A Bad Cockatoo Article in The New Yorker

Fig. 1 — The two cockatoos. L: The cockatoo in Andrea Mantegna’s “Madonna della Vittoria”. R: One of the pictures of the cockatoo in HRE Frederick II’s “De Arte Venandi cum Avibus” (Rome, BAV, Pal.lat.1071, f.20r).
Fig. 2— The relevant still, from a TikTok video beginning ‘How did an Australian cockatoo end up in this renaissance painting’. It was accompanied by the hashtags ‘aussie’ and ‘aussiewildlife’. Dalton tweeted it so I assume she approves.

An ‘Australasian’ Bird

Island Southeast Asia is biogeographically complex. It is typically characterised — after the work of Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid-nineteenth century — as a region in which Asian and Australasian flora and fauna collide. On the western islands of Indonesia and Malaysia one finds typically Asian animals like tigers, monkeys, and deer, while in the extreme east, near New Guinea, one will instead come across cassowaries and marsupial mammals like the cuscus and the tree kangaroo. (There are no monkeys in New Guinea’s jungles, which I suppose makes them some of the only major tropical forests on earth with no non-human simian inhabitants.)

Fig. 3— A lovely map showing the relevant biogeographical regions. Sahul is the name for the ancient continent that united New Guinea and Australia. Sunda, or Sundaland, is the name given to the parts of what is now the Indo-Malaysian archipelago that were once contiguous with Eurasia (during the last glacial maximum). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 4 — Massoy in two early Indonesian texts. Top: <mesui> ‘massoy’ (red box) and several eastern Indonesian place names (‘dari Bandan dan Siran dan Larantuka’ — green box) in the Classical Malay “Hikayat Raja Pasai”. London, Royal Asiatic Society Library, MS Raffles Malay №67, p.132 (copied in 1815). Bottom: <kulit masui> ‘massoy bark’ in the fifteenth-century Old Sundanese narrative poem Bujangga Manik. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.31r.

Eastern Indonesian Commodities in Medieval Europe

On this blog we’ve looked at a lot of different examples of eastern Indonesian commodities in medieval European texts. Aside from the cockatoos, these are invariably spices, usually cloves (dried blossoms of the tree Syzygium aromaticum), nutmeg (seeds of the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans), and mace (the fragrant aril that surrounds the nutmeg seed). (White sandalwood features only rarely in Europe, although it’s commonly referred to in texts from India, the Middle East, and China.)

Fig. 5— A map showing the sources of cloves, nutmeg, mace, white sandalwood, and massoy bark. The former three were common in medieval Europe; white sandalwood was less common but was known; and massoy bark appears to have only made it as far as Java before the sixteenth century. You can’t see the Banda Islands on this map because they’re simply too small, but they’re a little to the south of Seram in the Banda Sea.
Fig. 6 — Where cockatoos come from. This is a rather blunt instrument as it shows the distributions of all cockatoo species but, as you can see, there’s some considerable overlap with the sources of several commodities that were often consumed in medieval Europe. Adapted from a map on Wikimedia Commons. User: CanuckGuy (and others).
Fig. 7 — An excerpt from the sole surviving manuscript of Peter of Eboli’s “Liber ad honorem Augusti”, which dates to the author’s lifetime (and was probably supervised by him). The word for ‘nutmeg’ here is “miristica”, which is somewhat unusual in medieval Latin (cf. the scientific name for the tree — Myristica fragrans). Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 120.II., f.104r. 1196–7.

Europeans Knew Where Cockatoos Came From

The New Yorker piece, and Dalton’s scholarship in general, portrays this region, this ‘Australasia’, as completely unknown to Europeans in the Middle Ages. And it is true to say that Europeans would have known very little about the sources of cockatoos in the thirteenth century. Frederick II’s bird was thought to have come from somewhere in ‘India’, broadly conceived, by way of the Sultan of ‘Babylon’ (i.e. Cairo/Egypt), whose gift it was. But by the 1490s, when Andrea Mantegna was painting his cockatoo, there were accounts of eastern Indonesian islands and of the cockatoos that were traded from them. Two of them, in fact, both ultimately from the mind and mouth of a Venetian merchant named Niccolò de’ Conti, who travelled around the Indian Ocean in the 1430s and 1440s with his Egyptian wife and children. His travels included a stay of several months in Sumatra and probably Java as well. (Conti absolutely despised these places and their peoples but appears to have enjoyed eating durian.)

Fig. 8 — The caption describing the island of ‘Sondai’ (unidentified — no, it doesn’t seem to be Sunda) on the Fra Mauro map. c.1459.


Finally: How would a cockatoo have travelled to Europe? In the original articles by Dalton et al., it was suggested that the birds would first have been taken by boat to Java and from there to China, after which they would have journeyed in a caravan across Central Asia — along the ‘Silk Road’ — to the Middle East. This strikes me as rather ludicrous, and a result of the overestimation of the importance of the (overland) ‘Silk Road’ in popular conceptions of medieval trade. It still appears to be the belief of Dalton’s co-authors (see the final paragraph of the New Yorker piece), but Dalton herself has moved on. She now thinks the cockatoos would have travelled to Europe by sea:

  1. ‘Hugging the coast’ is not how anybody got across the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages. That had been rendered unnecessary at the end of the first millennium BCE by the discovery of the cycle of the northeast and southwest monsoon winds, which allowed ships to depart at regular intervals from different parts of the Ocean and sail right across it. (This is on every introductory course and in every book on the pre-modern Indian Ocean. I’m not sure if this is Dalton’s error or Mead’s, but either way it’s a howler.)



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