Posts

The love of the pelican

Courtesy of Simon Wills

The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is a wonderful treasure trove of online books from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Browsing these works is a fascinating experience, not least because you can explore many images of our ancestors’ world and their beliefs. And you can find some unexpected things here.

For me, some of the most interesting illustrations are those related to wildlife. In the 12th and 13th centuries particularly, books known as bestiaries were popular which depicted both real and mythical animals. Since these works were created by monks, bestiaries could be utilised by the Medieval church to impart moral instruction in the form of allegories. So the noisy squawking of the jay was used as a warning against the dangers of gossip, for example.

Some of the birds found in British bestiaries are surprising. An English manuscript from the British Library collection known as ‘Harley 4751’ contains an illustration that claims to depict a group of pelicans, and yet anyone who has seen a real pelican would struggle to recognise them.

Pelicans from the 13th century bestiary ‘Harley 4751’
(courtesy of British Library)

It is immediately obvious that the artist has never seen a real pelican. What’s more, the birds are displaying some very un-pelicanlike behaviour: one bird is killing another. What is all this about?

In the early centuries of the Christian church, some odd traditions arose in connection with the pelican. It was said that the bird loved its offspring very much, but when the chicks squabbled in the nest and beat the parents’ beaks with their own, the mother would get angry and kill them. Filled with remorse she would, after three days, restore them to life by feeding them on her own blood by stabbing her breast with her beak. The illustration from Harley 4751 shows the full chain of events: the parent-bird with chicks under her wing kills one of them, mourns it, and then pours her blood down its throat to revive it. This tale became a metaphor for Christ’s behaviour: saving humankind by spilling his blood. So, it’s no surprise that the earliest records of it are found in Christian writings of the 2nd to 4th centuries because even if the Church didn’t invent the story they were keen to popularise it. Yet, the narrative soon changed a little: the idea of a Christ-like bird murdering its own brood was probably rather unpalatable, so it began to be said that the chicks were killed by a snake or some other cause instead.

Of course, when the story of the pelican came to Britain with the early Christians, no-one on these shores knew what a pelican looked like and so its representation was very inaccurate.

Once aware of this curious belief, it is possible to find countless depictions of the pelican in churches throughout the UK. There is a beautiful stained glass window in St Nicholas’ Church at Pevensey of the pelican giving her blood to restore her children, an interesting wooden statuette in Tewkesbury Abbey, a carving in a misericord at Lavenham Church, Suffolk, and a handsome stone relief behind the pulpit in St Mary’s Church, Abberley.

Examples of the pelican at Pevensey, Tewkesbury and Abberley (courtesy of Simon Wills)

These representations all show what became the classic pose of pelican on the nest with chicks, often with wings outstretched, and stabbing her own breast to produce life-giving blood. This depiction acquired a specific name of the ‘pelican in her piety’ to emphasise the sacrifice and devotion involved. In Renaissance art the pelican is sometimes even shown sat atop the cross while Christ is crucified.

This Pelican from a Tudor manuscript is more accurate (courtesy of Simon Wills)

This symbolic use of the pelican continued into Tudor times, even though it was still the case that few if any Brits would ever have seen one. Queen Elizabeth I adopted the pelican as one of her personal symbols probably because she liked to be seen as the mother of the nation, making sacrifices on behalf of her subjects. This perhaps helped to broaden the symbolism away from Christ alone. The National Portrait Gallery has an interesting analysis of a contemporary portrait in which the queen is wearing a pelican jewel.

Shakespeare makes several references to the prevailing beliefs about the pelican. In Hamlet, for example, Laertes says ‘…I’ll ope my arms  And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,  Repast them with my blood’.

We do know that pelicans officially arrived in England in 1664, and probably for the first time. Charles II was given some by the Russian ambassador as a present and they were kept in St James’s Park, London, which the King opened to the public. Pelicans still reside in the park to this day.

Blood donation poster 1944
(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Gradually, the pelican symbolism was extended ever more generally and became a sign for sacrifice, benevolence, or devotion to others. Thus the bird was associated with charities, and it began to be depicted outside the church setting. There is a well-known one on the façade of Magdalen College, Oxford, for example. The porch of the Scottish National War Memorial built at Edinburgh Castle in 1927 displays a gold pelican, representing sacrifice, and this was quite a popular symbol to use on First World War memorials across the UK. The familiar image of the ‘pious’ pelican was even used on a Second World War poster to help recruit blood donors, again in Scotland.

From Christ to Queen Elizabeth I to war memorials and blood donation. What was the origin of this rather strange story about the pelican that bled itself to save its young? It was probably simply that the adult birds open their beaks widely to disgorge semi-liquid food straight into the mouths of their chicks; they also tend to press their beaks towards their breasts when doing so. At some point, somebody misinterpreted this or deliberately chose to use it as a life-giving allegory.

Still, it is odd to think that a bird which few people in the UK had ever seen until fairly recently has been so widely depicted in our communities and culture; and for a behaviour that it does not even display.

(courtesy of Simon Wills)


Simon Wills is a history journalist, genealogist, and wildlife photographer. He has also been an adviser to the television programme Who Do You Think You Are? The author of ten books, Simon has taken a particular interest in areas of history that are difficult to research or which have been neglected.

His well-received ‘Wreck of the SS London’ explores the tragic sinking of a luxury liner that sent shockwaves through Victorian society but which has been largely forgotten. Similarly, his bestselling book ‘How Our Ancestors Died’, tells the story of historical causes of death with which a modern audience may no longer be familiar.

He has recently been researching the history of the human relationship with the natural world and published ‘A History of Birds’, which will shortly be followed by ‘A History of Trees’.

Simon will be speaking about ‘A History of Birds’ at the Festival at 2pm on Tuesday 26th June 2018. Tickets go on sale 25th April.