Duncan Frost: Early Modern Songbird Training Texts

Written by Duncan Frost |

Recent recipient of the Frances Yates Fellowship at the Warburg, Duncan Frost's work explores the perceptions of animal intelligence in early modern Europe, with a particular focus on the practice of training songbirds. His research offers a unique perspective on how these creatures were perceived, valued, and integrated into various aspects of life during this period.

Intertwining historical insights with his personal experiences and discoveries during his time at the Institute, read on to learn more about Duncan's fascinating research.

I have always been very interested in the ways in which early modern people’s perceptions of their world were shaped and how printed literature and material culture mediated their interactions with the wider world around them. My doctoral studies at the University of Kent examined the representations of non-European cultures and places in early modern English broadside ballads. By analysing musical tunes, woodcut images, inter-ballad references and the communal experience of ballad singing, I argued that these cheap, ephemeral documents significantly shaped public opinion. Any of these aspects (easily missed by historians silently reading ballads) could completely invert the lyrics’ ostensible meaning. I am particularly interested in how the practices and habits of everyday life, which are not easily transmitted to modern historians, impacted daily life in the early modern period. For instance, towards the end of my PhD, whilst researching something completely different, I was struck by the following sentence describing a blackbird:

This Bird sings about three months in the year, or four at most, therefore I esteemed him not worth any thing for his Song; but if he be learned to Whistle, he is of some value; but in my mind his Whistle is very coarse, though it be very loud; so he is fit only for a large Inn, and not for a Ladies Chamber (Joseph Blagrave, Epitome of the Art of Husbandry, 1675).

I was struck by this for two reasons. Firstly, having grown up with a hedge by my window where a blackbird habitually made its nest each year, I felt this was an unfair castigation of its musical abilities. Secondly, this seemed to be clear evidence that songbirds featured in early modern social spaces and different birds were appropriate for different settings, social statuses, or genders. Overall, this sentiment seemed to support the hierarchical understanding of early modern animals: different sorts of animals would be owned by people of different social status. For instance, the lapdogs of noted canine fanatic Henry III of France would be very different to the dogs found lower down the social scale. Discounting rarer, exotic cage birds such as parrots and birds of paradise, I wanted to investigate whether common British and European songbirds fitted into this stratified hierarchy. In 2021, I was awarded the Society for Renaissance Studies Fellowship to address this question. I found that songbirds were actually highly fluid as they moved from one social space to another. My favourite example is a starling (a bird famous for its mimicry) that apparently once belonged to Charles II but which Samuel Pepys acquired from his mistress Betty Martin. What we are left with is the fact that European songbirds (which could be freely caught by anyone) existed across the social spectrum. Songbirds are often found in early modern portraiture. However, this was usually symbolic. In Catholic countries in particular, the strong association between the goldfinch and Christ meant that this bird featured prominently. Whilst it would be unrealistic to try to concretely identify different species from works of art, they do provide an idea of the ways in which songbirds could be found across the social spectrum. For instance, compare the painting of a wealthy family group by Gonzales Coques (where a young child is playing with a songbird tied to a handheld perch) and the bird in a cage seen in a painting of an old herbalist by Gabriel Metsu.

Gonzales Coques, A Family Group c. 1664. The National Gallery NG821. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

These two songbirds are very similar (although determining species is impossible) but are inhabiting radically different social spaces. In my work that resulted from this research, I argued that rather than an intrinsic value of a particular species, a songbird’s musical training was more significant in terms of defining its value. This led me to thinking about the ways in which ownership of songbirds and interactions with them shaped the ways people understood the world around them. Songbirds were often given as gifts to children. For richer households this may have been in preparation for the children needing to handle larger hunting birds of prey in later life, but it also may have been a simple way to start preparing them for household management (Erica Fudge makes this case strongly when discussing the practice of God Parents bequeathing or gifting lambs to their God Children in their wills).

Gabriel Metsu, An Old Woman with a Book, c. 1660. The National Gallery NG2590. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

As a wide variety of people kept and trained songbirds, I wondered how this impacted their perceptions of animal intelligence. This was the research question that I wanted to address in my Fellowship at the Warburg Institute. I was delighted to be awarded the Frances Yates Fellowship with the Warburg Institute. Not only had I been using the holdings of the Warburg Library and attending its Medieval and Renaissance Latin classes during my PhD, but I knew that my research would thrive in the fantastic interdisciplinary and creative intellectual atmosphere at the Warburg. Scholars working on topics which I initially felt were far removed from my own subject of study (temporally, geographically and methodologically) offered keen and cutting insights into the practice of early modern songbird training which I had not thought to previously interrogate. I spent the first half of my time at the Warburg making great use of the Institute’s holdings on early modern intellectual history. This opened up new avenues of research into perceptions of animal intelligence. In addition to this more philosophical strand, the Warburg’s library also holds an extensive collection of works on natural history and ‘biological’ studies. Not only did this help develop a more European context to my work (which had previously only focused on early modern England), but also exposed me to scholarship I would not otherwise have encountered – which is, of course, a major boon of the unique library cataloguing system at the Warburg. For example, I have now consulted scholarship on early modern ornithology in both German and French which I had not come across in my previous research (and does not appear in standard citation trails in Anglocentric scholarship).

