publisher colophon

A cage went in search of a bird.

Robert Hass1

God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.

Jacques Deval2

In john lydgate’s fifteenth-century beast fable, “The Churl and the Bird,” a captive songbird laments her confinement, a hindrance to her will that destroys poetic joys. Arguing for her freedom, she complains to her churl(ish) captor that:

Song & prisoun haue noon accordaunce,Trowistow I wole syngen in prisoun?Song procedith of ioie & plesaunce,And prisoun causith deth & destruccioun;Ryngyng of ffeteris makith no mery soun;Or how shold he be glad or iocounde,Ageyn his wil that lith in cheynes bounde?3 [End Page 77]

Having been caged by a gardening churl, who imagines refreshing music at his beck and call, the confined songbird clearly opposes imprisonment to poetic production. She argues that song can only be produced under conditions of joy and pleasure, and that prison affords no such condition. Instead, captivity constrains the otherwise happy—because naturally free—will. According to the newly minted jailbird’s very logical account, a constrained will cannot produce pleasing song. If one’s happiness, which is located in the pleasures of exercising one’s will, is taken away, then one cannot produce “mery soun,” anything pleasing to oneself or anyone else.

The songbird’s willful protest against her captivity succinctly captures Lydgate’s interest in how the space of the medieval prison raises questions about the unsettled (and thus unsettling) boundaries between discipline and desire, between what one may be forced to do and what one wants to do. In this essay I thus seek to deepen our understanding of the spatial imaginaries implicated in medieval prisons, explicating one late medieval poet’s imagining of what a prison is and does. While engaged with a single poem, my larger argument points toward broader issues related to literary history as well as the history of prisons. Attending to Lydgate’s careful thinking about the will in this poem suggests how the history of the prison and literary history are interconnected beyond literary works specifically known to have been written in prison. Literary works that take up questions about the will’s capacious motivations and concomitant need for discipline speak directly to the evolving functions and contested meanings of late medieval imprisonment and captivity. Finally, because Lydgate’s poem uses the birdcage as a figure for the medieval prison, this essay engages recent thinking in animal studies about the ways medieval animal figuration can give us something more than mere anthropocentrism. Lydgate, the peripatetic poet-monk of Bury St. Edmunds, a monastery closely associated with the Lancastrian dynasty, hardly pretends that “The Churl and the Bird” provides an autobiographical accounting of confinement, but he nevertheless gives us a compelling co-construction of the nature of imprisonment and poetic making in the later Middle Ages.4 [End Page 78]

As my opening passage shows, Lydgate’s jailbird articulates a logic of the cage in which confinement is easily imagined as posing a problem for the will of the captive. From simple stocks to elaborately sealed rooms, technologies of confinement restrict the will because they restrain the captive body. I understand the will as residing at the borders of the body: the ability to desire something and enact it in the world. Defining the will in this way stresses its status in the Middle Ages as a faculty of self that is both internal, pertaining to psychological dimensions, and external, pertaining to issues of agency. Moreover, this definition highlights the position of the will in medieval and contemporary debates about the extent to which people have the capacity to act and how they may be held responsible for their own actions. Spaces of confinement are a problem for those confined precisely because they take away the ability to exercise the will for one’s own purposes. Careful to keep the confined body in view, historians of the medieval prison often retain an opposition between confinement and exercise of the will. Discussing imprisonment, Edward M. Peters argues, “Imprisonment of any sort and for whatever purpose is in essence the public imposition of involuntary physical confinement … [including] physical punishments that restrict the individual’s freedom of movement.”5 No matter the form of physical restraint, agrees Jean Dunbabin, the point of captivity was that “Prisoners could not again enjoy their natural freedom of movement until they had satisfied the demands laid upon them [by their captors].”6 The body’s movement is notably labeled a “freedom” by Peters and deemed “natural” by Dunbabin. An apparently naturally occurring freedom of movement acts as the access point to the will; a lack of the capacity to move the body becomes a lack of the will’s capacity. Furthermore, a prisoner himself cannot be satisfied, cannot fulfill his own desire; on Dunbabin’s account, only captors and jailers can be “satisfied.” Such attention to captors’ possibilities for satisfaction suggests the degree to which confinement has historically been understood from the perspective of the captor, defining the work that confinement [End Page 79] does in terms of the purposes, and thus the wills, of those who confine; the captor acts while the captive is acted upon.

Fierce debates over the will and the nature of agency erupted during the period of High Scholasticism and the rise of “voluntarist” philosophies in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Voluntarism, often privileging the necessary freedom of the will, stands in contrast with the more “intellectualist” philosophy held by Thomas Aquinas.7 John Duns Scotus, an insular Scholastic philosopher who spent time at both Oxford and Paris, questioned whether an individual can be held ethically responsible for his actions if the faculty in charge of pursuing and enacting one’s desires—the will—is not free in its desiring and acting. Though Scotus is somewhat unique among voluntarist philosophers in arguing for a contextually determined, “rational” will, voluntarist accounts of the will tend to be aligned with discourses of freedom and choice.8

In a sort of limit case of the will’s freedom both to desire and to act, Scotus argued that one’s will was “naturally inclined” to love God (as [End Page 80] opposed to supernaturally prompted through divine grace). It is inclined to do so both selflessly for God’s attributes and more self-centeredly for the advantages such love brings.9 Such a natural inclination, understood to be one aspect of a “dual-natured” will, would entail a preexisting directionality to the will. Given orthodox stances about divine creative power, such an inclination would itself be divinely created making one’s human will ultimately subject to the will of God. Scotus was nevertheless concerned to preserve the will’s free capacity both to choose God and to act ethically in the world; he would go on to argue, therefore, that even God could not violate free will.10 For Scotus, then, the will cannot ever be “forced to will.” Consequently, this fundamental freedom of the will suggests a potentially nuanced engagement with the confinements and coercions one would face in prison. Indeed, Scotus takes pains to deal with the complications imprisonment brings, arguing “no human act, properly speaking, can be coerced” even as a person’s choices may be constrained by fear of “worse evils … such as death, imprisonment or captivity, serious mutilation, and the like.”11 The concerns about freedom and confinement that motivate such philosophical considerations of the will’s capacities and boundaries are precisely what undergird late medieval literary accounts of the prison, of which Lydgate’s poem is a captivating example. I suggest that the rise and persistence of voluntarism marks a historically situated investment in questions about the will, freedom, and confinement that are also at stake in Lydgate’s beast fable about a jailbird’s protestations, as well as more broadly in the literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

“Jailbird” isn’t a medieval coinage, but it should have been. The caged bird appears in myriad medieval Continental and insular texts and images across highly varied contexts and genres: the many texts [End Page 81] engaging Boethian imagery such as the Roman de la rose and Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale;12 a brief but crucial appearance in The Seven Sages of Rome; as well as marginal images found in various bestiaries and fifteenth-century books of hours.13 The term, however, is attested to only beginning in the seventeenth century, seeming especially popular through the eighteenth century. In most of its appearances “jailbird” or “gaolbird” is associated with recidivism, long-term imprisonment, and reproach for criminal character. The post-medieval term thus signifies a “habitual criminality.”14 Across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “jailbird” appears in places as diverse as Barten Holyday’s Juvenal’s Saturday; Daniel Defoe’s The True-Born Englishman: A Satyr; a preface to the works of Milton; and newspapers such as the General Evening Post, the London Evening Post, and the Public Advertiser.

