Hagiographie: The only apparent reference to the crane outside of Irish hagiography comes in a posthumous miracle of the martyr Thecla, by the Bishop Basil of Seleucia in Syria in the fifth century [AASS 23rd September, p. 560, no. 63]. Here, where Thecla’s grave was said to be, a boy was brought to have his eye cured by the saint. This was done, but in a manner startling for a healing miracle. A crane jumped at the boy, and poked its beak in his eye. From the resulting hole, a mass of bad matter flowed out. The boy thus recovered the use of his eyes without any mutilation. This story furnishes a limited parallel to parts of the Irish material, and given that the cult of Thecla existed in Britain at least by Bede’s time, it is just possible that this Greek story might have been known to Irish hagiographers.
The Irish crane stories may equally well be entirely independent. The earliest of these certainly is, and appears in Adomnán’s seventh-century story of the crane which Columba foresaw would arrive in Iona [Adomnán’s Life of Columba, pp. 312-15]. The crane is tended with due hospitality until three days later it returned to Ireland. It has been disputed whether the bird in this story really represents a crane, or whether it should be translated as ‘heron’, although ‘grus’ is the term used. The argument depends upon whether the early medieval Irish distinguished cranes and herons, which in fact it appears likely that they did [see Adomnán, Life of Columba, n.196, pp. 309-10; S. Boisseau, D.W. Yalden, pp. 482-500]. Below, it is assumed that the Irish stories are referring to cranes rather than herons, as has been usually the case.
A later story is more typical of saintly interactions with wild birds; here some cranes were causing disruption so Saint Ailbe directed his disciples to round them up like sheep and pen them. This done the saint lectured the birds the next day after which they dispersed [Vita Sancti Ailbe, in Plummer, Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, vol. 1, no. 43, p. 62. The story correctly represents the birds behaving as a flock, unlike solitary herons]. This story can be paralleled closely by a number of stories from British, Breton, Norman and other sources with other wild birds, most frequently geese [see Alexander, ch. 5].
A rather more unusual type of story appears in the Latin verse Vita of Saint Senán and the prose Vita of Saint Flannán [AASS 8th March, ch. 3, nos. 16-17, p. 765; Vita S Flannani, in Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, ch. 5, p. 283]. These two stories are quite closely related to each other; in both the saint miraculously mills by hand through the night with the fingers of his left hand giving out light. Spied upon by a messenger, the saint essentially curses the miscreant, whose eye is then put out by a crane as prophesised. In both stories, the intervention of a senior saint, Molua in Flannán’s case, secures the restoration of the sinner’s eye. A related vernacular story of Ciarán of Cluian contains a somewhat different narrative, and here the fault of a servant is to withhold food from the saint [see Stokes pp. 269-70]. This time the saint, who makes the curse, removes it in exchange for the mill.
These stories represent a specifically Irish topos which is likely to be early medieval in origin, given the nature of the similarities and differences between all three miracles. The crane in this topos is the agent of the saint’s vengeance, apparently for the sin of observing his secretly-exercised miraculous power. The association of the crane with saintly power does not seem to be incidental. In addition to the mysterious crane of Adomnán’s Columba, another late vernacular story of the saint has Colum Cille insulted by a queen as a ‘crane-cleric’ [ibid. p. 311]. The saint promptly turns her and her handmaid into cranes themselves. These associations of Irish saints with cranes suggest that the bird had symbolic significance. The symbolism may not have always been particular to Ireland as the Thecla miracle suggests. The crane’s connection with both the destruction and healing of eyes, themselves associated with the soul, is suggestive. In part this imagery can be absorbed into Christian allegory of salvation, but much in the Irish stories point also to pre-Christian associations where the crane is a link to the powers associated with the Otherworld.
Lit.: Adomnán’s Life of Columba, ed. and trans. A. O. ANDERSON/ M. O. ANDERSON, 1961; ADOMNÁN, Life of Columba, trans. R. SHARPE, 1995; D. ALEXANDER: Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, 2008; S. BOISSEAU/ D.W. YALDEN: The former status of the Crane Grus grus in Britain, in: Ibis, vol. 140, no. 3 (1998), 482-500; C. PLUMMER: Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, 1910; Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore, ed. W. STOKES, 1899; Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, ed. W. W. HEIST, 1965.
Moins pacifique, l’histoire d’une grue, contée par Etienne de Bourbon dans son recueils d’exempla, se termine mal: capturée par un oiseleur, elle était repartie vers la liberté, ayant récupéré ses forces, mais lors du retour de migration, elle avait entraîné la troupe de ses congénères vers la ferme où elle avait été si bien soignée. Toutes y furent capturées et occises, ce qui inspire la leçon de l’exemplum: De même ceux qui renient Dieu, la foi ou l’ordre, reviennent avec une cohorte d’âmes vers le diable, vers le monde ou vers le péché (ex. I. 252). C’est un des rares cas d’interprétation négative de la grue.
Ausg.: Adamnan: Vita Columbae, AA.SS. Junii, t. II, 209; Etienne de Bourbon: Tractatus de diversis materiis praedicabilibus, éd. J. BERLIOZ/ J. L. EICHENLAUB, 2002 (I, 252).
Baudouin Van den Abeele