The Starlings Go to War

Laura Sangha

It’s that time of year when I am always reminded of one of my favourite providential pamphlets, The Wonderfull Battell of Starelings,fought at the Citie of Corke in Ireland, the 12. and 14. of October, 1621.[1] The pamphlet was published by a London printer in 1622, is short at nine pages, and it also has a wonderful woodcut that gives a graphic rendering of the events described in the text.

The pamphlet described howabout the seuenth of October last, 1621 there gathered together by degrees, an vnusual multitude of birds called Stares, in some Countries knowne by the name of Starlings’. The birds ‘mustered together … some foure of fiue daies, before they fought their battels, euery day more and more encreasing their armies with greater supplies, some came as from the East, others from the West, and so accordingly they placed themselues, and as it were encamped themselues eastward and westward about the citie’. Finally, on Saturday morning, at around nine o’clock:

vpon a strange sound and noise made as well on the one side as on the other, they forthwith at one instant tooke wing, and so mounting vp into the skyes, encountered one another, with such a terrible shocke, as the sound amazed the whole city and all the beholders. Vpon this sodaine and fierce encounter, there fell downe into the citie, and into the Riuers, multitudes of Starelings … some with wings broken, some with legs and necks broken, some with eies pickt out, some their bils thrust into the brests & sides of their aduersaries, in so strange a manner, that it were incredible except it were confirmed by letters of credit, and by eye-witnesses, with that assurance which is without all exception.

This ‘admirable and most violent battell’ continued with several more encounters between the two sides, before the birds seemed to vanish, so that on Sunday not one was seen about the city. On Monday the birds returned again for a final terrible assault, when many more wounded and dead birds fell into the streets of Cork. The pamphlet finishes with some rather brief and generic comments that the reader should not search out the reasons for such ‘ wonderfull workes of Almighty God’, but we should remember that ‘it doth prognosticate either Gods mercy to draw vs to repentance, or his iustice to punish our sinnes and wickednesse’.

The pamphlet’s description of strange events interpreted within a (loose) providential framework makes it typical for the time, and thanks to Alexandra Walsham, we can easily make sense of what at first seems to be a bizarre account.[2] We have already encountered this type of material on the monster. It is a great resource for teaching with, introducing students to the idea of the ‘difference’ of the early modern period – although there are lots of elements of this past society that seems familiar to us, material like this confronts us with the vast gap between the early modern outlook and mentality, and our own. They see God’s intervention in the world to create an unnatural event (birds aping human military activity), their interpretive framework, their means of making sense of the event is providential, it is religious.

What do we see? Probably we would see a ‘murmuration’: starlings gathering into large flocks in the autumn evenings – it is a natural event, spectacular, but perfectly normal. Our interpretive framework is not religious but scientific, the starlings are “always ready to optimally respond to an external perturbation, such as predator attack,” according to a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper.  When dead birds fall from our skies, we call in the veterinary inspectors, carry out tests, blame fireworks, the internet, UFOs – as you can see in this news report, our modern day equivalent of the early modern pamphlet.

Of course it isn’t as straightforward as that – it never is. Early modern people were not ignorant of bird behaviour, and they certainly knew about autumnal flocks, as you can see from this extract from an almanac of 1700:

Signs of Cold weather, or hard winter.

THE Suns setting in a Mist, looking Red, and Broader than usual.  The Clearness of the stars, and their much Twinkling.  Starlings, Feldefars, and other Birds of a Hot Nature, hastening in great Flocks or Flights from the Northern to the southern Climates. [3]

In fact, further investigation quickly uncovered further titbits about the birds: they were good mimics, valued for their singing, and could be caught and kept for pets.

One of the many illustrations in R. Blome’s ‘Gentlemans Recreation’, this one depicts the practice of hawking.

R. Blome, The gentlemans recreation in two parts : the first being an encyclopedy of the arts and sciences … the second part treats of horsmanship, hawking, hunting, fowling, fishing, and agriculture (London, 1705).

The STARLING.This is a very docile Bird, and if taken out of the Nest young is apt to learn both to walk and Whistle. ‘Tis a hardy Bird; their food is Sheeps-Hearts, or other raw Flesh, hard Eggs minced, Hemp-seed, wet Bread, and the like.

John Ray, The ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the county of Warwick Esq, fellow of the Royal Society in three books (London, 1678).

