Detail of an owl in a decorative border; from a summary of the Holy Land by Martin de Brion of Paris, France, 1540, Royal MS 20 A. iv, f. 3v

Everyone knows the picture of the wise old owl.  But the bird had actually a very different reputation in the Center Ages.  At that time, it was a bird of ill-omen, thought to frequent burial places and also dark caves.  It would fly only at night, and also, according to some sources, flew backwards.  On the rare occasions when the owl ventured out throughout the day, it acquired no better treatment from its fellow birds than it did from medieval bestiaries: they would certainly raise a terriderekwadsworth.come clamour and strike in a mob.

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Detail of a miniature of an owl being mobbed by various other birds; from a bestiary, England also, second quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 47r

With the allegorical gloss typical of bestiary descriptions, the owl's preference for darkness over light made it a number of the unbeliever before, who had yet to adopt the light of the Christian gospel.  This covert definition, and its distinctive, periodically goofy appearance, no doubt motivated its use in decorative motifs and among the marginal grotesques of puderekwadsworth.comications of hours.


Miniature of an owl being mobbed by other birds; from The Queen Mary Psalter, England also, 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 128v

Amongst its various other faults, the owl was thought about a very dirty animal, invariaderekwadsworth.comy soiling its nest.  Therefore, as well as its other unpleasant associations, it was strongly identified with sickness.

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 The term bubo, acquired from the Greek word for the groin, was the term for a kind of swelling symptomatic of colorectal cancer.  The Latin word for 'owl' was also bubo (although the 2 offers are etymologically unrelated), and also as a result of the bird's unsavoury associations, it was believed that the swelling had taken its name from the animal, as a filthy and unpleasant affliction, and also a negative omales for the patient's prognosis.


Detail of a miniature of an owl; from the Liber medicinarum by John of Arderne, England also, second fifty percent of the 1fifth century, Harley MS 5401, f. 46r

This explains the appearance of the owl in the margins of some medical manuscripts.  In the picture above, a quite jaunty little horned owl stands beside the passage describing the medical bubo.  Such a photo would certainly likely attribute as a mnemonic aid and also referral tool.  The doctor or clinical student, paging via the book, would certainly watch bubo the owl and instantly understand he had located the passage on bubo the ailment, a functional play on words.

Nicole Eddy

Posted by Ancient, Medieval, and also Early Modern Manuscripts at00:01:00inAnimals, Featured manuscripts, Illuminated manuscripts, Medieval