When most of us think of companion animals, a dog or cat probably is the first animal to come to mind. What few people realize is just how recently our canine and feline obsession really is, dating back only about three hundred years or so. In the middle ages, nearly all the animals in our lives were kept for practical reasons. Medieval Europeans distrusted cats as agents of Satan. Dogs were raised for specific jobs such as herding, guarding, vermin control (the terriers in particular were bred to kill rats and mice), hunting, and even transportation in icy and mountainous regions. Horses were transportation. Oxen pulled plows and were slaughtered for food. Chickens provided eggs and meat. Sheep were shorn for wool and slaughtered as veal or mutton. Even birds of prey served humans as hunting companions.
But three orders of birds were raised primarily for their companionship qualities: Passeriformes (includes sparrows, canaries, and finches), Columbiformes (pigeons and doves), and Psittaciformes (parrots). These were the primary “pets” of the Middle Ages and Renaissance adored by all levels of society — from the poorest to the richest, and royal down to the poorest peasant.
Birds served many companionship functions in medieval life. Among the most humble in society, the family bird kept women in the household company while engaging in the labor-intensive needs of the home. Whether it was spinning, weaving, cooking, laundry, or cleaning — the family bird broke up boredom by providing beauty, song, and social interaction.
Nobles too kept birds, especially parrots (called “popinjays” before 1500). Noble women and noble men kept birds for very different reasons which are perhaps somewhat predictable. For the men, exotic species of birds were prestige animals through which to display wealth and power. Every royal and every noble man wanted the most rare and most expensive parrot, finch, or pigeon/dove that money and aviculture could produce. By contrast, their wives and daughters kept and demanded these birds for their species-specific social and verbal abilities.
In between, the emerging bourgeoisie pursued parrot aviculture as a means of improving and displaying social standing and wealth. As trade and crafts people flourished in cities, so did their need to show poor and very rich alike that they themselves had risen above poverty; possessing parrots served that function quite nicely, particularly as the dietary and shelter needs of the parrot species kept (in Europe, the available parrots were all from genus Psittacula, aka Asian parakeets, birds adapted to Asian rain forests) required consistent warmth and access to fresh foods and grains.
Medieval Europeans raised four species of Psittacula parakeets before 1500: the African ringneck parakeet (Psittacula krameri krameri), the Indian ringneck parakeet (Psittacula krameri manillensis), the plum-headed parakeet (Psittacula cyanocephala) and the Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria). The highest echelons of society had access to African grey parrots (Congo and Timneh subspecies). England’s Henry VIII notoriously kept an African grey.
But the rarest parrot of the European Middle Ages belonged to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (von Hohenstaufen). In 1229, this noted lover of falconry received as a gift a rare bird indeed — at least to Europeans: a white cockatoo from genus Cacatua. Many believe the bird was an umbrella cockatoo, but my reading of Frederick’s “De Arte Venandi cum Avibus” (Art of Falconry) leads to a different conclusion. Nowhere does Frederick provide any detail regarding his cockatoo that applies only to the umbrella cockatoo; details like white and having yellow under the wings applies to nearly all members of that genus. He does not even tell us if the bird had a recursive (curling away from the head) or a recumbent (crest laying flat against the head) crest nor are the illuminations in the book particularly detailed in that respect. So while many believe his cockatoo was an umbrella cockatoo, I don’t see enough in primary sources to identify exactly what kind of white cockatoo it was.
The story of companion birds in our lives is long and deeply entwined with our own histories, shaping our world in subtle ways few people understand. Yet these beautiful and special birds have, indeed, been part of our lives for millennia in symbiosis with us. For our fates and fortunes are deeply intertwined with theirs; when they suffer, so do we.
This story of birds in the middle ages has just began. But one thing is certain: we must stop poaching them from the wild, destroying their habitats, and mistreating them in our homes. Only then may we all find peace and harmony.