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The Birds Of The Parlement Of Foules

The Parlement of Foules, also called the Parlement of Briddes or the Assemble of Foules, is a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?–1400), written in rhyme royal stanza. It contains one of the earliest references to St. Valentine’s Day as a day of celebration of love and romance.

Scholars generally agree that Chaucer composed the poem in 1381 or 1382 to commemorate the marriage of the then fifteen-year-old King Richard II and his bride, Anne of Bohemia, who was the same age.

The Parlement of Foules, or Parliament of Fowls to give it its modern English name, is written in the form of a dream-vision that describes how the narrator falls asleep while reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. A Roman general appears who guides him up through the celestial spheres, passing through the dark temple of Venus before emerging into bright sunlight.

The great debate

Here he comes across a beautiful garden where the goddess Nature is presiding over a conference of a large flock of birds gathered to choose their mates.

As he enters, he sees three tercel (male) eagles who are trying to win the hand of a beautiful formel (female) eagle. Over the course of a day, each eagle pleads his case in turn. One says he loves her the best, another says he has loved her the longest, and the third claims he would worship her the most.

While the eagles make their speeches, the birds of the lower realms grow impatient and launch into a satirical and chaotic parliamentary debate about the criteria for a successful pairing.

The argument centres on the opposition of traditional courtly love, as favoured by the eagles, which typically involves a man choosing a woman to love for his own benefit, while she has little say in the matter.

Nature, fed up with the squabbling, attempts to bring some order to the proceedings by insisting that each group of birds should select a spokesperson to speak on its behalf. Chaucer presents four groups of birds based mainly on their feeding habits, each representing a different rank in society. At the top are the fowls of the ravine, the birds of prey, followed by the worm fowls with the waterfowls right at the bottom. It is not entirely clear where the seed-eating birds are placed in the pecking order as they sit apart on the grass.

The peace doesn’t last long though, as the exasperated birds start to offer conflicting advice, serving as self-proclaimed authorities on the different types of love. The irony, seemingly lost on them, is that they too are treating the fermel as a passive spectator, whose opinion and feelings are irrelevant.

The watchful, but disruptive goose

The discussion becomes progressively more removed from the situation at hand with the goose taking the debate way off topic by questioning what should happen to the unsuccessful suitors who have also declared everlasting love. In response, the sparrowhawk steps up to discredit the goose instead of advising the fermel.

The married turtle dove tries to inject some seriousness into the debate by speaking of the importance of fidelity but does not attempt to offer a solution to the problem. However, the pragmatic duck rebukes this train of thought and asks why would one waste time pining for an unrequited love when there are so many other potential suitors to choose from, much to the disgust of the noble falcon.

The cuckoo who was not elected spokesperson, but is desperate to get on and choose his own mate, comments that all birds should remain single, which spawns a torrent of abuse from the merlin.

The impatient, unkind cuckoo

With no conclusion in sight Nature finally has enough and decides that the formel should choose for herself which of the three tercels to take as a mate. The goddess advises she should follow her heart but also counsels the formel to choose the royal eagle as suggested by the falcon.

Despite this, the fermel, asks if she can wait another year before choosing a mate, a request Nature grants. The tercels are told to remain faithful to her before they have the chance to try again, while the other birds pair off with their mates.

They break into a customary song to welcome the new spring, waking the dreamer, who goes back to his books, hoping to learn more from them.

The question of the three suitors

The poem can be interpreted in several ways. It pokes fun at the class system and mocks the futility of the workings of the English Parliament. Despite the day-long debate, in the end, the speeches and deliberations amount to nothing.

Other readings take a feminist point of view. In an era when women had little agency, was Chaucer making a statement on women’s rights by allowing the fermel to make the final choice? In deferring her decision she got what she wanted yet didn’t upset the patriarchy, and Chaucer doesn’t threaten traditional male authority as the subjects are not human.

Despite this anthropocentric and somewhat modern interpretation of the poem, it could be that Chaucer was simply reflecting what happens in the wild.

Eagles often pair for life, which makes the choice of a mate particularly important, compared to the other species of birds present at the Parliament of Fowls who pair up for just one season.

Female eagles also reach sexual maturity at one year of age with males reaching theirs a year later, so the fermel may have decided to wait until the birds were old enough to provide her offspring.

An ornithological interpretation is a little trickier, as Chaucer doesn’t make it clear what species of eagle the tercels and formel are meant to be.

Turtle Dove
The married, faithful turtle dove

When the narrator enters the garden the female eagle is perched on Nature’s hand, who is kissing her on the beak. This close relationship with her human handler would imply that she is a bird used in falconry.

