Peacock
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Source: Koninklijke Bibliotheek - Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Copyright 2002 Koninklijke Bibliotheek / Used by permission Manuscript description Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 97v


 

Peacock

Latin name: Pavo

Other names: Paon

A bird with a terrible voice and flesh too hard to cook

 

 
General Attributes

The flesh of the peacock is so hard that it does not rot, and can hardly be cooked in fire or digested by the liver. Its voice is terrible, causing fear in the listener when the bird unexpectedly begins to cry out. Its head is like a snake, its breast is saphire colored, it has red feathers in its wings, and has a long green tail adorned with eyes. If it receives praise for its beauty, it raises its tail, leaving its rear parts bare. When it suddenly awakes it cries out, because it thinks its beauty has been lost. It is a bird with great foresight. Its feet are very ugly, so the peacock refuses to fly high in order to keep its feet hidden.


Allegory/Moral

The hard flesh of the peacock represents the minds of teachers, who remain unaffected by the flames of lust. The fearful voice of the peacock is like the voice of the preacher who warns sinners of their end in hell. The "eyes" on the peacock's tail are to signify the ability of the teachers to foresee the danger we all face in the end. The raising of the peacock's tail when it is praised should remind us to not let pride from praise affect us, so we do not expose our ugly vanity.

The Aberdeen Bestiary, following a biblical quote saying that Solomon sent expeditions to bring back peacocks, has a two page sermon on the allegorical meaning of this theme.


Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 22-23): The peacock is concious of its own beauty and takes pride in it. When praised, it spreads out its feathers to face the sun, so they shine more brilliantly, and curves its tail to throw shadows on its body, because the colors there shine more brightly in the dark. It is pleased when others look at the eyes on its tail feathers; it pulls them all together in a cluster for this purpose. When the peacock's tail feathers drop out during the fall moult, it is ashamed and hides itself until new feathers grow in. Peacocks live for 25 years, but their colors begin to fade at the age of three. Some say that this bird is spiteful as well as ostentatious. The orator Hotensius was the first person to kill a peacock for use as food; later Lurco made great profits in the fattening and sale of peacocks for the table.

Martial (Epigrams, xiii, 70) "You are lost in admiration, whenever it spreads its jewelled wings; can you consign it, hard-hearted woman, to the unfeeling cook?"

Augustine [5th century CE] (City of God, Book 21, chapter 4): For who but God the Creator of all things has given to the flesh of the peacock its antiseptic property? This property, when I first heard of it, seemed to me incredible; but it happened at Carthage that a bird of this kind was cooked and served up to me, and, taking a suitable slice of flesh from its breast, I ordered it to be kept, and when it had been kept as many days as make any other flesh stinking, it was produced and set before me, and emitted no offensive smell. And after it had been laid by for thirty days and more, it was still in the same state; and a year after, the same still, except that it was a little more shrivelled, and drier.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:48): The peacock (pavo) takes its name from the sound of its voice. Its flesh is so hard that it barely decays and is difficult to cook.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): The peacock hath an unsteadfast and evil shapen head, as it were the head of a serpent, and with a crest. And he hath a simple pace, and small neck and areared, and a blue breast, and a tail full of eyes distinguished and high with wonder fairness, and he hath foulest feet and rivelled. And he wondereth of the fairness of his feathers, and areareth them up as it were a circle about his head, and then he looketh to his feet, and seeth the foulness of his feet, and like as he were ashamed he letteth his feathers fall suddenly, and all the tail downward, as though he took no heed of the fairness of his feathers. And as one saith, he hath the voice of a fiend, head of a serpent, pace of a thief. For he hath an horrible voice. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


Illustration

The peacock is usually illustrated as a colorful bird, seen from the side; the long, spotted tail and the head crest are emphasized. In a few manuscripts the peacock is shown head on, with its tail spread. In British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii (f. 125r) a peacock and a peahen are shown facing each other; the peacock has "eye" spots on its tail, the peahen does not.


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