In one of “jailbird’”s more gruesome appearances, the Argus from November 20, 1798 relates the story of the bishop of Verdun, Guillaume de Harancourt. The story of that fifteenth-century bishop’s fate at the hands of Louis XI opens with an adaptation of an Ovidian quote [End Page 82] about deserved fates—“[N]ec lex e[s]t justior ulla, Quam necis artifices arte perire sua.”15 The Argus’s parable-like tale about jailbirds and their cages continues thus, in its entirety:

So it fared with PERILLUS, who, by the command of a TYRANT, in this respect—JUST made the first horrid experiment of his BRAZEN BULL; and so it fared with WILLIAM HARANCOURT, Bishop of VERDUN, the inventor of Iron Cages. The prelate paid dearly for his cruel ingenuity; for he was CAGED for fourteen years a miserable JAIL-BIRD in the Castle of Angers.16

The passage quickly does two things. It succinctly links a fifteenth-century French historical event with a classical tale.17 The tale, from Ovid’s Ars amatoria, relates the fate of Perillus, a Sicilian sculptor and inventor. Combining those talents, he constructed a hollow bronze bull in which prisoners of the tyrant Phalaris would be placed along with water. A fire would be lit beneath the bull, boiling the prisoners alive. Vents through the bull’s nose and mouth would transform the boiling [End Page 83] person’s screams into bovine groans: the grisly, inhumane torture’s product being a “reduction” of human powers of communication to incoherent animal noise.18 The Argus then uses this link between late medieval event and horrific classical tale to evoke (rather than explicate) the nature of criminality within a vision of fated justice, an evocation captivated by bodily destruction even as it ostensibly critiques the willful invention of cruel implements of punishment and captivity.

“Habitual criminality” in the Argus anecdote is less about multiple acts accumulating into an individual’s character since the anecdote relates nothing of repeated acts. Instead, it constructs criminality as fated. Perillus’s single act of cruel invention seals his fate in the Ovidian story, and Harancourt is similarly destined to be a “miserable Jail-Bird” by inventing iron cages. In Harancourt’s case, the passive construction “was CAGED” effaces any outside agent doing the caging, keeping the brief narrative’s focus solely on the bishop’s destiny. If “habitual” hints at some internal compulsion, the link of cage and jailbird in the Argus piece instead reorients caging as being externally enforced. The repeated “so it fared” moreover marks the ends of Perillus and Harancourt not merely as particularly deserved but as destined from the outset. In spectacularly succinct and circular reasoning, the Argus presents the jailbird as inescapably caged: a cage is where a jailbird goes, and caging confirms the jailed individual’s identity as always already having been a “Jail-Bird.” Instead of the cage searching out the bird, as Robert Hass says in the first of this essay’s epigrams, the eighteenth-century jailbird inexorably searches out its cage.

The Argus’s post-medieval association between imprisonment and the production of criminal identity is familiar. It is the established account of penal development given by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish.19 Key to Foucault’s archeology of modern penal practice is his assertion that the prison produces criminals. For Foucault, hidden but thoroughgoing surveillance founds a system of discipline and correction worked out on guilty bodies and meant to render them docile subjects of state power. This essay suggests, though, that before modern penal praxis could be debated, legislated, and administered in the ways Foucault insightfully discusses, the premodern prison had to be imagined as [End Page 84] a space capable of producing effects on particular sorts of selves who could act and be acted upon in understandable and accountable ways. The medieval assemblage of confinement and the will at work with Lydgate’s jailbird contributed to this broader production of subjects. Medieval historians of the prison have critiqued Foucault’s work for essentially relegating the modern prison’s predecessors, in the words of Guy Geltner, to “a hazy prehistory.”20 Modern penal theory and practice could paradoxically connect procedures and practices of punishment with those of correction, for instance, only because medieval spaces of confinement were themselves imagined, through poetic figures like the birdcage, to be tightly linked to issues of desire, agency, and the will. Lydgate’s jailbird speaks to a late medieval working-through of how the prison collocates disciplinary coercion with self-discipline. The prison seen through the bars of the medieval birdcage is where the will’s nature and correct ordering are compellingly at stake.

The nexus of bird, cage, and prison in Lydgate’s “The Churl and the Bird,” while similar in some respects to the Argus tale’s investment in the birdcage’s spatial and subjective exemplarity, provides different resonances for that space of confinement. For Lydgate, the cage raises questions about the nature of the will, but the caged bird’s willfulness is soundly outside the realm of criminality fated for spectacular, cruel punishment. Lydgate gives us verbal jousting and poetic repartee instead of inchoate, tortured groans. The churl threatens to eat the bird when she refuses to sing, focusing his now punitive attentions on the bird’s bodiliness,

Or to the kechen I shal thi body bryng,Pulle thi ffetherys that be so brihte and cleere,And aftir roste, or bake to my dyneer


The threat links the bird’s caged body to the churl’s agency and desire: “I shal … bryng” and “my dyneer.” It is the churl who can enact his will on the body of the bird. The threat nevertheless falters in the face of the clever bird’s rejoinders. The bird’s answer inverts the will–body [End Page 85] link used by the churl, underplaying the body while foregrounding the bird’s own ability to enact her birdish will. She says, “Thou shalt of me haue a ful small repast” (152), suggesting punitive attention to her diminutive body will bring little satisfaction. She then gives a promise of reward for release, putting emphasis on her ability to provide more compelling compensation: “I shal the yeve a notable gret gwerdoun / Thre grete wysdames” (158–59). With this promise of reward, the songbird is not giving herself over to the churl’s coercions. Rather, she subtly points out that she may be caged, but it is the churl who is lacking. The churl seeks the satisfactions of beautiful birdsong and, furthermore, thinks he may coerce it from the bird, but she reroutes her captor’s threats through her own will—“thou wilt werkyn bi my coun-sail” (153). The quarrel between captor and captive suggests Lydgate is after a kind of Scotistic test case for the will: the ways caging provokes and engages the will instead of wiping it out. Instead of destroying body and emptying will in a display of spectacular human cruelty, Lydgate’s birdcage is a space in which the will is at work.

