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Medieval Sourcebook:
The Fable of the Monk and the Bird, 12/13th Century AD
from Knud Laward (Kiel University S.H. 8A 8)


Kiel University’s S.H. 8A 8vo is a manuscript largely devoted to the liturgical services (called the offices and masses) of St. Knud (Canute) Lavard, Denmark’s patron saint. Knud was a 12th century prince of Denmark who, according to the text, died a martyr’s death in 1131 when his own cousin, Magnus, betrayed and killed him. The liturgy is divided into two main sections: Knud’s Passion and his Translation. These sections contain lectiones (readings) on the life and death of Knud, along with music (hymns, psalms, and antiphons) dedicated to the saint. While Knud’s Passion deals with events before his death, the Translation is primarily concerned with moving his body to Ringsted to be interred, later political events, and the canonization of Knud Lavard.

Following the liturgy is a short section taken from the Chronicon Roskildense, followed by the brief didactic fable below; both the Chronicon and the fable were penned by one hand. The fable exists only in this manuscript but could have originated in Ireland since it shares a motif common to the lives of early Irish saints: a distracted monk is led away by heavenly birdsong. One scholar of the text, Michael Chesnutt, has suggested that the story’s style denotes an oral delivery, and was therefore meant to be read in front of a group of monks, perhaps at their evening meal.

This translation was completed as a high school Latin project by Gordon Dautermann, Stavros George, Ethan Lennon, Ethan Williams, four students at St. Mary’s School in Medford, OR, under the guidance of Fordham University alumnus Martin Nelson (MA, 2018).

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There was a certain sacred man who began to ponder the psalm, “Misericordias domini in eternum cantabo” [The mercies of the Lord I will sing forever]. While contemplating, he anxiously thought, “Will we sing and praise God in His kingdom with such great effort as we do now?” As he pondered these things, he was sitting in the cloister when a little bird of great beauty miraculously appeared to him, so near to him that it seemed possible he could snatch it. Admiring the bird with a burning desire, he passionately wished to seize it. But with a nimble flutter, the bird fled from the monk, who grabbed after it. Dragged beyond the threshold of the cloister, the man followed, led by the bird to a certain forest. When the monk arrived there, the little bird flew through a certain tree and the monk was frustrated by his loss. He then sadly reclined under the same tree, cursing himself for his obsession. However, suddenly the bird brought forth the sweetest noise to the crazed monk’s ears. Truly the monk was both delighted by the beauty of its appearance and its sweet song, which left him rooted to the spot. But then the small bird flew away, and so the monk rose and journeyed back to the cloister.

When he had come to the gate, night was falling. But he was amazed, as things appeared like new; wherever he turned his eyes there appeared new buildings. He was saying in his heart, however, “Surely that is the same cloister I left this morning. If this is the cloister, how did these buildings arise so quickly?” Even more wonderful things are following which will be marveled at. When he had come to the gate, he recognized neither gate nor gatekeeper. When the monk wished to enter, the gatekeeper prohibited him, saying, “You will not enter because we do not know who you are or whence you came. You look like an impostor!” The man firmly declared himself a monk of this monastery: having left before the first hour, now returning at the third hour of the day. He indeed said these very words but was thinking otherwise in his heart. So he said, “If this is the monastery that I left early in the morning, why do I not recognize the buildings or these other people which I knew before?” Thus accused [of being an impostor], the monk was compelled with great sadness of heart to seek out the abbot. Upon his arrival, the abbot interrogated the monk about who he was or from whence he came. The monk kept proclaiming that he was a member of this monastery, having left earlier and now returned. But the abbot said, “You are delirious, brother, for we have never seen you before, is it possible that you know any of us?” But the monk knew nobody. And the abbot said, “It is clearly apparent that you are lying. No one has consorted with you in this monastery.” But the monk testified that he had lived there in his youth. [He said,] “My abbot speaks excellently about my name.” And furthermore, he had said: other officials are called such and such. Then the abbot, understanding more deeply, having looked at calendars and chronicles and annals, came to understand  that those other officials lived two hundred years prior. Then the monk became aware that he was seized by God, and all these things – having ascended beyond the order of the monks – he had seen and heard in his mind. God shaped him personally with everything: he was seduced by the little bird, and its sweet sound delighted him throughout so many years that he completely forgot food, drink, or sleep. From then on the monk was received with great veneration and retired within the same sacred monastery.

From these things we should carefully ponder: how great is the joy in heaven when all angels and all saints shall begin to praise God without limits? Therefore, brothers, if we wish to see God, let us strive to praise and bless him for our condition, to whom is the honor and glory in the world everlasting, AMEN.

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For further information on the MS and fable, see:

Chesnutt, Michael. “The Monk and the Bird: A Glimpse of Eternity in Medieval Danish Tradition” in Copenhagen Folklore Notes, 2000:2-3, pp. 1-7.

Hammerich, Angul. "Codex Kiloniensis." In Mediaeval Musical Relics of Denmark, edited by Angul Hammerich, 79-102. Leipzig, 1912.

Hamerich, L. L. “Munken og Fuglen: En Middelalderstudie” in: Festrkrift udgivet af Kobenhavns Universitet, 1-77. Copenhagen, 1933.

The Offices and Masses of St. Knud Lavard ([Dagger I.E. Died] 1131): (Kiel, Univ. Lib. Ms S.H. 8 A.8∞). Edited by John Bergsagel. 2 vols. Copenhagen; Ottawa: The Royal Library; In collaboration with the Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2010. [Edition and Facsimile]

The MS can be found online at: https://dibiki.ub.uni-kiel.de/viewer/image/PPN733609201/1/


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, January 1999
ihsp@fordham.edu



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