The Science Behind ‘Parliament of Fowls’

By Brooke Schultz
News Editor
Art and science merged together in a presentation and gallery exhibit when professors Dr.Jennie Carr and Courtney Rydel worked together to dissect a poem by Chaucer.
The project started after Julie Armstrong asked Assistant English Professor Dr. Rydel if, as suggested in the Anne Bradsheet poem, “In Reference to Her Children,” birds really return to the nest. Dr. Rydel reached out to Dr. Carr, ornithologist, for an answer, and formed what Dr. Carr called an “unlikely match.”
“This started a cool back-and-forth that just kept going and going and going and building between Courtney and I,” Dr. Carr said during the presentation.
The lecture, on Oct. 4 at 5:30 in Litrenta, went through Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls.” The two dissected the poem, going through the literature to see if it resembled real science.
Dr. Rydel said that there are two ways to look at birds in medieval poetry and culture: one is  “as just this sonic feature of the landscape in the background.” The other is that birds are used as figures in allegories. “They’re thought to just be really good representations of humans because their calls and their vocalizations were thought of to be like speech, evidencing a certain capacity for thinking and reasoning,” she said.
“[Birds] are frequently a mouthpiece for debate poems where different bird species chatter at each other, arguing out things that are real political debates in the human realm. So those are two contrasting approaches – birds as just part of nature and birds are representations of humans,” Dr. Rydel said. “So I want to suggest in this poem by Chaucer that he combines the two in a really innovative way that takes people who know something about both in order to fully unpack the poem.”
In Chaucer’s poem, three male eagles are making their cases for why they should win the single female eagle’s affections. The arguments take so long that other birds lose their patience and they form a parliament, consisting of four different groups.
“The typical literary readings have nothing to do with birds, in spite of the fact it’s called ‘Parliament of Fowls,’” Dr. Rydel said. Other scholars have pinned the poem as a representation of Chaucer’s patron’s love-life, a human’s free-will, or political decisions. “But they don’t really talk about the birds. So Jennie and I are attempting to remedy this problem.”
“Birds are sort of omnipresent in art, literature across the eons,” Dr. Carr said. “Evolutionary thought is not anything new. Aristotle was thinking about evolution eons ago. It’s not new by any means.”
“Our present-day evolutionary trees show how birds, and how organisms in general, are related to one another, and is based on DNA. So Darwin, Wallace, Aristotle, Chaucer had no idea, really, what these relationships were. They are basing a lot of their observations on the behaviors they saw. So we’re going to piece apart some of that history,” she said.
Dr. Carr showed one of the evolutionary trees, an image that is echoed at the Sandbox exhibit, focusing on reptiles. She discussed the lineage of birds and said, “From our dinosaur lineage… [we get] birds. We do have our dinosaurs in the sky today.”
The duo looked at Chaucer’s descriptions of birds in their research, but also looked into medieval bestiaries where, Dr. Rydel said, Chaucer was drawing his knowledge.
“[We] discovered pretty rapidly that Chaucer is the least inaccurate medieval source on birds,” Dr. Rydel said. Chaucer was just accurately reflecting what he saw in the world of birds’ themselves. “These medieval bestiaries are sometimes accurate, but sometimes completely crazy.”
During their presentation, they went through some of the claims, which Dr. Carr either confirmed or denied using modern science.
“I was surprised reading through some of these things with Courtney,” Dr. Carr said. “So I think it’s an interesting opportunity for us to develop this further. In a way, maybe people have before. It’s something we didn’t expect; so we just thought it’d be cool to do this exhibit and combine our two passions, and it’s really developing into something really great.”
The companion-Sandbox exhibit features excerpts from the poems, interactive videos, and a closer look at the evolutionary trees Dr. Carr discussed. It also holds the answer to the end of the poem: who does the female eagle choose? To find out, stop by Sandbox before it closes on Oct. 28.
To see some of the tweets Dr. Rydel and Dr. Carr discussed, check out the #MedievalBirds on Twitter.

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