Birds have long been associated with freedom, natural beauty, and the making of poetry.21 In this essay, I would like to draw a bead on such associations, especially as they locate what Marianne DeKoven sees as a crucial space for animal studies’ still-developing work on premodern animal figuration. “Analyzing the uses of animal representation,” DeKoven argues, “can clarify modes of human subjugation that ideology might otherwise obscure.”22 Sarah Stanbury similarly argues for the productivity of turning to animal figures for thinking about human issues: [End Page 86] “Learning to read not just animal metaphor but through animal metaphor is thus poised, in the new animal turn, to rewrite the history of the human subject as constituted by a system of imagined affiliations with non-human life, and to rewrite as well a history of animal/human relations.”23 In its estranging otherness, the non-human animal and its figurations pinpoint social, subjective, or representational dynamics we might otherwise take for granted. Medievalists’ recent work in animal studies demonstrates that attention to animal figuration need not uncritically reify anthropocentrism. For example, Susan Crane, in attending to the multifaceted encounters between cat and scholar or horse and knight, plumbs the crucial role animal figuration plays in “creaturely relations.” The medieval animal–human relationship for Crane is fundamentally tied—though not reducible—“to the relationship of text and living practice.”24

By juxtaposing songbird and prison, Lydgate rattles the bars of “the empire of the sign,” wherein “animals [habitually] refer to values, norms, and morals.”25 The poem is explicitly moralistic, and yet it puts intense pressure on imagining both human and non-human animal agency. In Rosi Braidotti’s terms, the animal acts “as a body that can do a great deal, as a field of forces, a quantity of speed and intensity, and a cluster of capabilities.”26 The medieval jailbird’s figuration becomes a site for reconsidering the non-human animal as a body that does things, that by its nature can do things either analogous to humans (like sing) or impossible for them (like fly).

Although this essay tells a story about a human institution, it can only be told by considering birdish willfulness. The link of prison and willful songbird in “The Churl and the Bird” is not an anthropomorphic reduction of the human to the animal; rather, Lydgate imagines the late medieval prison through the caged songbird in order not only to get at thorny questions about the nature of the human will but also to question the seeming naturalness of the category of human creative agency. The modern prison seems normal, its existence unremarkable even if particular policies and penal practices are regular fodder for debate. [End Page 87] Prison has seemed normal for a long time though its forms in the later Middle Ages were in flux.27 What makes the modern prison seem normal, though, is an assemblage of associations, practices, and spaces that has a long history, a history reaching back into the Middle Ages. Furthermore, analyzing the prison now has an established place in scholarship and public discourse. The analysis of this space, especially as a marker of power relations and subjection, has thus also become normal. The history of the prison, we think, has been told. I’d like to suggest that it has not, and that, furthermore, the place to start in really telling it is a poem about a bird that does not want to be caged.

Scholars have noted a particular human and avian contiguity emphasizing the beauty and communicative power of birdish vocalizations. Susan Crane, for instance, focuses on the “preoccupations” medieval romance has with animal “contiguities … beyond mere physicality,” namely the proximities of birdsong and human speech.28 Even more importantly, I would add, in extension of Crane’s thinking about animal desire in The Squire’s Tale, such contiguities are constituted by the imbrications of free, beautiful birdly “kynde” within human accountings of pains and desires. In other words, while birdishness is imagined to be marked by freedom and beauty, especially in terms of birdsong and flight, birds’ nature is often poetically figured in conjunction with the pains and pleasures of desire.29

The proximities of birdsong and human speech were discussed beyond poetry as well, especially in terms of attempts to differentiate the roles of reason and natural inclination in the production of pleasing sound. The later Middle Ages provide “the first unequivocal written [End Page 88] traces of birdsong being drawn into the sonic frame of reference of human musical practice,” notes Elizabeth Eva Leach.30 Although there are numerous and significant medieval poetic and philosophical considerations of human music in connection to birdsong, Leach argues, medieval music theory ultimately denied birdsong the status of music since birds lacked the powers of reason required to produce “music” as such. Medieval “singers [might] voice the songs of birds,” but such sonic reproduction did not allow birds the status of reasoned music makers.31 Birdish melodic production was instead understood, by Augustine for a prime example, to emerge from natural inclination. The collocation of bird and cage to which this essay attends rubs up against the divisions among abstract rationalism, embodiment, and natural inclination espoused by certain medieval musical ideologies; such ideologies “sought to contain the visceral force of music … while relying upon the sonority of the very flesh [they] explicitly denigrated.”32 Conversely, Lydgate’s poem presents musical or poetic production as highly embodied, an animal embodiment inextricable from the activity of the will.

The evocative efficacy of birdsong, animal behaviorists have come to find, is not merely a literary trope but a natural phenomenon. That efficacy is, moreover, precisely located within the operations of birdish forms of desire. Recent work by animal behaviorist Meredith West demonstrates the power birdsong has to communicate, especially in terms of teaching information to newer generations.33 West, along with others [End Page 89] like Todd M. Freeberg, has demonstrated that cowbirds learn and prefer “local” courtship songs that are passed down at least two generations by both males and females.34 Given such findings, it is not an anthropomorphic step too far to argue that cowbirds’ communicative powers are driven by the spatial and generational vagaries of desire.

In “The Churl and the Bird,” however, the caged songbird refuses to sing, willfully demanding of her captor: “Trowistow I wole syngen in prisoun?” A space of constraint and coercion, prison is no place for song. The songbird strenuously opposes captivity to a sort of natural and unproblematic freedom. She lays it out clearly for her captor, reiterating that, “To syng in prisoun thou shalt me neuer constreyn” (135). Instead, she will only sing, “Tyl I have fredam in woodis vp and doun, / To flee at large” (136–37). Flight is freedom, and the natural habitat for that freedom of movement and song is the woods. While arguing for her release, Lydgate’s songbird expounds the ways being caged goes against her nature, a nature specifically located outside the bounds of human artifaction:

To be shet vp & pynned undir dredeNothyng accordith vn-to my nature;Thouh I were fed with mylk & wastelbred,And swete cruddis brouht to my pasture,Yit hadde I leuer do my besy cureErly on morwe to shrape[n] in the vale.


The captured songbird clearly desires her freedom over even potentially mitigating cultural products. Here, those products are delicious, cultured foods: “mylk,” “wastelbred,” and even “swete cruddis.” These foods are not mere sustenance; they are gourmet dishes reserved for the upper classes. Wastelbread, for instance, was a cake made from the most finely ground flour, and being the most expensive bread, it was usually reserved for the upper classes; sweetened curds, along with sweetened [End Page 90] milk, were thought to be a soothing end-of-meal treat, something that aided digestion. The songbird understandably rejects the promise of cultured, expensive food because such dishes are obviously inappropriate fodder for her. Moreover, she rejects her caging even if her cage were a beautiful artifact, gold-forged and jewel-studded: “my cage forged were of gold, / And the pynaclis of berel & cristall” (92–93). The bird cleverly reinforces her nature’s opposition to caging in the closing description of the landscape, which emphasizes light and openness in the use of “morwe” and “vale.” She thus understands her desire for freedom not only as a momentary fancy, but as bound up with her very existence—an existence meant for the natural world, not the world of human culture, no matter how beautiful or tantalizing that world may seem from her human captor’s perspective.

The depth and range of the bird’s articulation of her desire for freedom are focused in her use of “leuer” as a term connected to issues of the will. “Leuer” could have a range of meanings: from “preference” or “I would rather”; to “desire,” “dear,” or “glad”; and even “beloved” in its associations with “leof.” Given that she bookends “leuer” with a statement about “my nature” and the description of the natural world, the bird presents her desire as being less about a superficially willful preference and more a deep-seated inclination. Indeed, her argument here reiterates the passage with which I opened where she explicitly uses the word “wil,” linking it to gladness and opposing it to lying in chains.

So powerful is the association between the birdcage and getting free that an obscure prison space in Oxfordshire called the “Bird Cage” only appears in the historical record when prisoners escape from it. In the small town of Thame was an inn called the Bird Cage, which was used regularly as a prison by the bishop of Lincoln.35 The space was used as a prison for at least 200 years, and between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries several escapes and a prison break were recorded: “In 1247 two cases of escape and flight to Tetsworth and Thame churches were reported. In 1268 a band of armed men broke open the prison and released a man. The prison is last recorded in 1453 when John Benett, bailiff of the liberty, let a man escape who had fled to Thame from Southwark.”36 Mary Lobel’s account of the various escapes and prison [End Page 91] breaks from the Bird Cage fascinatingly reinscribes the very language of the birdcage and birds. Prisoners do not just escape from the Bird Cage, they take flight. Lobel’s language of “escape and flight” picks up on the use of “fugit” in the rolls of the justices-itinerant to describe the thirteenth-century escapees’ movement from this “prisona de tame,” which is also labeled “hospitatis.”37 Moreover, men don’t just take flight from the Bird Cage, they fly to it. The man whom the bailiff John Benett released in 1453, notes Lobel, “had fled to Thame.”38 Seeking to escape Southwark, the unnamed man flees to Thame, where he must subsequently be released.

The mere presence of this space surprises, both for having existed under such a label and for having been completely ignored since Pugh’s and Lobel’s brief mentions in the 1960s. Indeed, Lobel remarks that the still-extant space is “among the oldest buildings” and “is one of the best preserved and most interesting” in the area.39 The lack of attention to the Bird Cage Inn and consequent failure to consider such a space in connection with the highly visible and persistent presence of caged birds in late medieval representations of captivity suggest a lacuna in prison history as well as a suggestive route of examination for animal studies. Thinking through animal figuration—here the caged bird—productively calls attention to the complex imaginative, subjective, and literary resonances specific places of confinement could have in the later Middle Ages. This evocatively named Oxfordshire space provides material verification of the imagined linking of confinement with birdcages. Moreover, the space’s presence within the historiographical record is evocatively constituted by escapes. If there is any animal figure that gives us the exact opposite of confinement, that signifies unfettered freedom, that figures Scotus’s fundamentally uncoercible will, it is the bird. A bird’s ability to fly, its ability to move through space in ways that we cannot, looks like a freedom about which we humans can only fantasize. [End Page 92]

If the jailbird so badly wants out of the cage, this prompts the question: Whence and whither does she want to fly? In “The Churl and the Bird,” the caged songbird argues that she wants to get back to doing her “besy cure,” in the “vale” in the “Erly morwe.” Her introduction earlier in the poem paints an ostensibly bucolic setting in which she is free to sing. Perched in a laurel tree, the songbird is divinely beautiful with “sonnyssh fetheris brihter than gold” (59); she sings “toward evyn & in the daw[e]nyng” (62) and her birdsong “makith heuy hertis liht” (60). In this beautiful setting the bird regularly, naturally in harmony with the progression of the cosmos, produces pleasing songs. The songs have positive effects, working a musical magic of relief on hearers.

These easing songs, this beautiful setting, however, are immediately complicated as Lydgate aligns them with pain and compulsion. First, the songs come from the bird’s pains: “She did hir peyn most amorously to syng” (63). I take this line to be saying more than “she sang beautifully about her pain.” That is, the pain is not only a past pain which constitutes the current content of the bird’s song. Rather, the singing itself is painful. She “takes pains” to sing beautifully. The bird’s naturally occurring, beautiful, transportive songs both come from a place of pain and reproduce pain in their very making. This production of bird-song is “musical sonority as a practice of the flesh,”40 painful as it is beautiful. For another poetic example of an embodied relationship between birdsong and pain, we might think here of the falcon in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale. Chaucer’s falcon movingly sings of the painful vicissitudes of being the unwilling recipient of a lover’s cruel treatment, famously lamenting men’s desire for “newfangleness.” As she sings, the falcon “with hir beek hirselven so she prighte” so that she runs red with blood.41 Her mid-song breast-tearing somatizes her anger not just over having been abandoned but at having given over her will to another—“that my wyl was his willes instrument; / This is to seyn, my wyl obeyed his wyl.”42

Lydgate understands his bird’s painful singing to be similarly wrapped up in constraints on the will. Instead of being driven by treacherous [End Page 93] love, the bird in “The Churl and the Bird” sings according to the “natural” diurnal cycle of song: “Esperus afforcid hir corage” (64). Because she is “afforcid” to sing, the bird cannot do otherwise. The dawn is no mere prompt to poetize; she has no other choice but to sing every morning and evening. She is forced to sing because of an internal compulsion inherent to her very nature. The bird cannot help herself but sing, producing beautiful songs about her pain.

This internal compulsion is thus productive even as it operates as a constraint—the other meaning of “afforcid.” If the bird is forced to sing, if nature by nature compels the will, then the production of pleasing song does not come from an exercise of a will that is somehow absolutely free of any constraint; rather, it emerges out of a will constrained (or confined) by compulsion. The songbird’s seeming ensnarement in this natural space, a space shot through with compulsion, recalls “jailbird”’s associations with habitual imprisonment; while not physically trapped, the songbird seems unable to stop returning. This contrasts the bird’s argument elsewhere that song depends on the exercise of an unconstrained will. Outside the cage the songbird is subject to wild oscillations between internal compulsion and the external imposition of repetition. She is compelled to produce beautiful song out in the natural world outside the cage twice a day; that compulsion to repeat which produces beautiful song cannot seemingly escape the pains of which the bird sings.

“Peyn,” with its attendant complications of will and compulsion, reappears toward the poem’s conclusion. After successfully arguing her release, the bird chastises the churl, first for foolishly letting her go and then for lamenting the loss of what was never really his in the first place. She chides,

For who takith sorwe for losse in that degre,Rekne first his losse, & aftir rekne his peyne,Off oo sorwe, he makith sorwis tweyne.


Here pain is something “reckoned”—something accounted for, that one can give an account of. Loss, pain, and sorrow are separated, each accountable in some way—able to be “counted” and also “doubled.” But the increasing of any one of them depends on giving an account; that is, what doubles one’s “sorwe” moves between the internal exercise of [End Page 94] remembering and the external willing (and perhaps willful) constructing of a narrative of one’s pain. Suggesting the compulsively crowed bon mot “Kepe wel thy tonge” of Chaucer’s Manciple, the songbird implies a (non-therapeutic) injunction not to speak of it—to keep pain unreckoned, unaccounted for. To tell a story about one’s pain, to reveal one’s inner secrets, is to threaten, contra the Manciple, not externally imposed punishment but an unwilled internal (re)production of pain.

