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2012 November Pierre Belon

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‘Considering the Nature of Birds’

L’histoire de la nature des oyseaux, avec leurs descriptions, & naïfs portraicts retirez du naturel (The Natural History of Birds, with their Descriptions, & Natural Portraits taken from Life) is a single-volume work written by Pierre Belon and printed by Guillaume Cavellat of Paris in 1555. The author was born at Soultière near Le Mans in 1517. Trained as an apothecary, Belon had had little formal university education, apart from a short period studying at the University of Wittenberg under the botanist Valerius Cordus, before he took a degree in medicine at Paris in his early forties. His career owed much to ecclesiastical patronage: initially that of the Bishop of Le Mans, and later thatof the influential Cardinal of Tournon.


Although he published works on fish and plants as well as on birds, Belon’s interests extended beyond natural history. By 1546, he had travelled extensively in Italy and Germany as well as journeying through Flanders and England. In that year, he accompanied the French ambassador to the court of the Ottoman Sultan at Constantinople, ostensibly to collect botanical material for medical purposes. His travels took him through much of the Levant and inspired a volume detailing his impressions of the people and sights as well as the flora and fauna of the countries he visited: Les observations de plusiers singularités et choses mémorables trouvées en Grèce, Judée, Egypte (Paris, 1553). He was involved in the attempts of the French government to form an alliance with German Lutherans in opposition to Emperor Charles V, partly due to his fluency in their language. Belon’s activities, scientific and otherwise, came to an abrupt end when he was attacked and murdered while collecting specimens in the Bois de Boulogne in the spring of either 1564 or 1565.

The Histoire des Oyseaux is dedicated to the reigning French king, Henry II. Belon, with one eye to ensuring his future remuneration, is careful to call attention to the wisdom and generosity of Alexander the Great in funding the scientific investigations of his teacher, Aristotle. The volume is divided into seven books. The first of these discusses aspects of avian biology and anatomy in general terms, while the following six contain accounts of individual types of bird, roughly ordered according to appearance and habits: birds of prey; river birds with ‘flat’ (i.e. webbed) feet; river birds without flat feet; ground-nesting birds of the countryside; birds of varying habitat; and, finally, little birds that live in bushes and copses.


Not as popular in its own time as other ornithological works, especially the third volume of Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium (also published in 1555), the Histoire des oyseaux is usually mentioned by historians of natural philosophy on account of its illustrations of a human and an avian skeleton. These, and the accompanying chapters in which Belon discusses the similarities and differences between humans, birds, and other animals, have led some to deem him the founder of comparative anatomy. In truth, Belon’s treatment of this subject comprises a relatively small portion of the volume as a whole. Nonetheless, this pair of images (in which the femurs of the human skeleton are unusually short, the better perhaps to mirror the proportions of the bird) with their detailed legend were the first of their kind. Belon devotes a significant section of this first book to avian reproduction, with observations based on his own anatomical experiments. Unfortunately, he did not include any drawings of these exercises in dissection. Although he extended his discussion of homology between humans, beasts, and avians to the matter of generation, the role of the egg in this is limited to the birds, fish, and reptiles. The idea that the human embryo developed from a fertilized ovum and the final rejection of the Galenic concept of male and female semen were still some three centuries away.

Belon’s principal aim was to replace chaos and confusion with clarity and order. A prerequisite for improving human knowledge of individual birds was to make definitive identifications of those mentioned by classical authors, particularly Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, and to provide nomenclature for those unknown to the Ancients. In this etymological endeavour, Belon was very much of his time: a natural historian of the Renaissance. He admits the difficulty involved: attempting to reconcile birds known by French names with those described in the Latin and Greek sources is, he writes, akin to the process of a blind man seeking to divine numbers and images by touch. Even general terminology is problematic: there is no French equivalent, he laments, for the Latin pipire (the cry of the newly-hatched chick). There were doubts at the time regarding Belon’s qualifications to take on this task. His worth as a classical scholar was a subject of derision among some of his Parisian contemporaries, and it is true that Belon’s qualifications did not compare to those of the two towering figures of sixteenth-century natural history: Gesner, who had degrees from Strasbourg, Basel, and Paris, and Ulisse Aldrovandi, the Bologna professor. Belon’s critics did have a point, as his handling of Greek in particular is relatively slapdash. The very fact that the Histoire des Oyseaux was written in French without having previously been published in Latin is unusual. It could however be as much the result of a deliberate attempt to promote the vernacular as a language of learning as any reflection on Belon’s ability to write in Latin. In any case, the accusation that he could not read two lines of Pliny or any other ancient writer without assistance must have been something of an exaggeration. Furthermore, this disapprobation was by no means universal: Belon was respected by many of his peers as a naturalist if not as a classicist.Belon-4

The most immediately striking aspect of Belon’s work is its bird illustrations. These are copious (157scattered among the final six books), quite large, and beautifully detailed. As suggested by the title, most do indeed appear to have been drawn from life, rather than from dead specimens or copied from existing woodcuts. There is in this book no portrait, Belon declares in the [introduction], of any bird that had not been ‘before the eyes of the painters’. In fact, he adds in a sideswipe at his contemporaries, he has left some birds without images, as he did not want them painted unseen, ‘as some modern [writers] have done with animals’. The illustrations were not the work of Belon himself, but of a number of artists, most of them anonymous; only one, Pierre Goudet, is acknowledged by name in the preface. Belon appears to have commissioned his portraits directly from the artists and his influence can be seen in their unity of style. Although Gesner too employed his own illustrators, he collected images from numerous additional sources and included them all, often more than one for each creature.

The vast majority of the portraits are of birds in a standing position; a few, such as the eared owl and the great swallow, are shown in flight. A number of the aquatic birds are displayed on the water, the motion of their feet always clearly visible. Many are depicted with their prey: the wagtail with an insect in its beak and the heron having captured a lizard. Belon’s buzzard and vulture both grasp unfortunate rabbits in their claws, and a kestrel feasts on a large snake, the tail of which is wound round the bird’s own. The human world makes only occasional appearances, such as the falconers of Book One and the ship passing in the distance behind the spoonbill of Brittany.

Belon was among those natural historians who benefited from the practice of bird-keeping in the sixteenth century. This practice was particularly valuable at the time in that it allowed for close observation that would otherwise have been impossible, given the absence of binoculars. Of course, one still had to observe the behaviour of birds in the wild and to this end this Belon added to the existing, written accounts not only the evidence of his own eyes but also the reports of others, including the ordinary inhabitants of the countryside.


One aspect of ornithology that greatly puzzled both Belon’s forerunners and his contemporaries, and regarding which misconceptions persisted until fairly recently, was that of migration. Although both Aristotle and Pliny had discussed this phenomenon, and Europeans of the sixteenth century were well aware that certain birds were absent for periods of the year, the precise details and patterns of avian migration were unknown. Swallows were popularly believed to hibernate in marshes and a work of 1703 even proposed that they flew in winter to the moon. This extraordinary theory ran counter to a more general belief: that although larger birds might well make long, even intercontinental journeys, smaller creatures such as the swallow could not possibly have the strength for such an undertaking. Belon does not entertain the possibility of hibernation or any of the more fantastic theories such as transmutation. Instead, he confidently states that the swallow and other migratory birds use the winds to assist them in their annual journey from Europe to Africa.

As mentioned above, Belon’s work did not enjoy the success of that of his contemporary, Gesner, although Belon was in many ways the better zoologist. William Ashworth (1990)has suggested that Belon’s more practical and biologically based approach was at odds with the expectations and norms of his public. This public, Ashworth believes, held an ‘emblematic world view’, meaning that readers demanded even in their natural histories a profusion of symbolism, hidden meanings, and fables; a requirement that Gesner fulfilled with aplomb. This is not to say, however, that elements of this ‘emblematic’ approach are entirely absent from the Histoire des oyseaux. In his description of the swallow, for example, Belon employs the very unlikelihood of the bird’s migration in order to teach a moral lesson: ‘Who would believe that the swallows and other little birds, which remain in Europe in summer only, could build their nests so quickly and with such great industry? There is no man who could not be incited to his duty by the example of the diligence of birds of passage, which in under three days and three nights travel from Europe to Africa’.


Belon also confirms the annual migration of another common French bird, the stork. Like the swallow, Aristotle believed that the stork hibernated, although, as a much larger bird, its intercontinental migration may not have seemed as unbelievable to early modern Europeans. Again, like the swallow, the stork serves as a mirror for human behaviour. Its traditional use was as a symbol of gratitude: the parents are assiduous in the rearing of their young, who in turn feed and care for their elderly parents. In this case, Belon’s observations are used to support popular allegorical ideas.

