The Starlings Go to War

Laura Sangha

It’s that time of year when I am always reminded of one of my favourite providential pamphlets, The Wonderfull Battell of Starelings,fought at the Citie of Corke in Ireland, the 12. and 14. of October, 1621.[1] The pamphlet was published by a London printer in 1622, is short at nine pages, and it also has a wonderful woodcut that gives a graphic rendering of the events described in the text.

The pamphlet described howabout the seuenth of October last, 1621 there gathered together by degrees, an vnusual multitude of birds called Stares, in some Countries knowne by the name of Starlings’. The birds ‘mustered together … some foure of fiue daies, before they fought their battels, euery day more and more encreasing their armies with greater supplies, some came as from the East, others from the West, and so accordingly they placed themselues, and as it were encamped themselues eastward and westward about the citie’. Finally, on Saturday morning, at around nine o’clock:

vpon a strange sound and noise made as well on the one side as on the other, they forthwith at one instant tooke wing, and so mounting vp into the skyes, encountered one another, with such a terrible shocke, as the sound amazed the whole city and all the beholders. Vpon this sodaine and fierce encounter, there fell downe into the citie, and into the Riuers, multitudes of Starelings … some with wings broken, some with legs and necks broken, some with eies pickt out, some their bils thrust into the brests & sides of their aduersaries, in so strange a manner, that it were incredible except it were confirmed by letters of credit, and by eye-witnesses, with that assurance which is without all exception.

This ‘admirable and most violent battell’ continued with several more encounters between the two sides, before the birds seemed to vanish, so that on Sunday not one was seen about the city. On Monday the birds returned again for a final terrible assault, when many more wounded and dead birds fell into the streets of Cork. The pamphlet finishes with some rather brief and generic comments that the reader should not search out the reasons for such ‘ wonderfull workes of Almighty God’, but we should remember that ‘it doth prognosticate either Gods mercy to draw vs to repentance, or his iustice to punish our sinnes and wickednesse’.

The pamphlet’s description of strange events interpreted within a (loose) providential framework makes it typical for the time, and thanks to Alexandra Walsham, we can easily make sense of what at first seems to be a bizarre account.[2] We have already encountered this type of material on the monster. It is a great resource for teaching with, introducing students to the idea of the ‘difference’ of the early modern period – although there are lots of elements of this past society that seems familiar to us, material like this confronts us with the vast gap between the early modern outlook and mentality, and our own. They see God’s intervention in the world to create an unnatural event (birds aping human military activity), their interpretive framework, their means of making sense of the event is providential, it is religious.

What do we see? Probably we would see a ‘murmuration’: starlings gathering into large flocks in the autumn evenings – it is a natural event, spectacular, but perfectly normal. Our interpretive framework is not religious but scientific, the starlings are “always ready to optimally respond to an external perturbation, such as predator attack,” according to a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper.  When dead birds fall from our skies, we call in the veterinary inspectors, carry out tests, blame fireworks, the internet, UFOs – as you can see in this news report, our modern day equivalent of the early modern pamphlet.

Of course it isn’t as straightforward as that – it never is. Early modern people were not ignorant of bird behaviour, and they certainly knew about autumnal flocks, as you can see from this extract from an almanac of 1700:

Signs of Cold weather, or hard winter.

THE Suns setting in a Mist, looking Red, and Broader than usual.  The Clearness of the stars, and their much Twinkling.  Starlings, Feldefars, and other Birds of a Hot Nature, hastening in great Flocks or Flights from the Northern to the southern Climates. [3]

In fact, further investigation quickly uncovered further titbits about the birds: they were good mimics, valued for their singing, and could be caught and kept for pets.

One of the many illustrations in R. Blome’s ‘Gentlemans Recreation’, this one depicts the practice of hawking.

R. Blome, The gentlemans recreation in two parts : the first being an encyclopedy of the arts and sciences … the second part treats of horsmanship, hawking, hunting, fowling, fishing, and agriculture (London, 1705).

The STARLING.This is a very docile Bird, and if taken out of the Nest young is apt to learn both to walk and Whistle. ‘Tis a hardy Bird; their food is Sheeps-Hearts, or other raw Flesh, hard Eggs minced, Hemp-seed, wet Bread, and the like.

John Ray, The ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the county of Warwick Esq, fellow of the Royal Society in three books (London, 1678).

§. VII. How to take Stares with a limed string: out of Olina’s Uccelliera.Take a small string of a yard or thereabout long, bind it fast to the Tail of a Stare, having first carefully limed it all over, excepting one Palm next the bird. Having found a flock of Starlings, come as near to them as possible, holding your Stare by the wings as near as you can, and let her go to her fellows, which as soon as you shew your self to them, will presently take wing: Your tail-tied Stare endeavouring to secure her self of her liberty, thrusting her self into the middle of her fellows, will entangle many of them, and so not being able to fly, they will afford a pleasant spectacle in tumbling down to the ground: where you must be ready with a Brush or Besom to strike them down. Many other devices there are to take several sorts of birds with Lime-rods, &c. which I think needless to set down; it being not difficult for an ingenious Fowler to invent as good or better, when he shall have opportunity of taking those kinds of Birds.

Aside from this fascinating insight into just what these country folk were up to, this is a further reminder that early modern people were far from ignorant about the world around them, but that the battle of the starlings points to areas of divergence in underlying assumptions, outlooks, and technological and intellectual understandings between their society and ours. At certain moments, certain people would turn to a religious interpretation, though it is clear that this was not the only explanation on offer.

A sketch of a starling from John Ray’s ‘Ornithology’. Ray was a fellow of the Royal Society.

Of course, the significance of the battle has been attached by the pamphlet’s author, perhaps as a means to justify printing his entertaining report – a moral message makes it worthy of publication. Or maybe it was a way to appease the author’s printer Nicholas Blount, who seems to have adhered to Calvinist principles: Blount refused to print plays and other frivolous material, so the author’s religious framework was perhaps necessary concession with its roots in the world of commerce. They key thing is, that when we look beyond cheap printed pamphlets the interpretations might diversify.

The other thing that strikes me about all these birds mustering together and plummeting from the heavens, is that in some respects a certain amount of faith is needed to accept our scientific explanations. Scientists admit that starling flocks ‘transcend biology’, and that science has only a sketchy understanding of what the phenomena is all about – there is much more ‘still to be discovered’. Our modern confidence that we will eventually work it out contrasts with the early modern warning not too look into these mysteries too deeply, highlighting yet more difference. Yet there is also similarity: this clip was filmed recently in Ireland, and science alone might find it hard to explain the sense of awe in wonder inspired by the sight and sounds of the murmuration even today. The clip also makes it much easier for us to appreciate where the ‘battell’ interpretation came from. I strongly recommend that you watch the video (it gets really good about 50 seconds in), and perhaps let me know what you see.

[1] Anon, The wonderfull battell of starelings fought at the citie of Corke in Ireland, the 12. and 14. of October last past 1621 (London, 1622), STC (2nd ed.) / 5767.

[2] Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: OUP, 1999).

[3] C.P., The sheepherd’s new kalender: or, The citizens & country man’s daily companion treating of most things that are useful, profitable, delightful, and advantageous to mankind (London, 1700), Wing (2nd ed.) / P11.

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