On this account of the production and reproduction of pain, we nevertheless also seem to find that one can choose one’s response to loss. To reckon one’s loss is to exercise the will. When one “takith sorwe” one takes up one’s own sorrow, an act of the will. Moreover, it is seemingly a choice one doesn’t have to make. The true marker of a free will, according to Scotus, is that it could have chosen otherwise.43 If, as the songbird argues, one “takith” one’s sorrows, there’s the implied option that one doesn’t have to take up sorrow. The songbird thus seems to claim that feeling pain is contingent on a choice to feel that pain, and if it is a matter of choice, then it is a matter of will and of self-discipline. The bird’s lesson to the churl, then, contradicts the image of painful compulsion we found imagined in her natural habitat.

Another valence of compulsion appears in the bird’s lesson-giving to the churl, wherein taking pleasure in the freedom to sing becomes hard to distinguish from painful compulsion. The bird first promises to sing the churl a great reward using language of volition: “Yiff thou wilt on-to my rede assent … I shal the yeve a notable gret gwerdoun … take heed what I do profre” (155, 158, 160). The caged bird sets the conditions in if/then terms that bind both churl and her in a promise. In this iteration, then, the bird declares her free choice to provide the churl with song, to reproduce for the churl the thing for which the bird was initially caged—if only the churl first release her. The promise functions as a site of compulsion wherein the bird’s freedom from the cage nevertheless ties her to required performance. It seems the bird ultimately feels no obligation to fulfill these terms—she spends twenty-one lines contemplating the foolishness of hanging around and perhaps getting caught again. All the same, she makes good on her promise. This moment of articulation of willing choice to sing, however, discomfitingly parallels the scene of compulsive diurnal singing in the forest. [End Page 95] Now free and having delivered her three lessons, she seems unable to quit the churl, “houyng above his hede” (224) and taunting him. Compulsion here seems much less connected to the pains of the forest; the now-free jailbird relishes the chance to lord it over the churl, calling out to him “O dulle cherl!” (299). Yet even after declaring “I am now free, to syngen & to flie” (271), the bird “gan ageyn retoorne” (297–98), the “ageyn” here recalling the painful compulsion “to syng ageyn” in the forest.

The jailbird declines to identify with the alignment of song and pain, however. Not only do prison and song “haue noon accordaunce,” she avers, “Ryngyng of ffeteris makith no mery soun” (99, 103). Instead of a space in which one’s pains may be reckoned through song, the bird argues that its cage functions as a space purely of punishment and discipline. The cage thus becomes the space in which oscillations between the externalities and internalities of compulsion are carefully delimited. That is, the figure of the medieval jailbird here marks the boundaries between what externally compels you and that which is internally compulsive. Even as the songbird is supposedly naturally “free,” as the poem positions freedom in the natural world rather than the confining human world, and as that natural world is the space for the production of moving beauty, Lydgate invests the natural world with compulsion and pain. The figure of the caged bird ostensibly clarifies the difference between what someone else makes you do and what you yourself cannot help doing. Thus, strangely enough, it is confinement that elucidates while natural freedom is the site of problematic messiness. The jailbird’s abnegation seeks to cordon off the cage’s external imposition of discipline from the potential hazards of self-discipline. The external pains of the cage seem all too similar to the internal(ized) pains of her song. She does not want the caging to be internal. Keeping things external is much safer. Conversely, the picture we get of what happens to her outside the cage—the compulsive singing of beautiful, moving, painful songs—is, I have argued, a picture of the very blurred boundaries between outside and inside, between choice and compulsion.

Attending to the figure of the caged bird in “The Churl and the Bird” provides a compelling view onto Lydgate’s thinking about and working through a profound philosophical and poetic question: what might it mean to understand poetic making as a form of agency that navigates the constraining compulsions seemingly inherent to one’s “nature”? The [End Page 96] question speaks to a history of the prison inextricable from literary production, inextricable from the exercise of creative agency caught in constraining circumstances. Given the numerous examples of late medieval prison writing and the ubiquity of the prison as a poetic image, Lydgate’s question locates for us a core literary concern for writers in England in the later Middle Ages, writers who were often associated with or apprehensive about troubled royal courts, concerned about England’s fraught international relations, and anxious to establish English as a literary language. One of the ways the prison has been understood to work is as a space for the production of poetry and authorial identity. Robert Epstein, discussing English prisoners James I of Scotland and Charles d’Orléans, says, “Exile and imprisonment … are, after all, particularly powerful images in the modern imagination, becoming in our own time figures for the condition of humanity in general and the poet in particular.”44 Joanna Summers argues that the variety of late medieval texts linking imprisonment and writing do so in the service of constructing, narrating, and presenting a textual self in order to persuade a prospective audience. An author’s attempts to, as Summers puts it, “‘market’ his character and write himself out of confinement and subjection and into favor” certainly suggest the operations of desire and, like Lydgate’s songbird, an agency invested in highly contingent poetic production.45

In that it understands the prison in conjunction with the production of poetry, the question also speaks to Lydgate’s critical reception. Lyd-gate has been in so many ways a poet metaphorically confined. As a figure of literary history, he remains fascinatingly marked by discourses of confinement and compulsion, even by the current criticism that looks more favorably on him and his work. Maura Nolan calls Lydgate’s poetry “narrower and more limited than Chaucer’s,” even as she argues that Lydgate’s mummings and disguisings constitute an act of will, participating in “a turn away from a Chaucerian vision.”46 Making the case for bringing Lydgate “out of the shadow of Chaucer,” Larry Scanlon and James Simpson argue, “to deny Lydgate all treatment as a major author, no matter how provisional, would ultimately mean reinforcing the trap [End Page 97] in which we currently find him.”47 Lydgate cannot seem to win for losing. In his brief consideration of the “The Churl and the Bird,” Derek Pearsall calls the poem a “delight,”48 suggesting that the work partakes in a kind of beauty. He immediately goes on to characterize that beauty, however, as not being Lydgate’s own. Instead, the poem’s modicum of beauty comes from Chaucer’s influence as well as the nature of the poem’s source. Lydgate cannot sing beautifully, but he cannot help but try: “like … a man compelled to stammer but with nothing to say.”49

When declaring John Lydgate “perfectly representative of the Middle Ages,” Pearsall fascinatingly associates the poet with birds. He argues that the Lancastrian poet-monk’s work is like early scientific examinations of bird flight. He says:

To understand in precise detail the mechanics of a bird’s flight, biologists used film slowed down to record, frame by frame, the exact process at each stage. Lydgate provides us with something like the same sort of opportunity to understand the precise configurations and convolutions of a type of mind and of an intellectual and artistic tradition.50

In this unexpected and fantastically birdish analogy, Lydgate gives us the frame-by-frame of flight—a mechanical precision that is artistic but not beautiful. Caught in the frame and carefully gridded, like the motion studies to which Pearsall alludes, Lydgate the poet-monk is decidedly not taken to flights of fancy.51 For the captivating beauty of bird-flight, to see a freer kind of poetry, poetry that moves and moves us, we must instead turn to Chaucer. We have here the Lydgate commonplace: a dull but learned poetics of the frozen frame that marks the [End Page 98] confining and dulling analysis of something beautiful, inspiring, and free.

