‘That melodious linguist’: Birds in Medieval Christian and Islamic Cosmography

Medieval Birds
Medieval Birds
Medieval birds: Eagle, swan, crane and cock

‘That melodious linguist’: Birds in Medieval Christian and Islamic Cosmography

Cam Lindley Cross

Constructing the Medieval and Early Modern across Disciplines: Selected Proceedings of the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies 2011 Multidisciplinary Graduate Student Conference


“Birds,” writes Albertus Magnus, “generally call more than other animals. This is due to the lightness of their spirits.” Although Albertus here employs “lightness” (levitas) as a technical term, the broader valences of the word are very significant; a lightness of spirit does not only indicate one who is fickle, flighty, and unconcerned with the problems of the world, as we see in its cognates légèreté in French and levity in English, but can also suggest a state of moral purity and innocence. The etymological relationship between lightness (levis) and light itself (lux, both from the Indo-European root leuk-) adds another level of interpretive meaning—as Dante illustrates in the Divina Commedia, sin is both dark and heavy, a kind of moral weight that crushes the body and hinders spiritual progress.

As creatures of light and levity, whose wings take them beyond the borders of terra firma that demarcate the domain of man, birds can be seen as residing in a state of proximity to the spiritual world that no other living thing may access; their myriad and musical songs only reinforce their depiction as bearers of secret knowledge, concealed by a secret tongue. Solomon, wisest of all kings, is granted the ability to speak with the birds in both Jewish and Islamic tradition; the qur’anic passage “we were taught the language of birds [manṭiq al-ṭayr]” (Qur’an 27:16) is directly referenced by the Persian poet and mystic Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār (d. c. 1221) in his  –  , a metaphysical journey into the sublime realm of gnosis, usually translated into English as The Conference of the Birds.

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