Particularly interesting was Ornithophonia a collection of Latin Poems on different songbirds by Nicolaus Bähr published in 1695, and translated into German with an academic commentary Karl Wilhem Beichert. In addition, the excellent translations of early modern Latin texts (such as William Turner’s Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est) allowed me to construct a much better chronology of ideas that filtered into songbird-training texts across Europe. Furthermore, it helped demonstrate that a hierarchy of animal intelligence was cemented in the early modern mind. It was clear that some songbirds were better at performing different musical tasks than others. For instance, Turner writes of the bullfinch: auis est imprimis docilis, & fistulam uoce sua proximē imitatur [it is the readiest bird to learn, and imitates a pipe very closely with its voice]. Similarly, he explains that the greenfinch is a pleasant songster which can lift up its food and water in little buckets. This is a reference to the common practice of teaching birds (particularly goldfinches) to draw up a little bucket full of water or food. This was widely discussed in songbird-training literature and was clearly a desirable skill. Finally, whilst my previous research had focused on the seventeenth century, the Frances Yates Fellowship allowed me to start to expand into the eighteenth century.

Back at the Warburg, I enjoyed engaging with the Institute’s scholars and students (one of the greatest facilities that the Warburg offers to Fellows). Across the course of the Fellowship, I had fantastic conversations with many academics and students.

Alongside, my research into understandings of animal intelligence in Early Modern Europe, I used my time at the Warburg to begin examining physical copies of songbird training manuals (which also is an ideal way to gauge an individual’s understandings of songbird intelligence). My long-term goals for this project are to compile a database which will list every extant copy of songbird-training manuals, listing known authors, prices and cataloguing any reader engagements and annotations within them. One of my favourite discoveries in this preliminary research was a handwritten recipe for bird food in the back of a small and cheap duodecimo manual. I delivered several research seminars and Duncan Frost 4 conference papers based upon this element of the research I undertook whilst at the Warburg Institute. In January 2023, I delivered a talk on songbird-training texts at the Warburg’s seminar series. The same month, I delivered another talk on songbird-training literature at the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies’ seminar series (University of Kent). My research on this literature was also presented at the Reading and Book Circulation, 1650-1850 conference in April 2023 at the University of Stirling, where I particularly enjoyed talking to other scholars about popular readership, gender, lending libraries and the transmission of early modern knowledge. Back at the Warburg, I enjoyed engaging with the Institute’s scholars and students (one of the greatest facilities that the Warburg offers to Fellows). Across the course of the Fellowship, I had fantastic conversations with many academics and students, and particular mention must go to Bill Sherman, John Tresch, Charles Burnett, Sara Miglietti, Lucy Nicholas, Delia Moldovan (my fellow Frances Yates Fellow) and Daniel Samuel. These conversations greatly helped me develop new ideas for directions for this project. I was also given the opportunity to talk about early printed books at greater length (one of my favourite pastimes) when I was asked to lead workshops for the Warburg’s MA cohort on studying early modern books, which were highly enjoyable sessions. I got to work closely again with a few of the MA cohort when organising a special panel showcasing the work of Warburg MA students to take place at the annual MEMS Fest Conference at the University of Kent.

Towards the end of my Fellowship at the Warburg, I started expanding my research into the late medieval period. I am particularly interested in the ways in which people reacted to animals and environmental phenomena. After attending the Medieval Animals and Heritage Conference in June 2023. I began working on a chapter about early modern responses to beached whales for inclusion in a collection of essays edited by Diane Heath (Canterbury Christ Church University). Again, the wonderful holdings of the Warburg’s library, in terms of the development of intellectual thought and natural knowledge from the medieval to the early modern period was incredibly useful. In the last few months of my Fellowship, I was offered a book contract with the Routledge Research in Early Modern History book series to write a history of songbirds in early modern England. The Frances Yates Fellowship at the Warburg has been a fantastic experience, and I am very grateful to the Warburg and its scholars for the opportunity to develop my research across the last year.

>Find out more about the Warburg's Fellowships


Duncan's work focuses on how people's perception of their world was shaped by printed literature, material culture and non-human agents. He completed his PhD in 2021 at the University of Kent and his thesis studied the representations of the global seventeenth-century world in English broadside ballads. He was awarded the Society of Renaissance Studies’ Postdoctoral Fellowship to investigate the social implications of songbird ownership in seventeenth-century England. This developed into a larger study of songbird training and, in 2022, he was awarded the Frances Yates Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Warburg Institute to investigate how this practice impacted early modern perceptions of animal intelligence. His forthcoming book Songsters: A Cultural History of Songbirds in Early Modern England will be published as part of the Routledge Research in Early Modern History book series.