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Economic and Social History Blog

57. The Good, the Bad and the Owl (5-6-2020)

The Good, the Bad and the Owl (5-6-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Last night Joost Dankers showed me a nest of long-eared owls (ransuilen), with two, perhaps three young chicks, in a huge tree close to where we live – right in between our two houses, in fact. He spotted them by the shrieking sound the young chicks make (well done!). In the same allotments we sometimes hear tawny owls (bosuilen), which have a very distinct, loud, hu-hu-hu sound (the male, that is). It is of course typical of owls that they are there, but that you hardly notice them as they are mainly active during the night. It was a bit dark when Joost showed me the nest, but you could see one of the chicks very clearly – and he seemed completely comfortable by our presence, with huge eyes looking directly at us (or so it seemed).

Our culture has mixed feelings about owls. Cultural preferences play a large role in the appreciation of birds – in the present and perhaps even more in the past. Storks have always (since we have documents about this) been valued as symbol of fertility and good fortune. In the Late Middle Ages many Dutch cities had bylaws protecting their nests and outlawing their persecution. This was rather unique, however; only nightingales sometimes received the same kind of protection. At the other extreme there are crows and ravens which were hunted intensely, as symbols of bad luck, even death. Is this linked to their colours? The correlation is not perfect – storks are partly black, and gulls (mainly white) are also deeply unpopular.

Owls are somewhere in between, and their symbolic meaning is linked to different traditions. In the classical tradition, the little owl (steenuil) represents Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and is by implication the symbol of knowledge and erudition. Other owls have profited from the high status of the little owl and became symbols of wisdom as well. Our research project on the development of biodiversity in the Netherlands, and the website, was therefore named after Athena, and has an owls as symbol. But the same little owl (and other owls as well) appears in the paintings of Jeroen Bosch, as an agent of darkness, a seducer, perhaps representing the devil. These two traditions coexisted in the past,  but the most ‘popular’ one was probably the ‘dark’ tradition – in the 19th century owls were (still) persecuted, and it was not unusual to nail a dead owl at the doorpost of a farm building, to protect it against the ‘bad eye’.

To come back to the discussion about the use of paintings in our kind of research, I cannot help mentioning that Bosch’ paintings are very informative about birdlife in Den Bosch and surroundings in the early 16th century. He painted many of them – including rare species like spoonbills and hoopoes – in a very natural way. He clearly was a good observer of birds, and possessed first-hand knowledge; you can also spot directly when he had not seen the animal himself,  but could only use pictures from secondary sources (the giraffe of the Garden of Earthly Delights is a case in point). Thanks to the research  by art historians we now know that the gadwall (krakeend) had been spotted by Bosch, as it is on one of his paintings. Bosch was exceptional – also in this respect – but other birds and other animals occur in many other paintings as well. As part of the Athena-project, we are now, thanks to the Clariah project, setting up a citizen-science project to classify and digitize the information about animals and plants in these sources. But nothing can match the real thing of course.

Continue reading: Was Marx a Marxist? (8-6-2020)

Link: https://ag-eindhoven.nl/uploads/documenten/agora/De%20vogels%20van%20Jeroen%20Bosch.pdf