Fowl Play

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September 28, 2012 by Gail Armstrong

I have a real fondness for chickens.  I’ve often thought I’d like to keep a few in my backyard, if they weren’t kind of noisy and if I knew anything about caring for them.  I think they’re generally underappreciated birds.  Silkie chickens are particularly lovely*.

I know I’m not alone in my soft spot for our fowl feathered friends – it appears many a mediaeval manuscript artist found them endearing too, judging by the number of them to be found clucking, scratching and crowing in among the vines, flowers and acanthus leaves.

Here are a few of my favourites.

1.  This handsome pair is found in an Herbal created in Northern Italy around 1440.

Two roosters


Unfortunately they become a bit quarrelsome once the food runs out.


2. Speaking of handsome fellows, I particularly like this colourful cock, one of three birds on a page in the Theological Miscellany of Peraldus, an English text dating from sometime after 1236.  He`s colourful, proud and boasts a luxuriant tail – surely a model for Chaunticleer.



3. These interesting specimens reside in the pages of Imaginacion de Vraye Noblesse,by Hugues de Lannoy and the aptly-named Quentin Poulet.  Again, the rooster is a beauty but at first I didn’t know what to make of his lady-love…till I realized she is either sitting happily in, or attempting to emerge from, a seashell.  Hmmmm, thereby hangs a tale, I’m sure.  Too bad we don’t know what it is…any theories?

Bird of prey and chickens


4. If you thought the seashell was a bit odd, check out this vignette, described in the Morgan Library’s  notes as “nude infant, wearing hat, holding whirligig and reins, seated astride a rooster”.  But of course…  Tiny, tom-thumb infant?  Giant mutant rooster?  Only the face in the flower below knows for sure…and the anonymous 15th century creator of the French/Belgian Book of Hours in which this delightful image resides.


5. I really like the rooster in this one…he lives in the same Book of Hours but, rather than cavorting with infants, clothed or otherwise, he appears to be fraternizing with a fox.  The Morgan Library’s notes indicate the vignette illustrates Aesop’s fable of the fox and the cock.  I find this little bird particularly endearing – there’s just something about the look on his face and his demeanour that made me hope his fate in the fable was a favourable one, rather than the one I feared (knowing how interactions between foxes and chickens all too often play out).  So I consulted Mr. Google and was relieved to learn that the fable illustrates how a sensible rooster sees through the wiles of the fox and refuses to become a party to his viciousness. Way to go, rooster!


6. This rooster, on the other hand, strikes me as a bit arrogant. Oh sure, he’s a beauty, splendidly red with some pretty darn fine tail feathers.  But I fear the fact that he’s featured in his own little frame, and surrounded by some pretty spectacular flowers, may have gone to his head.  He looks proud…if this rooster were ever to be sweet-talked by a fox, I have a feeling he wouldn’t fare as well as the more modest, and sensible, bird above.  He inhabits another Book of Hours, originating in Belgium (possibly Mons) circa 1450-60.


7. Here’s another big red bird who finds himself in somewhat different circumstances.  The British Library notes describe the picture thus:  “Detail of a miniature of the woman of Connaught embracing a goat, Joanna of Paris embracing a lion, and a rooster crowing…”  A couple of things caught my interest there.  First, there was only one woman in Connaught?  Mr. Google came once again to the aid of my understanding…while there was undoubtedly more than one woman in Connaught, there was one in particular who recurred in Irish folk-tales and this, I presume, is she.  Why she was in the habit of embracing goats, I wasn’t able to determine on quick perusal.  Nor did I learn much about why Joanna of Paris was getting so cosy with that lion.  But I think I’m with the rooster who looks a little alarmed by these goings-on.  He looks like he wants none of it, and very sound his instincts are, I say.

Woman of Connaught and Joanna of Paris


The image dates from between 1196 and 1223.

8. This elegant rooster was painted between 1250 and 1275.  The New York Public Library notes tell me little more than that…but isn’t he lovely?  He’s another one sure to out-smart the fox…


9. Last but not least, I thought I’d include an image from a manuscript of a different sort.  It’s not only western European manuscripts that feature intricate and beautiful decoration and illumination.  This is an example of an Islamic illuminated page – a fairly simple one, but featuring another handsome rooster.  He illustrates (according to the Walters Art Museum’s notes) the Wonders of Creation, appearing in a Turkish book of that name completed in 1717.  Sure, he’s one of 444 wonders included, but I was glad to see the chicken ranked.  Clearly, as I said at the outset, I’m not the only one to see the beauty in these barnyard birds.


* Couldn’t resist including a photo of a Silkie, for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t seen one before…I told you, gorgeous!



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