The stork is among the birds chosen to be pictured with its food, possibly in order to highlight the shape and use of its bill.  However, Belon, like other naturalists of his time, is not concerned simply with the eating habits of the birds themselves. The role these creatures play in the human diet is a frequent theme. The stork, we are told, was for a long time ignored in this regard, whereas the crane was considered a delicacy. Now, however, storks are considered a meat of kings. In fact, Belon indulges in a lengthy discussion in Book One of the dietary customs of various peoples, very little of which refers specifically to birds. This odd digression encompasses Jewish and Turkish food laws and table manners as well as those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Belon also provides a little taste of French superiority in matters gastronomic. One long section is devoted to a list of almost two hundred dishes, ranging from confit of cucumber to venison with turnips, from peacock to white wine tart. These are taken, writes Belon, from a little book on how to prepare a banquet: ‘For our part, we do not think that other nations in their own languages come anywhere near the French in their ability to put names on dishes’. In fact, the manner of serving French princes at a banquet, in Belon’s opinion, exceeds all others in its honesty and well-ordered ceremonies.

Birds, those caught in the wild as well as the traditional farmyard birds, formed a significant part of the early modern European diet. These were supplemented by imported species, one of the more successful of which is included among Belon’s ‘flat-footed’ birds. This he calls the grosse Cane de la Guinee, saying that it is a type of duck only recently introduced to France (Belon is vague as to its origin) but now raised in large numbers throughout the land. The illustration, however, shows neither a guinea fowl nor any other native of Africa, but rather a Muscovy duck. This bird had been brought to Europe from the Americas, where it had been domesticated by the indigenous populations, and, crossed with the Pekin duck, was to become one of the principal breeds used in the production of paté de foie gras.


It was not Belon’s purpose in writing the Histoire to provide an instructional manual of falconry. Nonetheless, he devotes a separate chapter to the subject, quite apart from those detailing the individual birds of prey. He includes two illustrations relating to the practice: the first, shown above, is of the gyrfalcon: a bird generally reserved for the amusement of royalty. It is perched on the arm of a comical-looking falconer, from whose nose dangles an insect. The second (below) is a more general scene depicting the use of a lure and displays, for this book, an unusually haphazard approach to proportion.


Some of those who attacked Belon’s proficiency in the classical languages went so far as to accuse him of outright plagiarism. These charges were repeated into the following centuries and centred on the work of Pierre Gilles, a classical scholar who had also been part of the diplomatic mission to Constantinople. Gilles died the same year that the Histoire was published, and Belon was accused of having stolen his notes and reproducing them as his own. This theory is now considered to have little basis in reality (Glardon, 1997) but Belon, in common with his peers, saw nothing unscholarly in lifiting large sections of printed works and inserting them in his own books. This is especially visible in his treatment of falconry, in which he drew on a number of existing guides to this recreation of the nobility.


The peacock, imported from Asia, also served primarily as an amusement for the rich. For some time, it had been a feature of the noble and royal residences of Europe, including those of the French kings. It was also a popular dish at banquets, often served in its own plumage, but was about to become passé and be replaced by another novelty from the New World: the turkey. Belon includes a chapter on each bird, but the illustration of the peacock is by far the more impressive. The accompanying text contains Belon’s usual mixture of etymology and physical description, with a brief mention of the peacock as a symbol of pride and a few remarks on the practicalities of keeping the birds: it is difficult, he warns, to rear young peacocks except in summer.

Like the peacock, the denizens of renaissance Europe saw the nightingale as a provider of entertainment; in this case, aural rather than visual. Unlike the peacock, however, the pleasure given by the nightingale was available to both rich and poor. Its song was both a trope of mediaeval literature and a long-established element of music theory. Belon grants the nightingale first place in the final book (as the ‘most noble of all the little birds’) and engages in an intricate and technical description of its voice. This account, however, is not the result of long hours spent listening to a captive nightingale, but rather a close adaptation of Pliny. On the other hand, much of Belon’s description of the bird’s habits (nesting, breeding, moulting and so on) was probably drawn from personal observation. There is also evidence of a willingness to use second-hand information, in this case, peasant wisdom. There is a forest, writes Belon, where the nightingales retreat in summer to find water when all of the ponds elsewhere have dried up. The small farmers know this and can each capture up to twenty per day; a number that amazes the author.


