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The Sounds that Animals Make – the Medieval Version

It seems that every parent at one time or another teaches their children the sounds that animals make. They did it in the Middle Ages too.

Around the middle of the 13th century Lady Dionysia Mounchensey, Duchess of Pembroke, commissioned Walter de Bibbesworth to write a textbook to teach Anglo-Norman French to her children. This work, known as Le Tretiz, soon became popular throughout medieval England as a teaching tool.

The book seems to have been designed for Lady Dionysia to read it to her stepdaughter Joan – the book deals with many household tasks, such as weaving cloth, brewing ale, lighting a fire and setting a table. It also contains a short section where it talks about the sounds animals make, which would be something that a child could easily identify with. At one point, however, Walter abruptly switches the poem to compare two homonyms: jaroile (“quacking”) and le garoile (“a trap”).

Now About the Natural Sounds of All Kinds of Animals

Now listen fittingly
About the diversity of animals,
Each kind in both the male and female,
Each one with it nature given.

A man speaks, a bear brays
When he enrages himself too much;
A cow moos, a crane squawks;
A lion roars, a coote chatters;

A horse neighs, a lark sings;
A dove coos and a cock sings;
A cat meows, a snake hisses;
An ass brays, a swan also hisses;

A wolf howls, a dog bays;
And frightens man and beast often.
A polecat frightens the lamb.
A vixen barks, a badger screams;
When the hound seeks [it as] prey.

A goose gabbles, a gander hums;
A duck quacks in the marsh,
But there is quacking and a trap;
The difference I wish to tell you:
The duck quacks in the river
If a man seeks it with a falcon,
But before a besieged town
Let us fix the trap in the earth
To defend the barbicon
From the assault which the man wishes to make,
So that the gate shall lose nothing
Even if the soldier besieges it well.

A toad croaks, a frog trills,
A snake truly also hisses.
A pig squeals, wild boar snorts;
A kid bleats and bull belows;
A sow grunts when she looks for dredge;
A sparrowhawk strikes the diver
Also say the hen cackles
When she laid eggs in a garden or town.
Because I have such a formulation from France
That a crested hen lays and cackles,
And that without reason urges herself on too much,
For hen is the compliment
Which more recommends itself [to easily go] with an egg
Than the beef-cow does with its bellow.

This translation from Le Tretiz of Walter of Bibbesworth is part of the book Medieval Literature for Children, edited by Daniel T. Kline, which is the first critical anthology of texts written for children during the Middle Ages. You can find editions and translations of texts like the ABC of Aristotle, Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, and Ælfric’s Colloquy.

A full edition and translation of Walter’s book was done by Andrew Dalby in The Treatise of Walter of Bibbesworth.

See also Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages



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