The compulsions that Lydgate plumbs in the “The Churl and the Bird” are thus easily seen as reinscribed within critics’ accounts of Lydgate’s position in literary history. Lydgate is effectively doubly confined: haunted by the external pressures of the Lancastrian regime and by possible routes of poetic production in relation to that regime, he is nevertheless compelled to produce poetry. And what beauty that poetry achieves is not because of anything he himself does, and in fact happens accidentally. Thus, like his songbird in its natural habit, Lydgate cannot help himself; compelled to poetize, he stacks line upon line, point upon point, moral upon moral. Instead, I argue that rather than reading Lyd-gate in this poem as uncritically cluttered and encyclopedically stammering, we should take his poem’s account of compulsion seriously, locating as it does compulsion within a space cross-cut by natural inclination and literary creation, interiority and exteriority, freedom and confinement. But we can only read Lydgate in this way—we can only readjust our sense of literary history—if we read Lydgate through this willful jailbird.

The songbird’s refusal to sing appears within a carefully crafted argument and ultimately efficacious escape. She gets free while mocking and educating the churl, teaching him three lessons about self-discipline and correctly ordering one’s will: don’t give immediate credence to new stories; don’t sorrow over lost things; and, most provocatively for this essay’s concerns, don’t desire the impossible (197–217). The songbird, who previously complained about prison as externally imposed, schools the churl on how to regulate one’s desire. That the bird ultimately wins her freedom has been read as political commentary, an understandable move given Lydgate’s relation to and careful navigation of half a century of Lancastrian court politics. Helen Barr argues that the poem is largely one of social quietism or conservatism, as seen in an implied anti-peasant strain to the songbird’s arguments.52 The clever and learned bird reclaims her own “natural” position and puts the churl in his ignorant, rustic place. On this account, the songbird’s ability to argue rings around the churl and ultimately win her freedom gives us the reassertion of a naturalized political order. Such an account understands the poem’s [End Page 99] figurations anthropocentrically; the caged songbird stands in for and comments on human politics. Honing in on the figure of the caged bird in Lydgate’s poem suggests a healthy skepticism is needed in approaching any claims that position the poem as holding up a seemingly unproblematic “natural” order. As I’ve argued, we need to attend to the ways the poem renders the natural world as shot through with pain and compulsion, even as that world is presented as the site of natural inclinations and supposedly free exercise of the will that contrasts with the confinements of the gilded cage.

The account of poetic making in the poem, although focused on questions of human artifaction and agency, is nevertheless routed through a very specific animal figure that raises serious questions about what exactly it might mean to do something according to one’s nature. Singing is what a bird does, whether it seems to want to or not, so what would it take for that bird to abstain? Lydgate’s use of the figure of the caged bird suggests the ways in which poetic making is always already some sort of involuntary willfulness: a course of action taken in the face of opposition from others and one’s own self that nevertheless cannot escape the constraints of one’s condition, one’s personal and literary history, one’s bodily experience. Voluntary actions—the things that seemingly mark one as “one” because one is capable of even “own-ing” an action—escape or betray one’s own control.

Complicating Duns Scotus’s assertion of the will’s fundamental uncoercibility, Lydgate implies, then, that it is precisely in a space of coercion that the will works. Though his jailbird argues that that “Song & prisoun haue noon accordaunce,” Lydgate shows confinement to be complexly productive. Following Lydgate’s lead, we might usefully reconsider the entanglement of confining space, faculties of self, and poetic production across myriad fourteenth- and fifteenth-century texts. The prison’s coercions when put in dialogue with the compulsions foundational to one’s nature thus seem to open a space for “more inventive and complex expression.”53 The bird’s refusal to sing, “Trowistow I wole syngen in prisoun?,” poetically uttered from the space of her gilded cage, rubs up against the compulsions that are part of the nature to which she wishes to return, with which she vehemently identifies. We might understand the jailbird saying, “I would rather be subject to the compulsions that mark me as me—even if such compulsions sit at the [End Page 100] event horizon of the spiraling rigors of self-discipline. I would rather be subject to that than be subject to another’s will in this cage.” “The Churl and the Bird” is Lydgate’s rumination on the poetic and philosophical implications of taking up such a stance of willful refusal in the face of confinement. That rumination perturbs the clear distinctions in Jacques Deval’s statement that heads this essay—“God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.” Deval succinctly differentiates wood from cage in God and humanity’s divergent creative energies toward birds. In “The Churl and the Bird” both woods and cage have at stake the making of poetry as an act of the will in the face of constraint. Lydgate’s jailbird’s willful stance of refusal imagines the medieval prison as a space in which the will crucially matters, and not, contra received accounts of the medieval prison, because bodily constraint can so easily be equated with coercive evacuation of the will. [End Page 101]

Corey Sparks
Indiana University


For their crucial comments and support, I thank Patricia Clare Ingham, Karma Lochrie, and Shannon Gayk as well as the Indiana University Early English Literature and Culture Forum. Thanks also to Sarah Stanbury and Anthony Bale for their encouragement at, respectively, the beginning and conclusion of this project. Finally, I would like to thank the two anonymous readers for SAC for helpful suggestions.

1. Robert Hass, “September Notebooks: Stories,” Poetry (February 2010), available at (accessed January 21, 2013).

2. Jacques Deval, Afin de vivre bel et bien (Paris: A. Michel, 1970), 27.

3. John Lydgate, “The Churl and the Bird,” lines 99–105, in The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken, EETS 192, Vol. 2, Secular Poems (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), 464–85. Subsequent quotations from the poem will be cited in-text. The relative lack of critical attention to the poem from modern scholars does not reflect the contemporary popularity of Lydgate’s poem. The poem exists in several manuscripts that date across the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and was printed six times, suggesting both immediate and relatively sustained popularity.

4. For recent work on late medieval prison literature, see Julia Boffey, “Chaucerian Prisoners: The Context of the Kingis Quair,” in Chaucer and Fifteenth Century Poetry, ed. Boffey and Janet Cowen (London: King’s College London, Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, 1991), 84–102; Robert Epstein, “Prisoners of Reflection: The Fifteenth-Century Poetry of Exile and Imprisonment,” Exemplaria 15, no. 1 (2003): 159–98; A. C. Spearing, “Prison, Writing, Absence: Representing the Subject in the English Poems of Charles d’Orléans,” MLQ 53, no. 1 (1992): 83–99; and Joanna Summers, Late-Medieval Prison Writing and the Politics of Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

5. Edward M. Peters, “Prison before the Prison: The Ancient and Medieval Worlds,” in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 3–43 (3).