Although, as mentioned above, Belon’s birds are grouped into six books, this is really the extent of his scheme of classification. Its simplicity is far removed from modern taxonomy with its complex divisions and subdivisions of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. The 1676 Ornithologiæ of Francis Willughby and John Ray is generally seen as the first truly scientific classification of birds; a development complicated by attempts to cope with ever-increasing numbers of newly-discovered species. Belon’s approach, like that of his immediate contemporaries, was primarily based on appearance as well as more nebulous and, as seen in the case of the nightingale, anthropomorphic qualities such as ‘nobility’. It was classical in origin, owing much to Pliny, who in turn drew from Aristotle. Belon admits that he does not know exactly how many varieties of bird exist but is certain that they can number no more than three hundred, and has no patience with those who claim otherwise. He lays down the law in this regard, and his scornful metaphor is as unfortunately chosen to the modern eye as is his underestimation of the number of species. ‘To say that the types of bird run into thousands’, writes Belon, ‘would be like saying that there are many worlds, each with its own sun and moon’. This is not to say that, having separated birds into six groups, Belon neglected to draw comparisons between individual birds within these divisions. Usually beginning with the largest bird in each book (again, following Pliny), he tends to proceed through his categories using a rough scheme of outward affinity. From the nightingale, for example, he moves through the songbirds, including various types of warbler, and onto the wren, remarking on their relative size and colour.


One side of Belon’s attitude toward myth and fable can be seen in his treatment of the wren. Enmities among birds are presented as fact, including the unlikely idea that the wren, despite its diminutive size, is the enemy of the owl and of the eagle. He makes no comment on the legend from which it derives its French name, roytelet or little king, in which the wren wins a race to decide the king of the birds by hitching a ride on the eagle’s back. Instead, he simply states that this is Aristotle’s explanation. In a similar manner, despite three brief allusions to the story of the wren helping to bring fire from heaven (the owl, having refused to donate one of its feathers to the badly-scorched wren, had its once beautiful plumage dulled as punishment), Belon does not bother to recount it. This brevity could well be due to a reluctance to repeat well-known information rather than a disregard for the ‘emblematic’. The legend of the wren and the eagle was included in the editions of Aesop’s fables that were being printed in Paris and elsewhere at the time, while the position of the little bird in French popular religion can be seen in the custom of hunting the wren at specific times of the year, similar to that practised in Ireland.

Although Belon makes no explicit judgement regarding the veracity of these tales, the role of God in nature was central to his own world view. He held strong religious convictions in a time of deep division and conflict in France. Outspoken in his opposition to what he considered heresy, there has been speculation that he was in fact assassinated due to his undisguised dislike of the Huguenots. For Belon, as for his contemporaries, the apparently effortless order and precision to be found among wild creatures was proof of God’s perfect design. When discussing the breeding habits of birds, he points out that, once they have produced their young in the springtime, they refrain from copulating ‘pour leur amour’ for the rest of the year. Belon continues: ‘it would be difficult to find a better example of the providence of nature and the wisdom of the all-powerful lord creator than by considering the nature of birds’. The principal purpose of observing animals and plants, he writes elsewhere, is to honour God by contemplating his infinite power.


Although Belon does not always explicitly reject popular superstitions and ancient myths regarding avian behaviour, some ideas are simply too outlandish to be passed over without comment. Having studied the reproductive processes of birds through dissection and close examination, he dismisses with disdain the widely-accepted belief that the barnacle goose hatches, not from an egg laid by the female, but underwater from the crustaceans that give it its English name. The idea that the Nightjar feeds by sucking milk from the teats of goats (the origin of its Latin name, caprimulgus), on the other hand, is simply described as a ‘strange thing’ recounted by Aristotle. Belon’s discussion of this latter bird provides us with a further insight into his resourcefulness and the co-operative nature of his enterprise, acknowledging as he does the assistance of a gentleman of Anjou, thanks to whom he has obtained the birds from which the portraits have been made.