Although the golden eagle was designated a royal bird in the Medieval era, they were rarely used by falconers due to their sheer size and power. In the Book of St Albans, printed a century later, the birds of prey listed for use by kings and princes are, respectively, the gyrfalcon and the peregrine falcon, both male and female of the species. Although gyrfalcons are not native to the UK, they were imported from northern Europe, and islands in the Arctic ocean. Due to the difficulty in obtaining them, they were reserved for royalty and would rarely be seen on the hand of anyone of a lesser rank.

If we are to believe that the three tercels represent the three suitors of Anne of Bohemia, Richard II, Friedrich of Meissen, and Charles VI of France, then it follows that the tercel eagles are birds of the higher orders in falconry. The gyrfalcon is the strongest contender for the royal falcon with the peregrine falcon representing one or both of the others. Of course, this would imply that Chaucer is suggesting that inter-species breeding is possible but perhaps we have to allow him some poetic licence here.

The word tercel also gives credence to the idea that the eagles are not in fact eagles at all. Tercel is a specific term used in falconry for a ‘male falcon or hawk’. The word is derived from the Latin tertius meaning third and refers to the traditional belief that only one in three eggs hatches a male chick, or the more credible explanation that the male is about a third of the size of the female.

Another clue to the identity of the other tercels is given in Chaucer’s long introduction to each of the 35 species of bird mentioned in the poem.

First, he explains that each bird sits in one of the four ranks, although doesn’t say which bird sits where. If we are to categorise them a bit of guesswork is required as the omnivorous birds, such as the jay or the rook, could sit across two groups.

Species Rank Description
Royal eagle Bird of the ravine Has sharp eyes
Other eagles Bird of the ravine Known to clerks
Goshawk Bird of the ravine A tyrant with grey feathers,
that harasses other birds
Peregrine falcon Bird of the ravine Noble
Sparrowhawk Bird of the ravine Bold, and a foe of quails
Merlin Bird of the ravine Greedily pursues the lark
Dove Seed-eating bird Has meek eyes
Swan Waterfowl Jealous, sings at death
Owl Bird of the ravine Warns of death
Crane Waterfowl Large, with a trumpet-like voice
Chough/Jackdaw Worm-eating bird A thief
Magpie Worm-eating bird Talks too much
Jay Seed-eating bird Scornful
Heron Waterfowl A foe of eels
Lapwing Worm-eating bird A trickster, full of treachery
Starling Worm-eating bird A betrayer of secrets
Robin Worm-eating bird Tame
Kite Bird of the ravine Coward
Cockerel Seed-eating bird Wakes up villages
Sparrow Seed eating bird Son of Venus, a lover
Nightingale Worm-eating bird Sings in spring
Swallow Worm-eating bird Eats bees
Turtle dove Seed-eating bird Faithful
Peafowl Worm-eating bird Has shining feathers
Pheasant Seed-eating bird Scorns the cockerel at night
Cuckoo Worm-eating bird Unkind
Goose Waterfowl Vigilant
Parrot Seed-eating bird Reckless
Duck Waterfowl Destroyer of his own kind
Stork Waterfowl Avenges adulterers
Cormorant Waterfowl Greedy
Raven Worm-eating bird Wise
Crow Worm-eating bird An ill-boding voice
Thrush Worm-eating bird Ancient
Fieldfare Worm-eating bird Wintry/hoary

After that, he gives over five verses to introduce the different species of birds waiting to choose their mates with a succinct description that highlights one or two physical or behavioural features. These characteristics seem to have no correlation with the rank the birds belong to, so you have the vigilant goose in the lowest group, the waterfowl, while the cowardly kite sits in the noble group of birds of the ravine.

The first bird introduced, the royal eagle, is said to have eyes that can pierce the sun with a sharp glance. But the second species of birds ‘the other eagles’ are only said to be known to clerks.

If we return to the Book of St Albans we find that in falconry the bird favoured by the holywater clerks and priests is the male sparrowhawk. So perhaps the other tercel eagles are not peregrine falcons but sparrowhawks.

Peregrine Falcon
The noble peregrine falcon

The difficulty with this is that both the peregrine and sparrowhawk are mentioned separately in the long birds’ introduction. A further problem is that Chaucer describes this peregrine as a male; ‘The gentil faucoun, that with his feet distreyneth’. In falconry, the term falcon was reserved for female birds only, and Chaucer was unlikely to have made an error mixing as he did in the circles of nobility.

The apparent contradiction can be explained if we assume that the peregrine falcon and sparrowhawk in the wider flock are wild birds, rather than those kept in captivity like the three tercels.

Chaucer was a great poet but his ornithological expertise is somewhat sketchy. However, in the Parlement of Foules, he leaves a legacy of how Medieval society viewed birds and society at large, where everything had to be ordered and in its place.

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