Wandering among Words No 2: Corvid
You will often find them if you glance above you in a medieval church, high up on nave or chancel walls. Corbels are those stone brackets that project from the wall; they were designed to support a cornice, or more often the springing of an arch that rises like a slender tree trunk, curving and sprouting liernes to join other stone ribs so as to form a tracery of slender branches, supporting in their turn the distant vault.
They’re the counterpart of the capitals on freestanding pillars, those stone approximations of mighty trees; the capitals are sometimes plain (like Doric capitals) or abstract (like the ‘eyes’ on Ionic capitals) or even representational (as with the foliage on Corinthian capitals). Romanesque masons had fun carving shapes out of them: amongst them we might observe a grotesque face or an acrobatic exhibitionist, a shiela-na-gig or an angel, maybe even a foliate head or Green Man.
The name however comes via French (corbeau means crow) from the Latin corvellus, a little raven. Supposedly the corbel’s shape resembles a crow, raven or even a beak, but I don’t see it myself; and in a quick scan of my books on Romanesque sculpture and online I’ve come across precious few beaked carvings (Kilpeck church in Herefordshire has one such, a splendid beaked monster).
Be that as it may, the Latin corvus has supplied the collective term for the crow family: corvid. In Britain this family is represented by the raven, the carrion crow, the rook, the chough and the jackdaw — all predominantly black — while the magpie and the jay each have a more motley plumage. All have fascinating stories to tell.
In the Scottish ballad ‘The Twa Corbies’ (Graves 1957) two crows discuss their next meal, a slain knight: one will sit on his neck bone while the other will ‘pike out his bonny blue een’, and later they’ll line their nest with ‘one lock of his golden hair’. Not for nothing are the most common crows in Britain called ‘carrion crows’: you’ll often find one or two of them worrying away at some roadkill. At a distance it’s easy to mistake rooks for crows, but rooks are more sociable (collective nouns for rooks include a building, clamour, parliament and a storytelling of rooks, while the most familiar company of their cousins is called, significantly, a murder of crows). Mark Crocker tells us that the Scottish word for a rook is ‘craa’, a fine example of onomatopoeia as it pretty well matches the harsh call of the bird, much closer than the more conventional caw that’s usually suggested for both corvids. Old English hroc also approximates better than the more mellifluous Modern English ‘rook’.
Rooks are often found in company with jackdaws which, as well as being smaller, have a distinctive greyish hood. Where the rook has its rookery the jackdaw may well join in, but jackdaws are often found in or around churches (for example St Davids Cathedral in West Wales has its associated colony) and we’re not unfamiliar with the raucous sound of jackdaws circling in companionable flocks before retiring to roost in the nearby churchyard’s magnificent copper beech. Their most familiar call is often transliterated as tchac! which I always assumed gave us the first element of their name (the second element ‘daw’ appeared in 15th-century England as the general name for the bird); but ‘jack’ could also be the nickname for somebody or something small.
Confusingly, before Tudor times the jackdaw was called a chough (then pronounced ‘chow’, from its call) but what we now call a chough was referred to as a ‘Cornish chough’. This shy bird is now largely confined to the sea margins of western Britain — I used to see them regularly while walking the Pembrokeshire coast path, where they soared like lightweight black gloves over the cliffs — and is distinguishable by its red bill and legs. Nowadays its name is no longer heard as ‘chow’ but as ‘chuff’, no doubt because it’s easier to read about than see in person. My friend the late W M S Russell once wrote what he called ‘A tribute to English spelling’, a poem in rhyming couplets entitled ‘Choughed’:
All over Cornwall, through and through,
They think King Arthur is a chough,
And so he is not dead, although
Surviving changed into a chough.
What is that sound, so like a cough?
The call of Arthur as a chough.
See how he sits on yonder bough,
King Arthur as a handsome chough.
And now I think I’ve said enough
About King Arthur as a chough.