§. VII. How to take Stares with a limed string: out of Olina’s Uccelliera.Take a small string of a yard or thereabout long, bind it fast to the Tail of a Stare, having first carefully limed it all over, excepting one Palm next the bird. Having found a flock of Starlings, come as near to them as possible, holding your Stare by the wings as near as you can, and let her go to her fellows, which as soon as you shew your self to them, will presently take wing: Your tail-tied Stare endeavouring to secure her self of her liberty, thrusting her self into the middle of her fellows, will entangle many of them, and so not being able to fly, they will afford a pleasant spectacle in tumbling down to the ground: where you must be ready with a Brush or Besom to strike them down. Many other devices there are to take several sorts of birds with Lime-rods, &c. which I think needless to set down; it being not difficult for an ingenious Fowler to invent as good or better, when he shall have opportunity of taking those kinds of Birds.

Aside from this fascinating insight into just what these country folk were up to, this is a further reminder that early modern people were far from ignorant about the world around them, but that the battle of the starlings points to areas of divergence in underlying assumptions, outlooks, and technological and intellectual understandings between their society and ours. At certain moments, certain people would turn to a religious interpretation, though it is clear that this was not the only explanation on offer.

A sketch of a starling from John Ray’s ‘Ornithology’. Ray was a fellow of the Royal Society.

Of course, the significance of the battle has been attached by the pamphlet’s author, perhaps as a means to justify printing his entertaining report – a moral message makes it worthy of publication. Or maybe it was a way to appease the author’s printer Nicholas Blount, who seems to have adhered to Calvinist principles: Blount refused to print plays and other frivolous material, so the author’s religious framework was perhaps necessary concession with its roots in the world of commerce. They key thing is, that when we look beyond cheap printed pamphlets the interpretations might diversify.

The other thing that strikes me about all these birds mustering together and plummeting from the heavens, is that in some respects a certain amount of faith is needed to accept our scientific explanations. Scientists admit that starling flocks ‘transcend biology’, and that science has only a sketchy understanding of what the phenomena is all about – there is much more ‘still to be discovered’. Our modern confidence that we will eventually work it out contrasts with the early modern warning not too look into these mysteries too deeply, highlighting yet more difference. Yet there is also similarity: this clip was filmed recently in Ireland, and science alone might find it hard to explain the sense of awe in wonder inspired by the sight and sounds of the murmuration even today. The clip also makes it much easier for us to appreciate where the ‘battell’ interpretation came from. I strongly recommend that you watch the video (it gets really good about 50 seconds in), and perhaps let me know what you see.

[1] Anon, The wonderfull battell of starelings fought at the citie of Corke in Ireland, the 12. and 14. of October last past 1621 (London, 1622), STC (2nd ed.) / 5767.

[2] Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: OUP, 1999).

[3] C.P., The sheepherd’s new kalender: or, The citizens & country man’s daily companion treating of most things that are useful, profitable, delightful, and advantageous to mankind (London, 1700), Wing (2nd ed.) / P11.

Norwich Entertainments – Part V: Ballad-singers and dangerous news, with coffee

Brodie Waddell

The people of late seventeenth-century Norwich did not get their entertainment solely from hairy children and pieces of plays. They also amused themselves with the ever-growing numbers of printed works that were pouring from the presses at that time.

In June 1680, for example, the Norwich Mayor’s court ordered that ‘Twoe Ballad singers haveing Lycence to Sell ballads, pamphlets small bookes & other bookes Lycensed from the Office of the Revells have leave to doe soe until Monday senight [?seven-night]’.1

Ballad entitled ‘An Excellent New Sonnet On the Goddess Diana and Acteon’ (c.1725-69). EBBA.

Title-page of a chapbook titled ‘The Life and Death of Fayr Rosamond’ (1755). SF.

These balladeers were just two of the hundreds that traipsed through the city streets and country lanes of early modern England, singing to advertise their wares. The exact contents of a peddler’s sack could be very diverse. In addition to all sorts of petty trinkets, they sold tales of drunken sailors, royal mistresses, industrious spinsters, and much else besides. Often these were in the form of broadside song sheets, but they might also be ‘pamphlets’ and ‘small books’, sometimes called chapbooks, written in prose to provide merriment or salvation for the price of penny or two. Margaret Spufford and Tessa Watt, among many others,  have discussed this ‘cheap print’ in much more detail, noting that ballad-sellers were often condemned by the authorities as vagrants. But in late seventeenth-century Norwich at least they seem to have been welcomed by both the townspeople and city officials.

