Of All the Birds
DESCRIPTION: "Of all the birds that ever I see, the owle is the fairest in her degree, For all the day she sits in a tree... Te-whit, te-whow, to whom drinks thou... Nose, nose, nose, nose, And who gave thee thy jolly red nose? Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves."
AUTHOR: Thomas Ravenscroft?
EARLIEST DATE: 1609 (Ravenscroft's Deuteromelia)
KEYWORDS: bird drink nonballad
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Chappell/Wooldridge I, pp. 141-142, "Of All the Birds" (1 text, 1 tune)
Williams-Thames, p. 53, "Of All the Brave Birds" (1 text) (also Wiltshire-WSRO Gl 130)
Opie-Oxford2 50, "Of all the gay birds that e'er I did see" (1 text)
Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #248, p. 155, "(Of all the gay birds that e'er I did see"); #138, p. 114, ("Nose, nose, jolly red nose")
Winstock, pp. 119-122, "The Owl" (1 text, 1 tune)
NOTES: This piece is a curiosity. Published by Ravenscroft, it is rare although not quite unknown in tradition (the Opies mention an 1842 Lincolnshire version). But, in John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont's 1611 play "The Knight of the Burning Pestle," Act I, scene v, lines 45-46, we find Old Merrythought singing,
Nose, nose, jolly red nose,
And who gave thee this jolly red nose?
And in lines 51-52, Merrythought follows this up with
Nutmegs and ginger, cinnamon and cloves;
And they gave me this jolly red nose.
(Wine, p. 316.)
Merrythought's songs, where they can be identified at all, are mostly traditional pieces -- and we note that his words are not identical to Ravenscroft's. Nor is the Baring-Gould text identical. This raises at least the possibility that the song is traditional. So I've include it here. - RBW
Re RBW comment, "I've never seen a collection from tradition" [now modified - RBW]: Williams-Thames writes, "I first heard this at Aston, afterwards at Inglesham, and I finally obtained the complete words of Mrs Bond, Quenington." - BS
The real question is the relationship between the stanzas. Ravenscroft includes "Of all the birds" and "Nose, nose, (jolly red) nose" in one item. The Opies and Baring-Goulds split them, but based on books more recent than Ravenscroft's (the Opies say the "Nose" stanza was independent by 1632). If they are songs at all, are they two joined by Ravenscroft or one split by tradition? Or was it simply such a hit for Ravenscroft that Beaumont and Fletcher latched onto it before it was forgotten?
One thing is certain: It can't be much older than the "Knight of the Burning Pestle," because of the mentions of nutmeg and cloves. Nutmeg, until transplanted, was found only on the seven Banda Islands in the Moluccas, and cloves only from the islands of Ternate and Tidore in the same chain (Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 26). The Moluccas were not known to Europeans until 1512, and it was some time after that before the properties of those particular plants would have been known. The spices were expensive for many years after their discovery; in the 1660s, the Dutch were willing to trade their North American colonies for the one of the nutmeg islands the British controlled (Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 4).
Cinnamon was somewhat better-known; Mancall, p. 22, says that a European recipe book of the year 1500 has 125 recipes featuring it. But it was still expensive, having to be imported long distances by wagon.
Interest in these spices was certainly high at the time Ravenscroft was writing. The East India Company had been chartered in 1600, and James I gave it a monopoly on pepper (another major imported spice) in 1609 (Mancall, p. 26) -- just about the time Ravenscroft was publishing his works.
In the footnotes-that-probably-aren't-important department, eugenol, the aromatic ingredient in cloves, and isoeugenol, which gives nutmeg its scent and taste, are chemically extremely similar, differing only in the location of a double bond in a short carbon chain (Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 29). Zingerone, which is the key ingredient in ginger, is also related, although not quite as closely (where eugenol and isoeugenol have a double carbon bond and a hydrogen atom, it has an oxygen atom. Vanillin, the main flavorant in vanilla, is also somewhat akin; Le Couteur/Burreston, pp. 129-130). Cinnamon is slightly more distinct, but cinnamaldehyde has a similar benzene core with a single long tail (Atkins, p. 134); it looks sort of like a molecule of eugenol stripped of most of the accessories, Ravenscroft of course could not know this, but it is interesting to see these four extraordinarily similar spices linked.
Perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that nutmeg also has intoxicant properties -- the consumption of a single whole nutmeg can cause nausea, high blood pressure, flu-like illness, and prolonged hallucinations (Le Couteur/Burreston, p. 31). Smaller quantities would not cause illness but probably could add to the effect of alcohol. Cloves, too, have their intoxicant effects -- and, until better remedies were discovered, were used as a remedy for sore teeth (Binney, p. 134). Cloves, nutmeg, and mace (another imported spice) quickly became significant elements in European medicine (Mancall, p. 23).
