A Siege of Herons

The castle was tempting, but capturing it wasn’t going to be easy. When storming wouldn’t work, medieval armies tried the siege approach.  Stay put, fortify the weaponry, cut off supplies, and wait for the inhabitants to starve and surrender.

The all-legs heron takes a similarly patient approach with its prey. Sit or stand utterly still – bird? What bird? – wait for the fish, crab, worm to happen by, then snap.

It is because of this ‘wait them out’ tactic that herons as a group were assigned ‘siege’ as their collective noun. A siege of herons – or ‘a sege of herons’ as it was written in The Book of Albans, a 1486 hawking, hunting and heraldry guide. In it, Dame Juliana Barnes –  prioress of the Priory of St Mary of Sopwell – included 164 collective names for ‘beasts and fowls.’

We learn this through An Unkindness of Ravens. A Book of Collective Nouns by Chloe Rhodes.

Knowing which collective noun was which –  a goring of butchers, say, versus a kindle of kittens – was seen as a status symbol for ye aristocratic classes. As with our herons, some of these collective nouns reflected the behaviour of their subject animals – a trip of goats, a labour of moles, a turmoil of porpoises, a crash of rhinoceros.

Others reflected assumed traits, behaviours and reactions – an unkindness of ravens, an obstinacy of buffalo, a laughter of hostelers, an incredulity of cuckolds, a drunkship of cobblers.

Artists got in on the collectivizing. A misbelief of painters stems from the degree to which portraitists had to idealize their subjects in order to get paid. In a worship of writers, we see the demand for medieval scribes to fawn over their wealthy patrons.

A pitying of turtle doves, a game of swans, a wandering of tinkers, a damning of jurors – learn more collective nouns and their history in this most interesting of books.

Written by Elizabeth Newton

Header: Céderic Vandenberghe
Céderic Vandenberghe

William Samuel Horton. 1865-1936. Ravens on the Balcony


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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton