In the dark, sylvan villages of medieval England, people named places after the birds that filled the night with music
In one of the oldest poems in English literature, there is a beautiful moment when a lone sailor, battling against stormy winter seas and his troubled soul, describes how birds have replaced human company for him on the ‘ice-cold way’ – an admission that carries both comfort and sardonic misery. His entertainment is the ‘swan’s song’, men’s laughter is now ‘the gannet’s sound and curlew’s cry’, and the warming tonic of mead is echoed in the ‘gull’s singing’. Where ‘storms beat stone cliffs’, a white-tailed sea eagle yells with the roar of crashing waves. The Seafarer not only provides us with one of our first ornithological references in the English language, but also, most powerfully, the earliest written description of birds evoking place, being associated with a distinct landscape. This poem is not alone, however, in suggesting to us how birds could inspire a feeling for place more than 1,000 years ago. There are other glimpses, beyond the realms of poetry. We need only look around us, at real places. Hidden in the names of towns and villages are the ghostly traces of birds conjuring powerful identities for people in the landscapes and settlements of early medieval England.
We live in medieval places. Quite literally in England, where nearly all towns and villages are very old, and so are their names. The vast majority are Old English in origin (c650-c1100 CE), and go back to a time before the Norman Conquest when Germanic tribes from the continent were colonising and settling land over several centuries, often alongside the Indigenous British populations, whose knowledge and languages were assimilated (though evidence for this is frustratingly scant). A great many Old English place names are toponyms; that is, names that refer to and describe landscape features (others refer to human habitation: Burgh in Norfolk means ‘fortified place’; or individual people: Birmingham, ‘homestead of Beorma’s people’), so the geography of the natural world was very clearly of interest and importance to early place-makers and place-namers. But so, too, were the plants and animals, and we find them everywhere in place names, connected with both ecological habitats and human habitations alike.
Among this rich repository of names, birds rank in their many hundreds as vitalising elements and markers of medieval places – more than any other class of wild animal in fact. Some are immediately obvious in modern spellings, and others are enticingly obscure. Among the cranes and crows, eagles and pigeons and geese (to mention some of the more commonly named birds), there are also less expected species. Who would imagine the mulch-and-mud snipe secretly probing the worm house as place markers in Snitterfield (Warwickshire), or fairy-flitting titmice roving through trees as the spirits of Masongill (Yorkshire), or yellowhammers like fireside embers in the winter hedgerows in Amberley (Sussex)? The sheer number and variety recorded indicate not only what species were known, and where they were present, but that there was something about birds per se that inspired responses and connections to the places where they were encountered. What was it about birds that so caught people’s place-imagination […]
Edited bySam Haselby