One of the most interesting anthropomorphic initials in Plimpton MS 034 is the initial on folio 19r, which features a bird and a dog. This page will consider the bird. Although it appears only once in this manuscript, this type of bird was clearly of interest to the scribe, Johannes de Havere. Indeed, at least ten of the decorated initials in another liturgical manuscript by this scribe, Bruxelles BR 1870, feature a long-necked bird.

Processional, Plimpton MS 034, 019r



It is difficult enough to pin down possible meanings of animals when we can directly identify them. In the case of the decorated initial on folio 19r, this difficulty is magnified because the white bird in the image could be any number of long-necked white birds discussed in medieval literature. Read through the lens of Hugh of Fouilloy's twelfth-century Aviarium, some interesting possibilities arise.


On the one hand, the associations of priests and righteousness with cranes and storks suggest that this letter might refer to the priest:


“When cranes fly from one place to another they maintain a flight formation. They symbolize, moreover, those who strive to live by the Rule. Moreover, when they fly in formation they fashion letters with their bodies as they fly: further, they denote moreover (sic) those who by righteous living form within themselves the teaching of the Scripture. A certain one <of the cranes> precedes the others, one which cries continually, because a priest, who occupies a prime position in the care of souls, should lead his followers by his manner and way of life, and he still continually cries out and in his sermons demonstrates to his followers the path of good behavior…” (204-205)


“It is said of the stork that it is the enemy of snakes. The snakes are wayward thoughts or wayward brothers whom the stork pierces with its beak, while the righteous man checks improper thoughts or reproves the wayward brother with stinging invective.” (213)

The small fish (or possibly small snake?) in the mouth of the bird on folio 19r suggests that this may be a stork. 


On the other hand, negative associations with white geese and swans, which are also plausible identifications of this bird, suggest the opposite connotation of this image. 


“There [are] two varieties of geese, that is to say, the tame and the wild. The wild ones fly aloft and in an order, and denote those who, far from worldly affairs, preserve an order of righteous living. The domestic ones, however, live together in the villages; they cry out frequently; they tear at themselves with their beaks. They signify those who, even though they love the monastery, have time nevertheless for loquaciousness and slander.” (225) 

Here, Hugh is describing grey geese as "wild" and white geese as "domestic."


“The swan has snowy plumage, but black skin. Allegorically the snowy color of plumage denotes the effect of the pretense by which the black flesh is hidden, because a sin of the flesh is veiled by pretense. While the swan swims in the river it carries its neck erect, because a proud man who is enticed by worldly possessions also at the same time prides himself in possession of transitory things.” (243)


Willene B. Clark,ed. and trans., The Medieval Book of Birds: Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (Binghamton, New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992).