Stupendous 13th century illustrated manuscript

by Matthew Cobb

There is a community of medievalists on Twitter who re-tweet their latest finds in their studies of illustrated manuscripts. I follow some of them, and this popped up in my Twitter stream today. It is a stupendous 112 page 13th century Sicilian manuscript from the Vatican Library, dealing with birds and falconry (De Artes Venandi Cum Avibus, Pal. lat. 1071). [SEE EDIT AT END FOR MORE INFO]

Here are just some of the examples of the illustrations. Birders who think they can ID the beasts, chip in below. Better still, go to the Vatican site (not often you’ll read those words here) and then come back to tell us what you’ve found – please give the page number, which will be a number followed by r (recto) or v (verso).

All the illustrations here are taken from there, and are obviously their copyright.


This first image (12r) shows a stork nesting on top of a tower on the right. The MS has been damaged by water…


Here, on 18r, are some owls (which kinds?). The point of the MS, however, appears to be about falconry, and the second half of it has illustrations relating to hunting with birds. Here are some raptors from 56r:


Here’s an uncoloured drawing of a falconer from 99r (the illustrations on 94r – 105r haven’t been finished):


This gives you an idea of what the finished drawings look like:


And here’s an image from 69r of what a hunter would do after a hard day’s falconry – swim (with his hat on) , while his falcon noms a duck by the side of the lake.


In this account, Judge Arthur Tompkins of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (which I presume doesn’t include bad taste), describes a visit to the Vatican Library where he was allowed to see a 1969 reproduction of the MS, but not the original. The MS is a copy of an original that was lost during the 1248 siege of Parma.

EDIT: Thanks to ThonyC (aka @rmathematicus) who points out that the original MS (of which this is a contemporaneous copy) was made for/written by Frederick II, who was Holy Roman Emperor at the time, but nonetheless set up a secular legal system, was a skeptic who was excommunicated twice for his pains, founded the world’s first secular university (the University of Naples), argued that physicians should learn anatomy by dissection rather than book-learning, and was obsessed with falconry (hence this fantastic book). Interestingly, according to John C Wilkins, Frederick wrote a preface to this book in which he criticised Aristotle becaause “we find many quotations from other authors whose statements he did not verify and who, in their turn, were not speaking from experience. Entire conviction of the truth never follows mere hearsay.” Amazingly, no sooner had Aristotle been translated into Latin then this man began criticising him using terms that we would be expect to see in the 17th century, not the 13th.

SECOND EDIT: ThonyC also pointed out that I should have consulted Wikipedia! (Jerry will be amused by this as I am generally suspicious of that website and scold my students when they cite it.) However, the Wikipedia page on De arte venandi cum avibus points out that it was dedicated by Frederick II to his son, Manfred. In turn, Manfred commissioned this Vatican copy of the MS, and it contains “additions made by Manfred, which are all clearly marked in the beginning by notations such as “Rex”, “Rex Manfredus” or “addidit Rex””. The reference for this is a 1923 article by Charles Haskins in The English Historical Review. The age of the internet being so amazing, not only can we all see the amazing manuscript, we can also find the article at the click of a mouse. Haskins analyses the various versions of the manuscript, and points out that the image at the beginning of the MS, on 1r, is in fact of the amazing Frederick II himself, complete with one of his beloved falcons:


h/t Kathleen McCallum aka @peripheralpal

[EDIT: Kathleen in turn got the link from Giulio Menna from Leiden aka @SexyCodicology who has a website here. Follow them both on Twitter for more medieval manuscript mayhem!]


  1. Bonzodog
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    It the top panel you have a lapwing together with a curlew. I _think_ that an oystercatcher is there. (Lower left with the bright orange bill). The two falcons on the left are the perch are, I guess, peregrines.

    • Stephen P
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      By comparison with the two birds at top left I would say that the one lower left with an orange bill is another black stork.

  2. Marta
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    This is a nice piece, Matthew.

    Do you know if there’s a public catalog of the contents of the Vatican library?

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Yes, it appears to be here:

      Happy browsing!

      • thonyc
        Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        Yes but only those bits that have been catalogued. There is still a lot in the Vatican Library that hasn’t been. However they are working on it.

      • Marta
        Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        Thanks so much for the link!

  3. Stackpole
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    One would think that the copyright would have expired after some 800 years.

    And to heck with the birds — the calligraphy is even more splendid.

    • Jamie
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      That was my thought exactly! How can they claim a copyright on something produced so long ago?

      • thonyc
        Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        There is a copyright on the reproduced images in digital media which are still relatively new.

        • Scote
          Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          “There is a copyright on the reproduced images in digital media which are still relatively new.”

          Citation needed.

          Claiming copyright on the public domain is what some activists term “copy fraud.”

          These images are likely not copyrightable under US law. The Vatican may own the physical object, but the so called intellectual property aspect of the actual ancient work is not subject to copyright and is in the public domain. Photographic reproductions are not an original creative work but rather a technical process, so they do not magically confer copyright upon the work nor the reproductions themselves. See

          However, people who have possession of stuff, as the Vatican does, like to claim that owning objects means they own copyright, which simply isn’t true. So they push to make it true. Copyright law is Byzantine, so just because it shouldn’t be copyrightable, and just because a major case found it isn’t, doesn’t mean that someone else hasn’t found the opposite.

          • Posted March 10, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

            I believe you are correct.

          • Kyle
            Posted March 10, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

            “Copyright law is Byzantine” I see what you did there.

          • Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

            I think that if they took a digital image and then altered it by, say, Photoshopping out the water stains, then they would own the copyright to their improved image. But I don’t think the courts would say that cleaning up something was a creative process, so I think someone else could do identical Photoshopping to get rid of the water stains and publish the results too. However, if someone took the original digital image and creatively added other digital images (say, more birds), then the resultant composite would be copyrighted (but not the original work).

  4. gbjames
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink


  5. Stephen P
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Top left are a black stork and a white stork. The two top right are I think meant to be cranes, or perhaps a grey heron and a crane. Lapwing and curlew have already been mentioned.

    Second page: first two are possibly black vulture (very rare now) and Egyptian vulture, then a pelican and a mute swan. Then a chicken and a pigeon. Next is a positively identifiable white-fronted goose, with the white bill base and black belly stripes, and another swan. Then two not very identifiable waders and another lapwing. The owls might be long-eared owls or eagle owls.

    And then a perch of, presumably, peregrine falcons.

  6. wildhog
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Those are beautiful images.

    If I understand correctly, these images were made from a copy of the MS, not the original, but since the original was lost in 1248, the copy itself is from the 13th century?

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Yes, this version is a copy (presumably a copy of a copy) that was made between 1258-1266, so after the original was lost.

  7. Diane G.
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink


  8. thonyc
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    If you want to know more about the De Artes Venandi Cum Avibus (The art of hunting with birds)you can read this post by John S Wilkins

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Have just edited that in, Thony. Thanks!

  9. temeres
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I think all the long-necked grey birds one the first page are cranes, but the black-necked ones are Demoiselle Cranes (the lower figure, halfway down the right-hand margin, certainly seems to have the shaggy neck feathers of this species – though it might be just a smudge!).

    Between the Curlew and Lapwing, upper right, is what could well be a Golden Plover. Of the pair of waders below, one is clearly labelled Vanellus (ie, Lapwing), the other is unfortunately less legible but seems to begin with P, and might therefore be Pluvialis (plover).

    The flying wader bottom left corner I suspect is another Lapwing. It has a crest and (unlike Oystercatcher) a white face. The bill seems a bit long, though.

  10. Tim Spofford
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Awesome, but “obviously their copyright”? For a 13th-century manuscript?

    • 1baltic1bullet
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      That was what I was thinking too. How the **** they can say they have a copyright! They are robbing here and heavily…

      Disgusting. They are giving a blessing here to something criminal…

  11. Eidelon 8
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I though this might be Frederick’s work once you mention the date and the subject. He was called ‘Stupor Mundi’: The Wonder of the World and supported collaboration among the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim naturalists and intellectuals he gathered in Sicily and Southern Italy where his first Kingdom was located. He also negotiated to receive Jerusalem rather than fight for it. The Church hated him for it, even though they raised him for the first part of his life. Quite an amazing character! Too bad his detractors wrote the history books.

  12. Jon
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Um. These are from the 13th century. You know, as in 800 YEARS AGO. Tell me again how anyone claims copyright on this?

  13. TimT
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    I think it is cool that Roger Ebert linked to this post on his FB page.

  14. ~Sil in Corea
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    These pictures are a delight to my eyes! Thank you for printing them. I shall share on FB for those who aren’t connected to Roger.

  15. MikeN
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Yay! Good old Freddy II, one of my favorites from the Middle Ages back in History 103.

  16. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted March 11, 2013 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    I think the owls are short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) on the left and Eagle owl (Bubo bubo) on the right. The right haand owl could possibly be intended to be Long-eared owl (Asio otus) but the bulky shape suggests eagle owl to me.

  17. Posted March 11, 2013 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    So beautiful, The Vatican served a useful purpose?

    • madscientist
      Posted March 11, 2013 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      Yes, perhaps accidentally but it would be unreasonable to expect nothing but evil from the institution and its members.

  18. madscientist
    Posted March 11, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Wow .. so “nulla in verba” preceeded the foundation of the Royal Society by about 400 years. Surely there must be older criticisms of the likes of Aristotle because he was simply too damned stupid and surely even some people of his era would have seen that he made claims which were simply contrary to nature (for example, his writings on ballistic movement). We can forgive Aristotle for not knowing the nature of light, but failing to notice that his claims of ballistic movement were in such stark contrast to the easily observed reality is inexcusable and I will stand by my claim that Aristotle was a dunce.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted March 11, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

      Aristotle was pretty good for a self-taught zoologist, and it’s a great shame that his dissection drawings were not preserved (but D’Arcy Thompson redid the lot around the turn of C20 by dissecting the same species). I don’t know much about his political and dramatic theories, but yeah, he was clearly out of his depth in the physics. None of his writings were polished for publication, they’re basically a set of lecture notes that only survived because they were buried in a cave; so don’t be pissed at him, but at all the fools who took his word without making their own tests.

      • Erp
        Posted March 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

        I would say that Aristotle was good especially considering the shoulders he was standing on (i.e., there was very little before). He first asked many of the questions that we are still asking even if his answers were not the best.

  19. Posted March 11, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    What a beautiful collection. I’d love to see it for myself some day.

  20. Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Mentioned this to a friend yesterday, a former priest. He said this manuscript was also known for getting past the Vatican censors because *it does not mention God*. It was mostly about falconry, a hobby of kings at the time.

  21. Gus
    Posted March 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    “ThonyC also pointed out that I should have consulted Wikipedia! (Jerry will be amused by this as I am generally suspicious of that website and scold my students when they cite it.)”

    mmmh what´s wrong with Wikipedia? Surely you can´t cite it on a peer reviewed paper, but why “suspicious”? I wonder.

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