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Posts Tagged ‘Gerald of Wales’

 

 

The entry in my Encyclopaedia of Superstitions about Barnacle Geese really caught my attention. I remember reading years ago about the supposed connection between barnacle geese and the little black-and-white crustaceans (not molluscs, thankyou Google!)  that can be found clinging to the wooden undersides of boats.

The book contains a passage from Topographica Hibernicae written in 1186 by Gerald of Wales, in which he claims to have witnessed for himself the spectacle of juvenile barnacle geese growing from timber on the seashore of the Irish coast:

“Bernacae […] are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. having thus in the process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derive their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth. Hence bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh.”

The origins of this myth probably lie in the fact that Barnacle Geese are migratory birds, and thus never breed in the British Isles where they spend half of the year, choosing instead to nest in the colder climes towards the Arctic. It isn’t really that great a leap to imagine that there was more than just a passing aesthetic similarity between the clusters of molluscs clinging to driftwood, and the flocks of black-and-white geese that appeared along the coastline each year.

 

 

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