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Francisco Marcuello (1617): Primera parte de la historia natvral, y moral de las aves


(APUSlist No. 3464)







Francisco Marcuello was canon of the Roman Catholic Church of Daroca, Saragossa (Spain), his life dates are unknown. He wrote a bestiary, a then popular scholastic genre to write about animals and to take particular aspects of their behaviour as examples for humans of a godly life: Primera parte de la historia natvral, y moral de las aves (First part of a Natural History, birds and moral). It was published in 1617 in Zaragoza by Juan de Lanaja y Quartanet. A further part was not published. The title shows Marcuello's special interest in birds, and although his first aim was to lead people to a religious life, his great interest in nature and his meticulous observation of animal behaviour are obvious.

In a hundred chapters he describes one hundred different flying animals, including bats and some mythical creatures (eg, pegasus and harpy), with 97 pictures. Each chapter is divided into two sections, one natural and one moral. Chapter 12 deals with the Common Swift Apus apus. In the biological section, he cites Aristotle and Pliny. He discusses the use of the names and Aristotle's description of the characteristics of the Swift, and comes to the conclusion that the name Apodes does not describe Apus apus. In fact the descriptions partially fit four different species, like Riparia, Falcula, Cypselus, Golondrina (Hirundo sp).

He further cites Pierre Bersuire or in Spanish Pedro Berchorio (1290 - 1362), a French Benedictine monk, who notes that Swifts make their nests on cliff faces so that with minimal effort they can leave theirs nests and take flight. This description fits what is now known as the "fall-start" in which Swifts use gravity to achieve their particular flight speed. Bersuire also says that they have very small feet, which are so strong that two strong men pulling them, each to one side, can not break or separate from each other, which marks the first recorded description of specific fight behaviour.

First Part of the Natural History and Morality of Birds
Chapter 12 about the Common Swift

The bird which we call Swift (Onzejo) in my country, is also known as Venzejo, Falcete and Arrijaque in some other Spanish-speaking regions. Its names in Latin are Apus and Cypselus. This is how Aristotle and Pliny name it. Aristotle states (Historia Animalium Lib. 9, ch. 30): The Apodes, whom some call Cypselus, are similar to the Swallows and can barely be differentiated. The only difference is that Cypselus has feathered feet. They make their nest of mud in the form of a long basket, with a very small entrance, and build it into narrow places in caves and crags, in this way they stay safe from beasts and men. Pliny states the following (Lib. 10, ch. 39): Birds called Apodes spend most of their time on the wing because they lack the use of the feet. It is called Cypselus by others, a kind of Swallows. They nest on cliffs. They can be seen flying over the sea, and ships never travel as far as they do, for they fly on, leaving the ships behind them. They never come to land, except for breeding. They even sleep on the wings, and are expert at hunting for food.

Speaking of Swifts, Pedro Berchorio says (Lib. 7, ch. 9): I have heard in Mallorca, that there are many of these birds, if they become grounded, they cannot walk or even move. They make their nests on crags so that they can easily drop from their nest site to become airborne. They have very small feet, but so strong that when two strong men, pulls each one in opposite directions, can not break or separate them from each other. The words of Aristotle that we have quoted above says that Aristotle seems to have treated the bird we refer here (the Apodes or Cypselus), also in other chapters of his History of Animals and, having read everything carefully, I have found that he does not speak of these birds, called Swifts, despite the fact that the first chapter in the book says so. Some birds are called Apodes, a parvitate pedum, because of the smallness of the feet. Such are the Swallows and the Falculae, or Riparias: they are noted for their long flight feathers, and their degenerated feet, so-called because they cannot use them. He continues: Riparian, and Swallows are very similar in customs and in flight: the Riparia or Falcula is not present throughout the year, but only in the summer, when winter is over. At this point Aristotle seems to refer to his own text, when he says: Apodes, Quos aliqui Cypsellos, Apellant similes esse hirundinum dictum iam est (As already stated, the Apodes, some call them Cypselus, are similar to the Swallows). Therefore, Apus, Cypselus, Riparia and Falcula seem to be one and the same bird. However, Antonio de Nebrija says that Falcula usually refers to the hawk, and Riparia is the Abejaruco (Bee-eater, Merops apiaster). Aristotle gives these birds other names, as we shall see when we deal with them. Experience shows that when great clouds appear in summer, it will not hail if Swifts are flying; but if there are no Swifts in the sky at that time, it is a sure indication that there will be a hailstorm.

Spiritual interpretation

By studying the Swift, or whatever you want to call it, we can understand that men who give themselves to contemplation, will always ascend, looking heavenwards and seeing divine things. Flying and fluttering continuously, with little contact with the earth, and doing little more than taking the food they need to stay alive; because these men, as the birds, live in a way that is carefree and abstracted.

There are some people who can no longer find pleasure in what they eat, the pleasure that St. Thomas Aquinas experienced when eating olives so saturated with salt, that his companion took them away from him, saying they were far too salty. To which he replied: But you must allow me to eat a little, because this salt will help me to keep my fat at its right point.

Doing so he mocked himself because he was very fat. Fray Hernando del Castillo states the following in the first part of the History of Santo Domingo: We could say the same of many other saints. As proof of how little attention they paid to food they eat their meals hurriedly as the Swift does, even though it never seems to stop eating. Its only nourishment are mosquitoes that it consumes in the air. But the contemplatives, who are similar to the Swift, should be aware of one thing: they should not fall to the ground in a state of mortal sin, because, like the Swift, they will not be able rise from the ground.

As for those who were once brought into the light, and tasted the gift of heaven, and received a share of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of God's message and the powers of the world to come and yet in spite of this have fallen. Consider what St. Paul says (Hebrews 6):
It is impossible for those who were once enlightened by faith, who enjoyed the gift of God and partook of the Holy Spirit and yet in spite of this have fallen into sin, they will not be able to rise by their own efforts, but only with divine help, that is, the hand of God lifting them out of sin. When a Swift falls to the ground, and a lot of boys see it fall to the ground, they will try to catch it, just as demons seeing a spiritual man falling into sin will try to hold him down in his state of sin, so that he will not be able to ascend once more to that state of grace which is the flight of the soul to heaven from the sinful place into which it had fallen.

But God is so merciful that even though a righteous man has fallen into sin and is in the hands of the demons, He will not allow them to destroy him physically or carry him to Hell.

For although justice might demand that the sinful man be sentenced to Hell, God gives fleetness to the feet of mortals, fleetness that is so strong that they can get away from a hell that is not strong enough to separate life and death.

In this way the sinner can attain the cornerstone, which is Christ, and there take flight. and return to the ways of holiness and virtue, and thereby regain the contemplative life.

© APUSlife 2014, No. 5500
ISSN 1438-2261