Rather more unusual, however, was the license issued to a man a year earlier. In November 1679, the court declared that ‘Lawrence White is allowed to reade & sell Pamphlets on Horsebacke untill Wednesday next’.2 Continue reading

Workers’ Representation Part Two: Making Hay

Mark Hailwood

Herein lies the second installment of my blog series on woodcut images of workers

As I sit here in fenland fog, my mind drifts back to sun-baked Californian afternoons at the Huntington Library. Often I would avail myself of a short break from such wonders as the Ashby-de-la-Zouch manor court records, and pop upstairs to the office of the Director of Research, Steve Hindle (who also happens to have been my PhD supervisor) to either pick his brains or raid his bookshelves.

On one such afternoon we fell to discussing the following painting that hangs upon his office wall, a depiction of the Montagu family at their Sandleford Priory estate in Berkshire, by Edward Haytley, commissioned in 1743:

The Montagus at Sandleford Priory
Source: hayinart

At first I was a bit worried – what was this flag bearer of ‘history from below’ doing with an aggrandising portrait of the rural gentry in pride of place on his wall? Continue reading

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

Brodie Waddell

Surely this was an age-old question. Although the traditional sea shanty was only recorded in the early 19th century, there were more than a few early modern seamen who over-indulged in drink.

Indeed, when ‘a crew of Jovial Blades’ met in an alehouse in one late 17th-century ballad, it was the sailor who took the lead over his landlocked companions:

A bonny Seaman was the first,
but newly come to Town,
And swore that he his Guts could burst
with Ale that was so brown.

In another song from this period, a group of cunning ‘Maidens’ from the London suburb of Poplar tricked ‘several young Seamen’ into eating a cat baked in a pasty. Once they realised their mistake, the feline feast ‘did force them to spew’, but they still ‘laughed and quaffed’ and ‘drank off the Liquor before they went out’. It seems the solution to eating ‘A Cat-Pasty’ is to get thoroughly drunk.

Even sailors’ wives were not averse to downing ‘a lusty Bowl of Punch’. According to another ballad, the ‘Jolly Company’ raced to the alehouse as soon as their ‘Seamen had newly left the Land’ and set on their task with gusto:

We Seamens brisk Wives are bonny and glad,
While our Men on the Ocean are sorry and sad;
We love our Liquor to drink it all up,
None of us but love a full Glass or a Cup

They went so far as to claim that the punch would ‘make our Noddles the quicker’, a suggestion that was not as far-fetched to their contemporaries as it might be to us. As unlikely as it sounds, Mark has shown that the idea of alcohol enhancing ‘wit’ and ‘reason’ was not unknown in early modern England.¹ A little of ‘haire of the old Dogge’ might also cure the resulting hang-over.

Detail from ‘The Seamens Wives Frolick Over A Bowl of Punch’ (1685-88), in Pepys Ballads, IV, p. 184, via EBBA.

One might be inclined to dismiss these as stereotypes played up by the balladeers trying to make a few extra pence, but there are also examples from the archives. The records of the High Court of Admiralty, for example, include depositions describing sailors such as Robert Oyle who habitually ‘debauch[ed] himselfe with drinke’, Frisby and Archer who spent ‘five dayes and nights together drinking and frequenting houses of lewd repute’, and Thomas Grove who returned aboard ‘much distempered with drink and began to curse and sweare’.

Are these cases typical? It’s hard to say at this point. All of the Admiralty examples come from the MarineLives project, a new group which is currently transcribing and publishing online a whole swathe of rich material from court records held at Kew. Perhaps once we have a complete set of cases over an extended period we’ll have a better idea of just how often 17th-century seamen had to ‘put him in the long-boat and make him bale her’ or ‘put him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him’, ‘earl-aye in the morning’.

In the meantime, the MarineLives team report that they are looking for a few more volunteers to join them to help uncover the rough lives of early modern seafarers, so if you’d like to help the world learn about a real ‘drunken sailor’ or two, do let them know.


¹ Mark Hailwood, ‘”It puts good reason into brains”: Popular Understandings of the Effects of Alcohol in Seventeenth-Century England’, Brewery History (forthcoming, January 2013).

Workers’ Representation Part One: Spinning a Yarn

Mark Hailwood

As Christopher Thompson rightly notes over at Early Modern History, one of the great things about working at The Huntington is the people you get to meet over coffee. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time Patricia Fumerton, from the University of California Santa Barbara. Paddy is the pioneer of the online ballad database, EBBA, a digital resource that has been indispensable to my own research, and has been linked to on this blog numerous times already.