Belon declares in the dedication to Henry II that he will include no false description, and no portrait of an imaginary bird or any other thing that is not found in nature. Mythical creatures such as the griffin and the Stymphalian birds are cursorily dealt with in a single chapter, ‘On numerous unknown birds’. The only fantastical bird to be awarded its own entry is the phoenix, placed at the end of Book Six. Why did Belon make this exception? Although there may have been disagreement surrounding the various legends regarding its behaviour, he believed that there was proof that such a bird existed. This was to be found in the lifeless specimens of birds of paradise which had begun to appear in Europe, brought by sailors returning from the Spice Islands and considered by many to be the phoenix. The feet of the carcasses were removed before transport as a means of preservation, which led to a belief that the living bird did not possess these appendages. Although no portrait of the ‘phoenix’ appears in this work, Belon’s Portraits d’oyseaux […], a largely pictorial work of 1557, includes under that label an image of an obviously dead bird of paradise, with long, spreading feathers and no visible feet. This is a copy of an illustration from Gesner’s Historia animalium, although here it is simply a bird of paradise (Paradyßvogel). A version of the same portrait would appear half a century later alongside other birds of paradise in Aldrovandi’s Ornithologiae.

It is not quite correct, however, to say that the phoenix is the only ‘non-bird’ in the Histoire des Oyseaux. The modern reader is treated to something of a surprise at the end of Book One, following Belon’s description of owls and other birds of the night.


The sourichauve (‘bald mouse’) had a long tradition of falling between two camps. Aesop’s bat, in a war between the birds and the beasts, refused to join either army with the result that both groups refused to allow it to join their peace celebrations. This friendless curiosity was, however generally considered a bird and Belon, despite listing its unbirdlike qualities, was sufficiently convinced by its possession of wings and its ability to fly to agree with the consensus.

Not only was Belon a man of the Renaissance, it has been suggested that he may have been the first to use the French word, renaissance, to describe in print the rebirth of classical learning. Nonetheless, his learned contemporaries deemed his classical background wanting, while his work on birds may have been too light on myth, adage, and symbolism to fully appeal to his market. It is true that his close studies of both living and dead specimens make this a relatively ‘modern’ book. On the other hand, it still retains a substantial ‘emblematic’ element and employs a system of classification not too far removed from that of the ancient authors. Belon might therefore be seen to fall between between two eras in the history of ornithology. In some ways, he may have been too ‘scientific’ for his own time, only to be overtaken in this respect by the advances of the seventeenth century. The Histoire des Oyseaux nonetheless remains both a beautiful object – by virtue of its illustrations – and an insight into the means by which an enterprising and observant Frenchman sought to make sense of the natural world during a time of disorder and uncertainty in his own country and elsewhere.


Selected sources:

Ken Albala, Food in Early Modern Europe (Connecticut and London, 2003).

William Ashworth, ‘Natural history and the emblematic world view’, inDavid C. Lindberg and Robert S. Westman (eds.), Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, 1990), 303-332.

Barbara G. Beddall, ‘Historical Notes on Avian Classification’, Systematic Biology 6.3 (October 2012), 129-136.

T. R. Birkhead and S. van Balen, ‘Birdkeepingand the development of ornithological science’, Archives of Natural History 35.2 (2008), 281-305.

Isabelle Charmantier, T. R. Birkhead, and Mark Greengrass, ‘Re-writing Renaissance Ornithology: J.B. Faultrier’s Traitté general des oyseaux (1660)’, Archives of Natural History 35.2, 2008, 319-338.

Philippe Glardon, Introduction and notes to the facsimile edition of Pierre Belon’s Histoire de la Nature des Oyseaux (Geneva, 1997).

Thomas P. Harrison, ‘Bird of Paradise: Phoenix Redivivus’, in Isis51.2 (June 1960), 173-180.

George Huppert, ‘Antiquity Observed: A French Naturalist in the Aegean Sea in 1547’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 2.2 (1995), 275-283.

Idem., The Style of Paris: Renaissance Origins of the French Enlightenment (Bloomington In., 1999)

Shephard Krech, Spirits of the Air: Birds and American Indians in the South (Athens Ga., 2009)

Erwin Stresemann, Ornithology, from Aristotle to the present (Cambridge Ma. and London, 1975)

Ilana Zinguer, ‘Narration et témoignage dans les Observations… de Pierre Belon (1553)’, Nouvelle Revue du XVIe Siècle 5 (1987), 25-40.

History Comes to Life: Seventeenth-Century Natural History, Medicine and the ‘New Science’. Conference held at the Royal Society 27th April 2012. Session 2: ‘The Wisdom of Birds. Seventeenth-century Ornithology’, papers by Isabelle Charmantier and Tim Birkhead available as mp3 recordings


Text: Dr Jennifer Smyth (TCD).

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