In whimsical moments, I sometimes think how fun it would be to write a book that explored the major lineaments of the European early Middle Ages through animal-human interaction. It could start with the ponies of the nomads who helped bring down the Empire, then consider the diminishing size of post-Roman livestock. There’d be a chapter on Merovingian sea-monsters, another on Charlemagne’s elephant, and inevitably there’d be one on how the boundaries between human and animal were ‘negotiated’ through bestiality, a matter of concern in some penitential texts (and occasionally outside them). It would have to consider microbes – do they count? – and a final chapter would emphasise that so much of what we know depends on animal skin (ie, parchment).
But there’d also be a chapter on an animal that I encountered in the course of my current research: Pope Leo IX’s parrot.
The pope received his parrot as a gift from the king of Dalamarcie, probably around 1050. There’s some debate as to where Dalamarcie was, but the most likely guess is Denmark. That would make the king in question Swein (who contemplated conquering England like his Viking ancestors). It’s not clear where Swein had sourced the bird, but most medieval parrots came ultimately from India.
This was not just any old parrot, though – this was a miraculous parrot. On the way to Rome, it kept on saying ‘I am going to the pope’. And when it was presented, it spontaneously (?) exclaimed ‘Pope Leo!’. [For the full story, see the extract below].
Pope Leo IX is a celebrated figure in medieval history, famous for his role in church reform – attacking clerical marriage and simony, and strongly asserting the superiority of St Peter’s see within the church. He had also been deeply affected by the attack of a demonic toad (!) during his childhood, which one might imagine would encourage a degree of circumspection about animals.
Yet the Toul Life of Pope Leo IX, from which this information comes, makes it clear that this deeply serious man was thrilled by the gift of a bird that talked (presumably in Latin). Whenever implementing Church Reform and papal primacy just got a bit much, Leo would go to his rooms, and be cheered up by listening to his parrot saying ‘Pope Leo’, over and over again.
It’s revealing that the bird was not taught to say ‘Libertas Ecclesiae!’, or ‘Simoniaca haeresis!’, or other church reform catch-phrases. Perhaps it was enough for the embattled Pope to hear someone, at least, providing unconditional recognition of his status, unlike all the troublesome bishops or kings who wouldn’t do as they were told (some of whom were, unlike the parrot, miraculously struck dumb). It’s also interesting that this odd anecdote reached the ears of a writer in far-off Toul, hundreds of miles away from Rome. Evidently it was widely discussed.
Pope Leo died in 1054. One might wonder whether his successor, Victor II, would have found the parrot’s constant repetition of ‘Pope Leo!’ quite as endlessly entertaining. Luckily for him, he did not have to put up with it. For according to a number of manuscripts, the parrot fell into Leo’s grave and died ‘from excessive grief’, ‘as if it were unwilling to live without him’. Leo’s affection for his divinely-inspired pet was, apparently, reciprocated.
Extract from the Life of Pope Leo IX, tr. Robinson (The Papal Reform of the 11th Century, Manchester, 2004)
Among the many who strove to visit his [Leo’s] presence, the king of Denmark sent him a parrot as a gift, in which divine grace appeared through an admirable virtue. Certain birds can indeed be mastered by hunger and taught to pronounce human words; but it is said that this bird without compulsion throughout the journey on which he was brought to the lord pontiff continued to say, ‘I am going to the pope.’ Immediately on being presented to him, without being taught, the bird exclaimed in a sweet voice, ‘Pope Leo!’ Whenever this venerable pastor, fatigued by the conduct of business, retired to his private room or when some sadness chanced to oppress his mind, afflicted by excessive cares, this bird often alleviated his distress and, by sweetly and succinctly repeating ‘Pope Leo’, he restored his mental vigour.
Cover image: a 15th-century parrot, from a manuscript in Denmark (!): http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast235.htm