This gave me the chance to tell Paddy how great I think the site is, and in particular to praise its latest function that I have been playing around with: the ability to search, by category, the woodcut illustrations that adorn most seventeenth-century broadside ballads. I’ve been working on an article on representations of workers in these ballads – in particular artisan tradesmen – but my focus has been on how they were represented in the text of these ballads: how they were described and characterised. I hadn’t been paying too much attention to looking at the pictures – but might these too be a useful source for the kind of cultural history of work and workers that I am interested in? I entered a search for woodcuts that had been categorised as depicting ‘occupation / trade’, and spent some time perusing the 122 results that came up.

I’m not sure I have the skills or training to confidently deploy this kind of visual evidence in a formal historical paper or article, but I do find it fascinating, and thought I would offer up some of my thoughts in a series of blogposts entitled ‘Workers’ Representation’.

One of the first things that caught my eye was the common depiction of a key category of women’s work: spinning.

A woodcut taken from the ballad ‘Whipping Cheare’, from the Pepys collection, vol. I, no.208-109, c.1625. Source: EBBA

Continue reading

Norwich Entertainments – Part III: A medieval royal mistress in the 17th century and beyond

Brodie Waddell

In December 1677, the Norwich Mayor’s Court granted Elizabeth Soane a licence ‘to make shew of a Motion Called Fayre Rosamond until further order’.¹ Now here, finally, we have a clear reference to a well-known story. This play or ‘Motion’ must have recounted the life and death of one of England’s most famous royal mistresses, a surprisingly crowded field.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Fair Rosamund’ (1861), modelled by Fanny Cornforth (source: National Museum Cardiff via Wikimedia Commons)

‘Fair Rosamund’ was a woman named Rosamund Clifford (d. 1176?), a mistress to Henry II and subject of innumerable legends. Various tales claimed that that the king built a palace and labyrinth at Woodstock for her, that she was mother to an Archbishop of York and the Earl of Salisbury, and that she was poisoned by the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Sadly, none of these seem to be true.² Continue reading

A Seventeenth-Century Comic Strip?

Brodie Waddell

Gavin Robinson, over at Investigations of a Dog, asks ‘Why weren’t there any comics in the 1640s?’

He uses to the wikipedia definition:

a sequence of drawings arranged in interrelated panels to display brief humor or form a narrative, often serialized, with text in balloons and captions

This seems rather strict for my taste. Perhaps this is the nature of wikipedia  – an article on ‘comic books’ is bound to be dominated by comic ‘purists’ (even ‘puritans’) with a prescriptive outlook. The OED, in contrast, simply gives one definition of ‘strip’ as

A sequence of small drawings telling a comic or serial story in a newspaper, etc. Freq. as comic strip. Also transf. orig. U.S.

It gives the first use in 1920, which slightly predates the first supposed ‘comic book’ in 1933.

Apparently the first ‘comics’ (by the strict wikipedia definition) only appeared in the nineteenth century, and Gavin Robinson offers some possible reasons why, all of which seem plausible.

However, is it really true that ‘comics’ only emerged in the nineteenth century?

If we go by the OED definition, certainly not. As Gavin points out, ‘sequential art’ goes back to the Romans at least, and there are plenty of early modern examples. Here is Hogarth’s famous series:

William Hogarth, A Harlot’s Progress (1732). Image borrowed from here.

If we go by the wiki definition, we need ‘text in balloons and captions’, both of which are found in many early modern sources, but which was not normally paired with sequential panels. Here, for example, is some dialogue in balloons from a ballad in the Pepys collection:

Ropery Routed: Or, Father Petres’s Farewel to London City (1689) in Pepys Ballads, II, p. 296.

All of this is just a lengthy prologue to my own attempt at a small contribution. Whilst I haven’t found anything that unambiguously matchs the narrow definition, I think this comes pretty damn close.

The Young-Mans Victory Over the Povver of the Devil Or Strange and VVonderful News from the City of London (?1693), from the Haughton Library at Harvard.

I came across this broadsheet when looking for an image for the cover of my book. You’ll note that although it doesn’t have dialogue in balloons, it does tell a sequential story through pictorial panels with accompanying in-panel text.

Detail of panels from The Young-Mans Victory Over the Povver of the Devil Or Strange and VVonderful News from the City of London (?1693).

My favourite panel (and the one that ended up on my book cover) is that which shows the devil trying to tempt the ‘Young-Man’ with ‘Bag of Gold and silver’. It makes literal the age-old association between ‘gold’ (i.e. riches) and ‘temptation’ (i.e. sin and damnation), neatly encapsulating one of my arguments: traditional Christian moral codes continued to be a popular way to think about economic life at the end of the seventeenth century.

So, is this an early modern comic strip?