Bird Kind: Avian Transformations, Species and Identities in Medieval English Poetry

Michael Warren

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Birds were conspicuous in medieval people’s lives, variously influencing and enabling the experiences of daily living. In medieval poetry, birds are one of the most ubiquitous of all nonhuman presences. Despite this commonplace appearance, no comprehensive study of their relevance and significance has yet been attempted. As a starting point, then, this thesis aims to redress this absence. It moves beyond traditional analyses that read avian presence as generic ornamentation or allegorical ciphers in order to suggest that encounters with real birds register as nuanced, diverse engagements in the texts here discussed. I draw on the fields of ecocriticism and animal studies to explore the ways in which metaphorical treatments do not dismiss real birds, but make feathered physicality and vocality intimate and essential aspects of poetic strategy, generating responses that are variously profound, comic and affective.

Exploring moments where birds resist conventional expectations, or disperse into conflicting representations, also reveals why avian quiddities hold sway in medieval thought and practice. I argue that birds crystallise focus on particular concerns about the enmeshment of the nonhuman and human in medieval writings: the misdirecting and transcending capabilities of these aerial shape-shifters make them outliers that are pertinent to medieval preoccupations with a range of religious and secular transformations. The birds that fly and sing through my five chapters enact, provoke and evade transformations, both metaphorical and literal. They are engaged with Christian spiritual ascension and intellectual taxonomic conundrums in Old English texts from the Exeter manuscript, and take issue with falsified literary appropriations of species in The Owl and the Nightingale. Their remarkable voices are embroiled in Chaucerian experimental cross-species translation possibilities, and, finally, the unique, mutable qualities of birds are realised in the most physical, empowering manner possible – in Ovidian metamorphoses that intimately combine avian and human narratives.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Kennedy, Ruth, Supervisor
  • Nall, Catherine, Advisor
Award date1 Jun 2017
Publication statusUnpublished - 8 Dec 2016


  • birds
  • birdsong
  • medieval
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • translation
  • transformation
  • ecocriticism
  • animal studies
  • voice
  • species
  • nonhuman

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