one another with their feet [a (by) + pes], or because they are born without feet [a (without) + pes], for they develop both feet and wings afterwards. These are diligent in the task of creating honey. They live in assigned dwellings; they build their homes with indescribable skill; they compose their honeycombs from different flowers; and they fill up their beehives with innumerable offspring in wax cells. They have armies and kings, and they wage battles. They flee from smoke and are provoked by a disturbance.

Many people know from observation that bees are born from the corpses of cattle. For to create these bees, the flesh of slaughtered calves is beaten; worms are created from the rotten gore. Afterwards, the worms become bees. Strictly speaking, however, the ones called ‘bees’ come from oxen, just as hornets are from horses, drones from mules, and wasps from asses.

The Greeks call the larger bees created in the honeycomb’s outer cells ‘castros’. Some people think they are called kings, because they lead their beehives [castra].

Among all the kinds of animals, only bees have shared offspring. They all live in one house; they enclose the borders of a single country; all their work is shared; their food is shared; their tasks are shared; their custom and produce is shared; their flight is shared.

They ordain a king for themselves, they appoint people, and though placed under a king they are free. For they also maintain his privilege of judgement, and have affection for him by the fidelity of their devotion, since they choose him as king in the same way as a deputy for themselves, and they honour him with the entire swarm. But the king is not selected by lot, because a lot involves chance rather than judgement, and often the worse candidate is preferred to the better one by the irrational falling of the lot.

None of the bees dare to leave their homes, nor go out into any pastures, unless the king has gone out first and has claimed authority for himself with his flight. They go forth through fragrant fields where they inhale the odours of the flowers of the garden, where streams flow among fragrant grasses, where the banks are pleasant. There, lively youth play their games, there men take their athletic persuits, there they find release of cares. The first foundations of the hives are laid as a delightful labour among the flowers and sweet herbs.

Sheep (South Hinksey)

The sheep is a soft wooly domestic animal, with a vulnerable body, a gentle spirit. Its Latin name, ‘ovis’, is derived from ‘oblations’, because when the ancients first began sacrificing, they did not kill cattle but sheep. Some people call them two-toothed, because some have two upper teeth along with eight others. The gentiles used to offer these especially in sacrifice.

When winter comes, the sheep grazes insatiably and tears at the grass voraciously, because it senses the coming sharpness of winter. It first stuffs itself with grass for food, since all the grass is destroyed by the freezing cold.

Sheep, as we said, represent innocent and simple people among Christians. Furthermore, at times the sheep also allegorically displays the mildness and patience of the Lord himself. A passage of Isaiah on the innocent Saviour’s death says, ‘as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.’ [Isaiah 53.7] In the Gospel, sheep are the faithful people: ‘The sheep hear his voice’. [John 10.3] And in a psalm: ‘Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet: sheep and oxen’. [Psalm 8.6–7] Two sheep represent the peoples of the nations that a man nourishes, that is Christ, on which it is read in the prophet, ‘in those days a man shall nourish a young cow and two sheep; and because of the abundance of milk he shall eat butter’. [Isaiah 7.21–22]

Peacocks (Harcourt Arboretum)

The peacock’s name comes from the sound of its call; its flesh is so tough that it hardly suffers decay, and it is not easy to cook. Concerning it, someone once said: ‘Do you admire him whenever he spreads out his jewelled wings, and can you hand him over, hard-hearted man, to the cruel cook?’ [Martial 13.70]

Because Solomon carried a peacock from distant lands, and it has different colours in its feathers, it is a sign of the gentile people, coming to Christ from remote parts of the earth, who also shine brightly, adorned with the grace of many virtues.

Andrew Dunning is the R.W. Hunt Curator of Medieval Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library and Supernumerary Fellow in Book History at Jesus College.

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