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Source: British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 39r



Latin name: Grus

Other names: Grue

At night cranes take turns keeping watch for enemies


General Attributes

Cranes fly in order, with the leader guiding the flock with a shrill voice; when the leader becomes tired or his voice gives out, another takes his place. They fly high in the air so they can see the lands they seek. At night cranes take turns keeping watch for enemies. The one who is on duty holds a stone up with one claw; if the watcher falls asleep the stone will fall and wake him. If the wind is strong cranes swallow sand or carry stones for ballast. Cranes are the enemy of pygmies, with whom they are constantly at war.


The sentinel cranes represent those who provide goods for others in common, and watch over the obedience of their brothers, protecting them from devils and the incursions of this world. The stone held in the claw is Christ; the claw, the disposition of the mind, so that the one who stands guard over himself or others should carry the stone of Christ in his mind. If such a man falls asleep in sin, Christ the stone will fall from his mind. Then he must cry out by means of confession. The change of color in old age refers to the elderly when they repent of their sins.

Sources (chronological order)

Lucan [1st century CE] (Pharsalia, book 7, verse 975-976): "Cranes who yearly change / The frosts of Thracia for the banks of Nile...".

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 30): Cranes are continuously at war with the race of Pygmies; hostilities cease only when the cranes leave. Cranes travel large distances from the eastern sea. They start their journey at a time agreed to by all, fly at a great height so they can see their route, choose one of the flock as a leader to follow, and post some of their number at the end of the line to shout orders and keep the others together. When they rest at night they have sentries who hold a stone in their claw; if a sentry begins to fall asleep the stome falls and wakes him. All the other birds sleep with their head under their wing, except for the leader, who keeps watch. Before cranes fly across the Black Sea they ballast themselves with sand; when they reach the middle of the sea they drop the pebbles from their claws, and when they reach shore they remove the sand from their throats. (Book 10, 31): There is a place in Asia called Pythonos Comen with wide plains where cranes meet in assembly; the last one to arrive is attacked with claws. (Book 10, 42): Cranes grow black in old age.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:14-15): Cranes (grues) take their name from the murmuring sound they make. When they are travelling somewhere they follow the letters of the alphabet. They fly at great altitude so they can see the lands they seek. The leader in flight maintains the line of birds with its voice; when it grows hoarse another bird takes its place. At night they take turns acting as guard; the one on duty holds a small stone in its claws to hold off sleep, and cries out at anything to be feared. Their age is revealed by their color, because the darken as they grow old.

St Antony of Padua [12th-13th century CE] (Sermons): Merciful men compared to cranes. Let us, therefore, be merciful, and imitate the cranes, who, when they set off for their appointed place, fly up to some lofty eminence, in order that they may obtain a view of the lands which they are going to pass. The leader of the band goes before them, chastises those that fly too slowly, and keeps together the troop by his cry. As soon as he becomes hoarse, another takes his place; and all have the same care for those that are weary; so that if any one is unable to fly, the rest gather together, and bear him up till he recovers his strength. Nor do they take less care of each other when they are on the ground. They divide the night into watches, so that there may be a diligent care over all. Those that watch hold a weight in one of their claws, so that, if they happen to sleep, it falls on the ground and makes a noise, and thus convicts them of somnolency. Let us, therefore, be merciful as the cranes; that, placing ourselves on a lofty watch-tower in this life, we may look out both for ourselves and for others, may lead those that are ignorant of the way, and may chastise the slothful and negligent by our exhortations. Let us succeed alternately to labour. Let us carry the weak and infirm, that they faint not in the way. In the watches of the night, let us keep vigil to the Lord, by prayer and contemplation. (MediŠval preachers and mediŠval preaching: A series of extracts, translated from the sermons of the middle ages, chronologically arranged; with notes and an introduction (London, 1856) Neale translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): The crane is a bird of great wings and strong flight, and flieth high into the air to see the countries towards the which he will draw. And is a bird that loveth birds of his own kind, and they living in company together have a king among them and fly in order. And the leader of the company compelleth the company to fly aright, crying as it were blaming with his voice. And if it hap that he wax hoarse, then another crane cometh after him, and taketh the same office. And after they fall to the earth crying, for to rest, and when they sit on the ground, to keep and save them, they ordain watches that they may rest the more surely, and the wakers stand upon one foot, and each of them holdeth a little stone in the other foot, high from the earth, that they may be waked by falling of the stone, if it hap that they sleep. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


Illustrations of cranes usually show them with a characteristic red cap. The scene of the crane standing guard with a stone in its claw is the one most commonly illustrated; the war of the cranes and the pygmies is occasionally shown.

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