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How the parrot tricked the knight

Medieval writers often examined the natural world, seemingly fascinated by the creatures they saw around them. In the following story from the late twelfth-century, Alexander Neckham describes how deceitful parrots could be.

A parrot depicted in a 14th century manuscript – British Library MS Additional 26968 f. 279v

Alexander Neckham (1157-1217) was an English scholar and abbot of Cirencester. He was interested in the natural sciences, and around the year 1190 wrote De naturis rerum, which examined topics like how sight and sound works, and what magnets are. He also has many passages about wildlife, including birds.

In the following section, Neckam writes about parrots, making use of ancient and Biblical sources, as well as what seems to be his own observations and stories that he heard.

The parrot, which is commonly called the poppinjay, that is, the main or noble jay, dwells on the eastern shores. And for that reason, Ovid speaks of “the parrot, fleet messenger to me from eastern shores.” Or its name may be interpreted as “marvelous jay”; or “Wonderful is an expression of astonishment. But does an interjection enter into word-formation? And they say that a great multitude of parrots are given to building their nest in the mountains of Gilboa, because neither rain nor dew falls upon those mountains. This is said to have come about at the request of David, for it is well known that Saul and Jonathan were killed in those same mountains, upon which occasion, David, overcome with grief, prayed that neither rain nor dew should fall upon them. Now, the parrot speedily dies if its skin is frequently drenched with water. Thus, a nursling of Dryness, it takes itself off to the said place for the said reason.

The shape of its body to the mind, for a while, the falcon or hobby, but it is decked in plumes of most intense green. It is protected by a rounded breast and a hooked beak of such strength that, even when it is tame, when it is shut up in a cage, the little house is constructed of iron rods, for wooden rods could not withstand the hard blows and the gnawing of its beak.

It has a thick tongue, and one apt for the formation of the sound of the human voice. It is wonderfully shrewd, and for summoning up a laugh, ought to be preferred to jongleurs.

And it is so fawning that it frequently seeks, once it is tame, to kiss men known to it. Now, when a mirror is brought near it, like Narcissus it is deluded by its own image, and sometime with something like a smile, sometimes with something like a frown, stretching forth loving gestures, it seems to want to mate. Now it has a character quite given to the invention of deceits, as the little tale subjoined will demonstrate.

A Parrot depicted in the 15th century Lisbon Bible – British Library MS Oriental 2626

Now, there was in Great Britain a knight who owned a parrot of great excellence, which he held in the most tender regard. But while the knight was travelling abroad in the vicinity of the mountains of Gilboa, he saw a parrot, and prompted by the memory of the one he kept at home, he said, “Our parrot, which is shut up in a cage and is very like you, salutes you.”

Upon hearing this salutation, the bird tumbled down as if it were dying. The knight, deceived by the fraud of a little bird, was troubled, and returning home on the completion of his journey, told of what he had seen. Now, the knight’s parrot listened closely to his master’s tale, and feigning grief, dropped as if dead from the perch on which it was sitting. The entire household marvelled, lamenting the unexpected calamity. Now, the master ordered that it be laid out under the open sky to benefit from the salubrious air, raising to which occasion, the parrot quickly flew off, with no intention of returning. The master sighed, and all the household complained that he had been deceived. They recalled the many comforts which the parrot had used to afford them, and they frequently cursed the mountain bird that had invented so deep a deceit.

This translation comes from George Wedge’s PhD Dissertation: Alexander Neckam’s De Naturis Rerum: A Study, together with representative passages in translation, from the University of Southern California in 1967.

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