Bartholomew the Englishman

On the Eagle

Introduction by Juris Lidaka

Bartholomew says: "The eagle (aquila) is so called from the keenness of its eyes (oculi), as Isidore says [can't find citation ]; its sight is said to be so far-reaching and so clear that when it is borne on the air, on still wings, over the ocean, so high that it would hardly be visible to human observers from the ground, from such a height it sees little fish swimming in the sea, and plummeting like a stone it snatches up a fish, and then carries the captive prey to the shore. This bird is naturally hot and dry, eager for prey, and strong and spirited beyond the power of the other birds. Its strength is most powerful in its wings, feet, and beak, for it has wings which are very sinewy and have little flesh on them; it therefore has great endurance for the work of flying. Because it has little flesh compared to the size of its body, and much sinew, on this account it has much strength and power. It is also very feathery, on account of which it is very light."

Original Latin

A Very Fascinating Bird

What is it about the eagle that captivates our attention so often? The American Bald Eagle is unique to North America and was chosen as the United States' emblem in 1782, but there are many kinds of eagles throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. There are cities, newspapers, companies, and stores named after the eagle, such as American Eagle Outfitters and the Giant Eagle grocery store. The eagle is also the symbol of St. John the Evangelist, so it is particularly significant to Christians.

Bartholomew gives three reasons why the eagle is so captivating: first, the eagle is noble, for it shares its prey with the less able. Second, it has sharp sight, and third, it can fly very high. No other animal can match these latter characteristics. In fact, as he notes following many authorities and as is repeated in the bestiary, the eagle can look directly at the sun without harm. It teaches its young to do so too, and any who cannot are thrust from the nest. Tough love!

Beastly Sources

In the Middle Ages, readers learned about animals from two parallel but separate traditions. First, beginning in Greece, is the physiologus tradition (the bestiary). One example of this tradition is the version by St. Epiphanius. In the Latin West, the bestiary soon included pictures, such as those found in the Aberdeen bestiary, and other bestiaries.

The other tradition was the encyclopedia, such as Bartholomew's, which included much more than animals.

The Eagle in Two Traditions

Although both traditions used many classical authors as sources and so often include the same information, they developed in different directions on their own.

  • Both note the eagle’s vision and strength
  • Both repeat how the eagle makes its young look at the sun
  • Both talk about how aging eagles rejuvenate themselves, though not in the same way the phoenix does
  • The bestiary uses Psalm 102/103: 5, “your youth is renewed like the eagle’s,” to explain a metaphorical understanding of the eagle
Bartholomew adds to this some more details:
  • how the eagle puts two achates stones (agates) into the nest to protect against poisonous snakes
  • what the eagle’s body and habits are like
  • more about how it rears its young
  • its relations with other birds
  • several types of eagles, based on where they catch their food: in the air, on land, or in water.