Professor Russell’s witty doggerel reminds us of the legend current in Spain and Cornwall for about five hundred years, namely that King Arthur is not dead but lives on in the form of a crow, raven or Cornish chough (though a puffin is once mentioned). The chough’s red extremities are supposed to allude to the unfortunate monarch’s violent end.
One thing many corvids are notorious for is that of being attracted to shiny objects. The jackdaw’s Latin name is Corvus monedula, the species element deriving from moneta (‘money’), and its reputation for thievery is repeated in a tale from The Ingoldsby Legends: ‘The Jackdaw of Rheims’ tells us how the bird who steals the cardinal’s ring is cursed. The other corvid so libelled is the Eurasian magpie — as the Rossini opera La Gazza Ladra or The Thieving Magpie testifies — though recent research suggests this factoid may well be ill-founded. Maybe the old folk-beliefs — that the magpie can be used to foretell the future (“One for sorrow, two for joy” for example) or that seeing one could prove to be an ill omen — will be similarly proved erroneous in some future study. As for its name, the bird’s chattering machine-gun-like call may be responsible for the calumny that it resembles a woman’s gossiping — Mag of course being a diminutive of Margaret — and thus a female counterpart of Jack Daw; ‘pie’ meanwhile derives from the Latin for the bird, pica.
From pica and magpie we get the English adjective ‘pied’, meaning composed of at least two different colours. The black-and-white magpie certainly is pied (though the black may appear blue, purple or green in different lights), as of course is a piebald horse or the Pied Piper. On the other hand the reticent Eurasian jay is more subtly coloured, with its magpie rump, pinkish grey body, a flash of blue on its wing and comical Groucho Marx moustache. Believed to be closely related to the Eurasian magpie, the jay’s name may derive from its curt barking call. The first time I ever saw this bird was in a public park about a dozen years ago — a far cry from its originally traditional habitats of oak forests — and more recently a family of jays occasionally visited the ground round our birdfeeder in rural Wales.
I’ve saved the biggest to last. Whether in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire or the Black Mountains in eastern Wales we often heard the cronc! of a pair of ravens high up in the sky, but almost never closer at hand. It is however omnipresent in popular culture, mythology and literature. We’ve already heard how King Arthur was supposed to be reincarnated in Britain as a raven (as recounted by Cervantes) but raven legends also occur in the Old Testament, in Norse and Welsh mythology and elsewhere in the world; Edgar Allan Poe’s titular poem introduced the raven’s ‘Nevermore’ to the public imagination; and among the many novelists who have featured the bird are Joan Aiken (in her series of Arabel and Mortimer children’s stories) and Susanna Clarke (the mysterious Raven King permeates Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell).
You will have noted that many of these corvid names are ultimately derived from the harsh sounds supposedly made by the birds: crow, chough, jay, rook, jackdaw — all suggest barbaric utterances, no doubt made by creatures of base instincts. But we may be mistaken. It’s been demonstrated that several of these species have exceptional intelligence: European magpies have shown self-awareness in mirror tests, and crows and rooks make and use tools, while brain-to-body mass ratio is said to be the equivalent of those in primates and cetaceans, and just below homo sapiens. Some are also competent mimics of vocalisations in other creatures — including humans.
Is it any wonder then that this family continues to fascinate me, and maybe you too? They are long overdue a recognition that they aren’t the beaked monsters of medieval lore.
Joan Aiken Mortimer’s Tie, BBC Publications 1976
Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Bloomsbury Publishing
Mark Cocker Crow Country, Vintage Classics 2016 (2007)
Alison Croggan The Crow, Walker Books 2006
Jonathan Elphick and John Woodward RSPB Pocket Birds, Dorling Kindersley 2003
Robert Graves (ed) English and Scottish Ballads, Heinemann 1957
W M S Russell “Choughs, Cornwall and Arthur” Pendragon: Journal of the Pendragon Society, Vol XXX Nos 1-2, Spring-Summer 2002: 4-5