We also find cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves linked in a seventeenth century gout medication made by Adrian Mynsicht, which contained these spices along with sage, mint, pepper, and others, plus sugar -- yet, oddly, was called "elixir of vitriol" (Binney, p. 135) -- which probably tells us more about seventeenth century chemistry than about this song.
Another curiosity: Why is the owl declared the fairest bird? It was generally considered an ill-omened bird in Britain. Simpson/Roud, p. 270, tell us "[t]hat an owl's cry means death or disaster is an old and widespread motif, both as a folk belief and as a literary convention" -- adding that seeing the bird in daylight is especially bad. Hazlitt, pp. 468-470, gives numerous examples -- and points out that the feeling goes back to the Romans. He notes that "[t]the ancients held owls in the utmost abhorrence" and notes an instance when all Rome undertook a purification ceremony when one entered the capital precinct.
So why did Ravenscroft (or whoever) praise it? Three possible explanations occur to me. One is that this is the period when there was a revival of classical learning -- and the Greeks, unlike the Romans, did not despise the owl. Jones-Larousse, p. 338, observes that "it was the emblem of Athena and hence a symbol of wisdom (Athens was renowned for its profusion of owls)." An owl, in fact, may have indirectly saved Greece during the Persian Wars: Plutarch tells a tale of an owl being seen perched on the mast of Themistocles's ship, convincing the Greeks to go along with his plans -- and hence win the Battle of Salamis and the war (Plutarch/Scott-Kilvert, p. 89; section 12 of Plutarch's biography of Themistocles).
Alternately, I find myself thinking of "The Owl and the Nightingale," one of the earliest surviving Middle English poems. It is a dialog between the two birds, with the Owl representing the wisdom of the church and the Nightingale representing courtly love. As in the Athenian legend, the owl is wise (indeed, OwlNightingale, p. 174, connects this with the Athenian legend, but gives no justification) -- although not attractive, since it is an eater of the dead and active only at night, the time of evil (OwlNightingale, pp. 164-165). The Owl is found in an ugly setting in a chopped-down tree (OwlNightingale, p. 163).
On the other hand, the Owl's stump is surrounded by ivy, the symbol of life and growth. It urges a course of moderation rather than the nightingale's extravagance (OwlNightingale, p. 165). And, most notably, it is sitting a tree all day for the argument, which fits the song. And while the argument is more or less a draw (neither side backs down), the owl seems to come off as wiser -- but the poet's sympathies appear with the nightingale (CHEL1, p. 240).
The drawback to this connection is that "The Owl and the Nightingale" was written probably not long after 1200 (OwlNightingale, p. 155), and survives only in two thirteenth century manuscripts (CHEL1, p. 238), so while it has interesting links to this owl verse, Ravenscroft and his contemporaries would have found it nearly incomprehensible. I doubt it can be a direct source. The song and the poem would have to be based on a common legend -- and one that lasted for 400 years. A poor bet.
The final possibility that strikes me is that this is a sort of cuckoo analogy: The owl is seen as spending the days in someone else's bed, then flying off when the husband comes home. This would fit in with the love of cuckoldry jokes around 1600, but I will admit it is extremely forced.
A Welsh legend might have a similar point. Alexander, p. 201, records that "In Wales the hooting of an owl in a village did not herald disaster but signified that a girl was about to lose her virginity." - RBW
Last updated in version 3.2
- Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, Sutton Publishing, 2002
- Atkins: P. W. Atkins, Molecules, Freeman, 1987
- Binney: Ruth Binney, Nature's Way: lore, legend, fact and fiction, David and Charles, 2006
- CHEL1: Sir A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, Editors, The Cambridge History of English Literature, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, 1907 (I use the 1967 Cambridge edition)
- Hazlitt: W. C. Hazlitt, Dictionary of Faiths & Folklore, Reeves & Turner, 1905 (I use the 1995 Studio Editions paperback)
- Jones-Larousse: Alison Jones, Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore, Larousse, 1995 (I use the 1996 paperback edition)
- Le Couteur/Burreston: Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreston: Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History, 2003 (I use the 2004 Tarcher/Penguin edition)
- Mancall: Peter C. Mancall, Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson, Basic Books, 2009
- OwlNightingaleEtc: Brian Stone, translator, The Owl and the Nightingale/Cleanness/St. Erkenwald, second edition, Penguin, 1988
- Plutarch/Scott-Kilvert, Ian Scott-Kilvert, translator, Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (being of course a translation of portions of Plutarch's Lives, 1960 (I use the 1986 Penguin edition)
- Simpson/Roud: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2000
- Wine: M. L. Wine, editor, Drama of the English Renaissance, Modern Library, 1969
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.