Spirits of Place: Birds in English Place Names

If you take a look at the chapter that comes between the classical age and the early modern era in any history of ornithology or birdwatching, you’re like to discover that the bit that comes in between is rather brief, whereas everything before, and particularly after, is substantial. Both scholarly and popular opinion still largely assume that observations of, thinking and writing about birds were merely superstitious folklore before the dawning of empiricism and true science. In fact, though, medieval people observed birds, thought about them and wrote about them, all with considerable acuity and sophistication. In particular, though, they listened to them. The range of sources one can turn to to find out what people a thousand or so years ago knew about birds and the ways in which birds were importantly culturally to them reveals that avian voices were what really caught Anglo-Saxon attention, and here I glance at birds in place-names.

Familiar wild birds with coloured plates by W. Swaysland, 1883, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

A useful way to begin imagining an Anglo-Saxon soundscape is to go back merely 150 years or so. Richard Jeffries, Victorian nature writer, describes farmland birds in one of his books: ‘Sparrows crowd every hedge and field, their numbers are incredible; chaffinches are not to be counted; of greenfinches there must be thousands’ (Nature Near London). These sorts of bird numbers are unimaginable in Britain today. So what must it have been like for the Anglo-Saxons? I think we can reasonably assume that bird populations must have been similar or even larger, and that bird sound must have been a noticeable element of particular habitats. Speculation though this might be, if we take a look at Old English birds’ names, the interest given to the sounds birds make is pretty apparent. Here’s a small selection:

Crawe ~ crow
Hrafn ~ raven
Hragra ~ heron
Hroc ~ rook
Mæw ~ gull
Pur ~ Dunlin
Rardumle ~ ‘reed-boomer’ (bittern)
Stangella ~ ‘stone-yeller’ (probably kestrel)
Swan ~ swan
Ule ~ owl

All these names relate to sound. This must have something to do with the fact that Anglo-Saxons didn’t have binoculars, but it also seems to point to aurality as an intrinsic part of experiencing the bird itself.

Ulcombe, Kent, in the Domesday Book. Image from:  Professor J.J.N. Palmer and George Slater, opendomesday.org.

Birds and their calls seemed to have been intimately associated with place as well. Their names function as one of the more common prefixes in Old English place names: Hawkhurst (Hawk’s wooded hill), Cranbourne (Crane’s burn), Crowhurst (Crow’s wooded hill), Earnley (Eagle’s wood), Snittersfield (Snipe’s field), Swallowcliffe (Swallows’ bank). Avian noises are recorded in those places that were named after birds frequenting these locations. Take an owl, for instance. Old English ule (or uf). The term is onomatopoeic, and almost certainly refers to the most common species of owl in Britain, the tawny owl, that goes, as Shakespeare apparently first transliterated it: ‘twit-twoo’. But how many of us have ever seen a tawny owl? Even today we experience this bird more as a sound than a sight, and it’s one of the most evocative bird sounds in our culture. So place names that include the owl element—Ulecombe, Ulley, Ulwell, Ulgham (pronounced Ufham)—point to owls, or perhaps particular owl individuals, that have made themselves in some way distinctive elements of this or that location. Significantly, their calls have drawn enough attention to suggest themselves as defining characteristics, recommending suitable names which evoke these feathered ‘spirits of place’.

Birds in Medieval English Poetry: Metaphors, Realities, Transformations by Michael J. Warren available to order in Hardback here.

This guest post was written by Michael J. Warren, a visiting Lecturer at Royal Holloway University, where he gained his PhD. 

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