The pelican’s beak holds more than its belly can

There is a children’s song that is on permanent loop in my house at the moment, which goes:

The pelican’s beak holds more than its belly can,
Nothing has a beak that’s the size of the pelican’s.
(repeat lots of times)

I am guessing it’s a shortened and sanitised version of the limerick by the humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt:

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I’m darned if I know how the helican.

I am reliably informed by the collective knowledge of the internet that this is actually true: the pelican’s stomach can hold up to a gallon, whereas its bill can hold up to three gallons.

Earlier generations had their own story about the pelican: that it was so attentive to its young that, if short of food, it would open wounds in its chest to feed its blood to its young. Some early Christian and medieval writers took this further, reporting (to be fair, some dubiously) that the pelican would kill its young and then revive them with its blood:

The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revivified and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Is 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life. (Epiphanius Physiologus).

The pelican is an Egyptian bird that lives in the solitude of the river Nile. It is said that she kills her offspring and grieves for them for three days, then wounds herself and sheds her blood to revive her sons. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies).

Here is a wonderful thing about the pelican, for never did mother-sheep love her lamb as the pelican loves its young. When the young are born, the parent bird devotes all his care and thought to nourishing them. But the young birds are ungrateful, and when they have grown strong and self-reliant they peck at their fathers face, and he, enraged at their wickedness, kills them all. On the third day the father comes to them, deeply moved with pity and sorrow. With his beak he pierces his own side, until the blood flows forth. With the blood he brings back life into the body of his young. (Guillaume le Clerc, Bestiaire).

(Translations from The Medieval Bestiary)

The pelican was an obvious symbol for Christ: it appears, for example, in the coat of arms for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Corpus Christi College, Oxford:

Medieval bestiaries featured some amazing illuminated pelicans, like this one from the Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200):

As new technologies like woodcuts and etchings came along, the pelican went with them, such as in this engraving by Pieter van der Borcht (1577):

Or this woodcut, from the front of Henry Walker’s A gad of steele, wrought and tempered for the heart to defend it from being battred by Sathans temptation, and to give it a sharpe and lasting edge in heavenly consolation (1641) [EEBO]:

This particular copy belonged to Walker’s contemporary, the book seller and collector George Thomason. You can see Thomason’s marginalia at the top:

this Walker was admitted into orders by Laud Arch. Bish. of Canterbury

Elsewhere on the title page Thomason wrote “Ironmonger” – Walker’s previous profession before turning his hand to printing, selling and writing pamphlets. Walker was clearly not one of Thomason’s favorite writers – as a Presbyterian Thomason probably would have loathed Walker’s predilection in the early 1640s for preaching to independent congregations. His contempt shows through from the fact that nine or ten years later, Thomason was still crossing out any pretensions Walker had to be a “cleric” or “Minister of God’s word” and replacing them with “Ironmonger”:

A sermon, preached in the Kings Chappell at White-Hall (1649) [EEBO]

A sermon preached in the chappell at Sommerset-House in the Strand (1650) [EEBO]

2 Comments to “The pelican’s beak holds more than its belly can”

  1. I came to your blog to ask you a question about early modern history, and your top post somewhat relates! Cool stuff. And I’ve definitely never even heard of the pelican as a symbol for Christ, but now I feel like I’ll be seeing it all over the place.

    Oh, and my question! Hopefully it’s okay to leave a question here instead of e-mailing. I’m currently working out my senior thesis idea (I’m finishing up my sophomore year now). I’m trying to write about the development of childhood. What do you know about the status of common children throughout early modern English history? How were they depicted in pamphlets and other texts? When was a child considered an adult?

    Hopefully these aren’t too many questions. Thank you!

  2. And don’t forget Lear’s reversal of the Christ trope in his acerbic epithet for G&R: “Pelican daughters”!

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