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I have always been captivated by medieval bestiaries ever since I was introduced to them through T.H. White’s delightful “The Once and Future King”. While they read like mythology they are actually early and extremely fanciful attempts at natural history. We might look on them with amused indulgence through the lens of what we consider our ‘scientific’ view, but I wonder what scientists 1000 years from now will think of our grasp of natural history?
The raven gets its name, corvus or corax, from the sound it makes in its throat, because it utters a croak.
It is said that when its young have been hatched, this bird does not feed them fully until it sees that they have black feathers similar to its own. But after it has seen that they are of dark plumage, and has recognised them as of its own species, it feeds them more generously.
When this bird feeds off corpses, it goes for the eyes first.
In the Scriptures, the raven is perceived in a variety of ways; it is sometimes taken to mean a preacher, sometimes a sinner, sometimes the Devil.
Soothsayers believe the crow can foretell the future. The crow looks after its young attentively, unlike humans who may even refuse to breast feed.
Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 14): If a nut is too hard for a crow to crack with its beak, it will carry the nut into the air and drop it on rocks or roofs until it breaks. The croaking sound of a crow is thought to be unlucky, particularly during its breeding season. Unlike other birds, crows continue to feed their young even after they can fly.
There have been some differences observed between this and the crow. Ravens breed before the summer solstice, and continue in bad health for sixty days—Being afflicted with a continual thirst more particularly—Before the ripening of the fig in autumn; while, on the other hand, the crow is attacked by disease after that period. The raven lays, at most, but five eggs. It is a vulgar belief, that they couple, or else lay, by means of the beak; and that, consequently, if a pregnant woman happens to eat a raven’s egg, she will be delivered by the mouth. It is also believed, that if the eggs are even so much as brought beneath the roof, a difficult labour will be the consequence. Aristotle denies it, and assures us in all good faith that there is no more truth in this than in the same story about the ibis in Egypt; he says that it is nothing else but that same sort of billing that is so often seen in pigeons.2 Ravens are the only birds that seem to have any comprehension of the meaning of their auspices; for when the guests of Medus3 were assassinated, they all took their departure from Peloponnesus and the region of Attica. They are of the very worst omen when they swallow their voice, as if they were being choked.
Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:44): The crow is an old bird. Seers say that it increases anxiety by the indications it gives, reveals ambushes, predicts rain, and foretells the future. But it is a great wickedness to believe that God gives his counsel to crows.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): The crow is a bird of long life, and diviners tell that she taketh heed of spyings and awaitings, and teacheth and sheweth ways, and warneth what shall fall. But it is full unlawful to believe, that God sheweth His privy counsel to crows. It is said that crows rule and lead storks, and come about them as it were in routs, and fly about the storks and defend them, and fight against other birds and fowls that hate storks. And take upon them the battle of other birds, upon their own peril. And an open proof thereof is: for in that time, that the storks pass out of the country, crows are not seen in places there they were wont to be. And also for they come again with sore wounds, and with voice of blood, that is well known, and with other signs and tokens and show that they have been in strong fighting. Also there it is said, that the mildness of the bird is wonderful. For when father and mother in age are both naked and bare of covering of feathers, then the young crows hide and cover them with their feathers, and gather meat and feed them. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)