6. Jean Dunbabin, Captivity and Imprisonment in Medieval Europe, 1000–1300 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 1.

7. Thomistic intellectualism and voluntarist accounts such as John Duns Scotus’s assume a fundamental relation between intellect and will, but they disagree on the extent to which faculty drives action in the world. Other notable Scholastics connected to voluntarism, several of whom were insular like Scotus, include William de la Mare (d. 1285), Peter John Olivi (d. 1298), Henry of Ghent (d. 1293), and William of Ockham (d. 1347). It must also be pointed out that Scholasticism took pains to distinguish accounts of the human will and accounts of the divine will, and my summary here, as well as the focus of this essay, pertains to the human will. For cogent accounts of voluntarism, especially in relation to ethics, see Allan B. Wolter’s introductory material in Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, trans. Wolter (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986); Bonnie Kent, Virtues of the Will: The Transformation of Ethics in the Late Thirteenth Century (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995); and The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy, ed. Robert Pasnau, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), especially sections V and VI: “Will and Desire,” and “Ethics,” respectively.

8. The divisions between intellectualist and voluntarist positions can easily be overstated, especially in accounts of voluntarist philosophy that understand Scotus as arguing for an irrational, anti-intellectual will. This overstatement of the will’s freedom is the accusation regularly leveled at Thomas Williams’s work on Scotus. For Williams’s position see his series of articles from the late 1990s that culminates in “The Libertarian Foundations of Scotus’ Moral Philosophy,” The Thomist 62 (1998): 193–215. For criticism of Williams’s position, see Mary Beth Ingham, “Letting Scotus Speak for Himself,” Medieval Philosophy and Theology 10 (2001): 173–216. Ingham and Williams’s debate has continued. I join Scholastic considerations of the will to confinement in this essay not to take a particular side in the philosophical debate; rather, I do so to show the activeness of such questions about the nature of the will in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

9. My labels “selflessly” and “self-centeredly” suggest positive and negative connotations. However, I mean them more neutrally as they gloss Scotus’s engagement with Anselm of Canterbury’s concepts of affectio iustitiae (affection for justice) and affectio commodi (affection for the advantageous), which are themselves morally neutral concepts regarding the directions the will may take either in regard to self or God.

10. One of the most forceful articulations of this stance from Scotus uses imprisonment-laden language; it goes thus: “sed voluntatem violentari includit contradictionem; igitur Deus non potest volitum a voluntate mea impedire” (But [to say] the will may be violated encloses a contradiction; therefore, God is not able to hinder the willing of my will). Johannis Duns Scoti doctoris subtilis, ordinis minorum opera omnia, Vol. 13, ed. Luke Wadding (Paris: Apud Ludovicum Vives, 1893), Ord., II, dist. 37, q. 2.

11. Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, Ord., IV, dist. 29, 151–52.

12. Boethius’s image of the caged bird longing to be free from her cage appears in The Consolation of Philosophy at Book III, metrum 2; the imagery at least partly motivates Lydgate’s poem. The Boethian image as it appeared in the Roman de la rose became a common site for visual depiction; a beautiful illustration of “a bird in a cage plots freedom” exists in the Roman de la rose manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 332, fol. 131v. The image shows a caged bird longingly looking on several birds sitting together in trees nearby.

13. For further studies of the ubiquity of bird imagery in the Middle Ages, see William Bundson Yapp, Birds in Medieval Manuscripts (London: Schocken Books, 1982); Wendy Pfeffer, The Change of Philomel: The Nightingale in Medieval Literature (New York: Peter Lang, 1985); W. B. Clark and M. T. McMunn, Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages: The Bestiary and Its Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989); W. A. Davenport, “Bird Poems from Parliament of Fowls to Philip Sparrow,” in Boffey and Cowen, Chaucer and Fifteenth Century Poetry, 66–83. French bestiaries from the later Middle Ages regularly have images of caged birds, especially blackbirds; see Bestiaire d’amours (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France [BNF], Fr. 1951, fol. 9), or Bestiaire d’amours (BNF, Fr. 12469, fol. 7), both from the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, or the slightly later Bestiaire d’amours (BNF, Fr. 1444, fol. 259v), from the second half of the fourteenth century. For books of hours see, for instance, those owned by Catherine of Cleves (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M.917, fol. 247 [c. 1440]), available at Also see the Hours of Marguerite d’Orléans (BNF, Latin 1156 B, fol. 15), available at (accessed June 6, 2014).

14. OED, s.v. jail-bird | gaol-bird, n., available at Moreover, the word “jail,” or “gaol,” while coming to refer to a space of imprisonment during the Middle Ages, originally referred to a birdcage; OED, s.v. jail | gaol, n.,

15. “Nor is there any law more just than that the artificers of death perish by their own art.” The line appears in the story of Perillus and Phalaris in Ovid’s Ars amatoria, I.647–58. Ovid returns to the story multiple times in his corpus: Tristia, 3.11.39–52, 5.1.51–54; Epistulae ex Ponto, 2.9.43–44, 3.6.41–42; and Ibis, 435–38.

16. “Iron Cages,” Argus 211 (November 20, 1789), available at 17th–18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers (accessed April 5, 2012).

17. Harancourt was accused of plotting against Louis XI during the tumult of French succession politics at the close of the fifteenth century. Along with Count Jean Balue, Harancourt was imprisoned for siding with and aiding Louis’s cousin Charles the Bold, a charge for which he would spend (depending on the account) the next fourteen years caged. The story of Harancourt and his iron cage, like Ovid’s famous tale, was a long-lasting and popular set piece. The bishop and his cage even earn an appearance in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A longer account of iron cages appears a century later in the US. In 1889, the New York Times printed a condemnation of iron cages that relates Harancourt’s fate in a bit more detail. Simply titled “The Iron Cage,” the piece was written by someone claiming to have had “an eight month’s taste of this kind of captivity,” and it claims that Harancourt was put into the very first cage that he had constructed. “The Iron Cage,” New York Times, September 15, 1889: 12. In a fascinating coincidence whereby song and prison are juxtaposed in the space of the page, the Times story about Harancourt’s iron cage appears immediately after one about vocal training. Harancourt and his iron cage similarly provided an evocative example for nineteenth-century French historiography and publication of state archives. For instance, in La Bastille: Histoire et description de bâtiments (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1893), 106–14, Fernand Bournon connects Harancourt’s caging with Louis XI’s moves to consolidate and centralize royal power, especially in the king’s development of the Bastille as a state prison (in contrast to the Argus’s placement of Harancourt at the Château d’Angers). A contemporary review of Bournon’s text that spends some time discussing Harancourt soon appeared across the Channel: Rowland Edmund Prothero, The Quarterly Review, 186, no. 372 (1897): 357–93.

