A couple years ago, I thought I’d closed the book on Charlemagne, but current events will forever conspire to take me back to dear old Francia—like this story from today’s New York Times:
New Year’s Surprise: 4,000 Dead Blackbirds
Times Square had the ball drop, and Brasstown, N.C., had its descending possum. But no place had aas unusual — and downright disturbing — as Beebe, Ark.
About 10 p.m. Friday, thousands of red-winged blackbirds began falling out of the sky over this town about 35 miles northeast of Little Rock. They landed on roofs, roads, front lawns and backyards, turning the ground nearly black and scaring anyone who happened to be outside.
“One of them almost hit my best friend in the head,” said Christy Stephens, who was standing outside among the smoking crowd at a New Year’s Eve party. “We went inside after that.”
Noting that there’s nothing new under the Arkansas sun, Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard points out that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions a massive avian death-fest in A.D. 671. He’s right—but let’s also not forget Theodulf of Orleans and his very odd poem, “The Battle of the Birds.”
Readers of this blog know Theodulf as a witty poet who served as bishop of Orleans during the reign of Charlemagne. In his later years, the old Goth was implicated in a plot against Louis the Pious, and he spent his exile pleading his innocence and composing a lengthy poetic epistle to Moduin, bishop of Autun. In what appears to be a murky personal and political allegory (Dümmler, MGH Poetae I, 563-569), Theodulf dwells first on a weird story about a dry river and then spins two yarns about flocks of birds that clash like ancient armies.
In verse rich with allusions to classical warfare, Theodulf describes the birds dispatching envoys back and forth and then rushing to slaughter each other like Romans and Phoenicians. Here’s what Theodulf claims an eyewitness, Gerard, told his informant, Pascasius, about the aftermath:
Glans cadit autumno veluti de stipite querna,
Maturum et folium iam veniente gelu,
Non aliter avium moriens exercitus illic
Decidit et magna strage replevit humum.
Nam teres aestivis impletur ut area granis,
Campus ita extincta sic ave plenus erat.
A borea in boream veniens pars parva reversa est;
Tota in utraque cohors parte perempta iacet.
Res sonat ista, venit populus factumque stupescunt,
Mirantur variae membra iacentis avis.
Ipse Tolosana praesul quoque venit ab urbe
Mancio; plebs rogat, haec ales an esca fiat.
“Inlictis spretis, licitas adsumite,” dixit.
Plaustra onerant avibus, in sua quisque redit.
(Here’s my own quick translation)
As autumn acorns drop from oaken branch
And old leaves yield before the coming frost,
In no contrary way that troop of birds
Did fall, and such great slaughter filled the earth.
Like summer grain on polished threshing floors,
The battlefield was strewn with slaughtered birds.
A few that flew from north were northward turned;
On either side, a cohort lay, all dead.
The word went out. The folk drew round, amazed,
And marveled where lay limbs of different birds;
The bishop of Toulouse came from the town.
“Are wingéd omens edible?” they asked.
“Leave what’s proscribed, take what’s allowed,” said he.
Their wagons packed with birds, they headed home.
There’s no evidence that Theodulf’s third-hand anecdote was based in reality, nor is it the source for the pseudo-Charlemagnian quip, “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky.” Alas, in this case, medieval precedent isn’t very instructive. My only hope is that the good people of Beebe, Arkansas, will seek advice from someone other than their local bishop when they ponder the edibility of creatures that plummet en masse from the sky.