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Birds and bird-lore in the literature of Anglo-Saxon England

Lacey, MER; (2014) Birds and bird-lore in the literature of Anglo-Saxon England. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

This thesis presents an interdisciplinary approach towards understanding the ways in which Anglo-Saxons perceived the birds around them and the cultural associations with which we find them endowed in the literature. It focuses on closely examining the entire range of primary sources available to us in order to build as accurate and as complete a picture of Anglo-Saxon bird-lore as possible, and it stresses the indivisibility of observational experiences of birds and their cultural associations. As very little work has been done on birds in Old English, this thesis starts with the fundamentals: how were birds categorised, identified and differentiated? Such fundamental questions must be addressed if we are not to anachronistically impose our own understanding on the Old English evidence. My examination reveals that birds were primarily heard, rather than seen, and that this experience of birds is reflected in the literature, where descriptions focus on their calls, instead of their appearances. This aural primacy is stressed throughout the thesis. In the first half of the thesis I argue for remnants of an apparently ancient, and common Germanic, practice of augury in the literature of Anglo-Saxon England, in which the vocalisations of birds were held to contain prophecies and tidings of present import. I present arguments for this belief being grounded in observed experience, stressing the connection between bird-lore and the lived experiences of birds in the Anglo-Saxons’ environment. In the second half of the thesis, I demonstrate that Christian bird-lore was quite different, being steeped in symbolism and scholarly tradition rather than naturalistic observation, but that it had common ground in associating birds with divine knowledge. I subsequently show how the Christian traditions of birds interacted with pre-Christian bird-lore – both in terms of augury and in terms of Anglo-Saxon proto-scientific classification.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Birds and bird-lore in the literature of Anglo-Saxon England
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1431318
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