18. On the language-destroying nature of torture, see Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

19. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage, 1995).

20. Guy Geltner, The Medieval Prison: A Social History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 10. For similar critiques, see Dunbabin, Captivity and Imprisonment, esp. 157; and Trevor Dean, Crime in Medieval Europe (New York: Longman, 2001), esp. 118–221.

21. The persistence and prominence of such associations are superbly reflected in the fact that US poet laureate Billy Collins recently edited an anthology of bird-centric poems: Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

22. Marianne DeKoven, “Why Animals Now?,” PMLA 124, no. 2 (2009): 361–69 (363). The “now” of DeKoven’s title suggests the newness of literary criticism’s engagement with animal studies, a newness that perhaps too easily occludes the vibrant, varied, and long-standing discussions among medievalists about animals. See the recent colloquium on “Animalia,” SAC 34 (2012): 309–58; Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts, ed. Carolynn Van Dyke (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Karl Steel, How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011); the “Animal Turn” special issue of postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 2, no. 1 (2011); David Salter, Holy and Noble Beasts: Encounters with Animals in Medieval Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001); Joyce E. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1994); Beryl Rowland, Blind Beasts: Chaucer’s Animal World (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971).

23. Sarah Stanbury, “Posthumanist Theory and the Premodern Animal Sign,” post-medieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 2, no. 1 (2011): 101–14 (103). Emphasis added.

24. Crane, Animal Encounters, 3.

25. Rosi Braidotti, “Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others,” PMLA 124, no. 2 (2009): 526–32 (528).

26. Ibid. Emphasis added.

27. Regarding modern distinctions among custodial, punitive, and coercive imprisonment, Ralph Pugh mentions in passing that “the three types tend to merge and in the middle ages [sic] were never clearly kept apart,” in Imprisonment in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 1 n. 4; on the problems of applying modern taxonomies of imprisonment on the Middle Ages, see also Richard W. Ireland, “Theory and Practice within the Medieval English Prison,” The American Journal of Legal History 31, no. 1 (1987): 56–67. Pugh’s desultory comment often serves as an opening argumentative gambit for medievalists; for example, see Ireland, “Theory and Practice,” 56; Dunbabin, Captivity and Imprisonment, 8; and Geltner, The Medieval Prison, 9.

28. Susan Crane, “For the Birds,” SAC 31 (2009): 23–41 (25–26).

29. For a brief example, think of the status of the nightingale in Marie de France’s Laüstic. The bird’s song initially both marks and covers for illicit love between two neighbors. Then, the bird’s body emblematizes the jealous husband’s violent assertion of his own position. Last, once the murdered bird’s body has been ensconced in a gold, bejeweled coffer, it becomes—like the lay itself—a beautiful artifact, a venerated and not-unproblematic relic of a now-passed tryst.

30. Elizabeth Eva Leach, Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007), 3.

31. Ibid., 7.

32. Bruce Holsinger, Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 9.

33. Such bird behavior in the wild is veritably impossible to document or recreate accurately. West describes attempts to refashion the birdcage in the crucial conjunction of space, natural environments, and balancing human and animal needs: “Our aim at the Animal Behavior Farm [is] to create circumstances allowing us to see animals at their best—to create contexts as conducive as possible to revealing hidden or non obvious capacities. To achieve this goal, we leave the typical laboratory cage behind and fashion semi-naturalistic environments, environments balancing our need to see an animal with the animal’s need for space and security. Such settings reveal behaviors hard to see in the wild.” “Animal Behavior Farm,” available at˜aviary/ (accessed June 20, 2013). For behavioral scientists like West, the carefully constructed birdcage becomes a space necessary for the work of identifying and analyzing birdish desire. The cage used by the Animal Behavior Farm differs from that imagined in “The Churl and the Bird” in both construction and purpose. Nevertheless, I think we might usefully see the difference as one in degree rather than kind. (I would not want to push any connection too far, though, and there is not space in this essay to consider more fully the implications of the point.) The jailbird’s gilded cage is an obviously inappropriate habitat meant to render the songbird available to the churl’s desire for song. It is, though, a carefully crafted space, and one meant to elicit the bird’s “natural” inclination to song.

34. See Andrew P. King, Meredith J. West, and David J. White, “Female Cowbird Song Perception: Evidence for Plasticity of Preference,” Ethology 109 (2003): 865–77; also Todd M. Freeberg, “The Cultural Transmission of Courtship Patterns in Cowbirds, Molothrus ater,” Animal Behaviour 56 (1998): 1063–73.

35. Pugh, Imprisonment in Medieval England, 359.

36. Mary Lobel, ed., “Thame Hundred,” in A History of the County of Oxford, Vol. 7, Dorchester and Thame Hundreds (1962): 113–16, available at British History Online, (accessed January 24, 2012). That the bishop should hold a prison in the town would not be surprising, especially given that bishops of Lincoln regularly stayed in Thame (Lobel, A History, Vol. 7, 160–78).

37. The relevant thirteenth-century records are London, The National Archives, JUST 1/700 and 1/703. More work remains to be done studying the language used in recording these small-scale spaces of confinement. Special thanks to Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger, Cynthia Rogers, and Erin Sweany for help with paleography and translation.

38. Etymologically, “to fly” and “to flee” are not related. However, the various forms are often confused. They were confused even in the Old English forms, suggesting that while the two verbs are not technically related, they have been and continue to be imagined as bound to each other; OED, s.v. flee, v.,

39. “Thame: Topography, Manors and Estates,” in Lobel, A History, Vol. 7, 160–78.

40. Holsinger, Music, Body, and Desire, 2.

41. CT, V.417, in The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). Patricia Clare Ingham argues for the ways Chaucer’s lamenting falcon figures the captivating and fraught connections among desire, romance, and medieval discussions of newness; see “Little Nothings: The Squire’s Tale and the Ambition of Gadgets,” SAC 31 (2009): 53–80.

42. CT, V.568–69.

43. Scotus discusses the will’s potential to will opposites at length, for instance, in Questions on the Metaphysics, IX, q. 15.

44. Epstein, “Prisoners of Reflection,” 161.

45. Summers, Late-Medieval Prison Writing, 23.

46. Maura Nolan, John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 5.

47. Larry Scanlon and James Simpson, “Introduction,” in John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England, ed. Scanlon and Simpson (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 1–11 (6). For two other recent reconsiderations of Lydgate’s place in literary history, see Robert Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Mary C. Flannery, John Lydgate and the Poetics of Fame (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2012).

48. Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970), 199.

49. Ibid., 214.

50. Ibid., 14.

51. Eadweard Muybridge’s late nineteenth-century studies of locomotion are probably the most famous example of the process Pearsall describes here. Muybridge published voluminous photographic studies on the locomotion of both humans and non-human animals, paying special attention to horses and birds as well as humans.

52. Helen Barr, Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 190.

53. Epstein, “Prisoners of Reflection,” 162.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.