Pity the Seagull
Northumbria police have launched an investigation after a photo was posted on Facebook of a man apparently strangling a seagull. Councillors in seaside towns are considering using drones to kill seagull chicks in their nests. Although the numbers of most gull species in the UK are in decline, they have an 'increasing presence in urban areas'. The RSPCA is looking into reports that people in Cornwall are attacking gulls with fishing line. Meanwhile the birds have been accused of attacking people and killing pets, and in Namibia they've been spotted pecking out the eyes of baby seals, as if they weren't already hated enough.
But disliking seagulls is nothing new. The speaker of the The Seafarer regrets that he has only the calls of the sea-mew (the Old English word for seagull) for entertainment instead of mead-drinking: ‘mæw singende fore medodrince’. In another Old English poem, Andreas, seagulls aren't only a disappointing beer-surrogate but a sinister omen: one circles over St Andrew’s boat, greedy for carrion (‘wælgifre’).
Protestantism did further damage to the gull's reputation. One of the unclean birds listed in Deuteronomy Chapter 14 appears as larum in the Vulgate. English translators weren’t sure what to make of it. The Wycliffite Bible hedged its bets and called the bird a ‘lare’. William Tyndale translated it as ‘cuckow’. But the Geneva Bible went for ‘seagull’. Henry Ainsworth, in his 1627 Annotations on the Bible, called it ‘a bird of a greedy and ravenous kind’.
Perhaps influenced by the Geneva Bible, the 17th-century physician Tobias Venner advised against eating the bird. In his 1620 guide to living a long life, Via Recta ad Vitam Longam, Venner wrote: ‘The seagull is to be rejected as all other kinds of flesh of a fishy savour: for he is of a very ill juice, and is not only unpleasant, but also very offensive to the stomach.’ Venner may not be the most reliable guide: in a treatise on tobacco smoke, he recommended smoking as an aid to digestion and protection against pestilent airs. And John Stafford, the Bishop of Bath and Wells (d.1452), would have disagreed, as he served seagull at a feast he held in September 1425, as well as roasted venison, curlews and swan.
Depictions of seagulls in medieval and early modern art are rare. In the decorative margin of an early 14th century manuscript produced in Venice, now housed in the Bodleian Library, there is an image of a seagull. A Saracen appears to be shooting at it with a bow and arrow.
The word ‘gull’ doesn’t appear in English until the late medieval period, and it’s origins are unclear. It’s probably a loan-word from the Cornish guilan or Welsh gŵylan. But in the early modern period, the seagull suffered from its homonyms, particular the verb meaning ‘to deceive’. Whether or not the noun and the verb derive from a common root, they were linked in the minds of some lexicographers, including Dr Johnson.
The hate may have a long history, but it hasn’t been universal. In Dafydd ap Gwylim’s 14th-century Welsh poem Yr Wylan the seagull is an emissary of love, which the poet begs to carry a message to his red-haired beloved (a more effective romantic gesture than shooting one and presenting its corpse as a gift, as Konstanin does in Chekhov's play). So pity the seagull: not only a modern pariah, but disdained by Protestants, loathed by the Anglo-Saxons, shot at by Saracens and eaten by bishops.