The Bird Tree and Barnacle Geese September 10, 2016Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
Beach has previously looked at tall Arab tales about trees, including the mythical children tree. However, what about this pleasing nonsense associated with Britain and Ireland? The source is Rashid al-Din and we are in the fourteenth-century.
Opposite [Spain] in the midst of the Encircling Ocean are two islands, of which one is Ireland. From the special nature of the earth of that country poisonous reptiles die, and mice are not born there. The men there are long-lived, red-complexioned, of tall stature and powerful frame, and brave. In this country is a spring of water, in which if one places a piece of wood, in a week its surface becomes petrified.
This is a collection of confused details about medieval Ireland, though the mice not being born there is apparently unique. Let’s move on to the tree though.
The name of the larger island is England. In this country are many remarkable mountains, innumerable mines of gold, silver, copper, tin, and iron, and different kinds of fruit. Among the marvels of that land is a tree which produces a bird as fruit, in the following manner. In the time of blossom a bag like an apple forms, within which is a thing shaped like a bird. When it grows big, it becomes alive and comes out. They keep it and eat the fruit, till it is the size of a large duck. The meat of the people of that land is mostly from that bird. They relate that among the Christians, who at the time of the fast eat no animals, there is a disagreement in regard to eating it. Some consider it as one of the plants, since it is the fruit of a tree, while others regard it as an animal, since blood comes from it.
There follows on a particularly painful passage, claiming that the King of England is in submission to the King of France. As to the bird… This has to be a reference to the northern legend of the barnacle geese. It was believed by many, including some encyclopedists, that barnacle geese came from barnacles growing on sea-tossed wood. This is not admittedly a tree, but there were arguments, reported by Gerald of Wales, that barnacle geese were not flesh, for the purposes of fast days: of course, there were similar arguments about lots of ‘fish’ including frogs, otters and beavers. In other words here we see some homespun folklore, unpicked and woven wonderfully new in the mouths of other nations.
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