Aesop's fables: The Fox and The Crow. Illustration after 1485 edition printed in Naples by German printers for Francesco del Tuppo. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images
Why are geese in a gaggle? And are crows really murderous? Collective nouns are one of the most charming oddities of the English language, often with seemingly bizarre connections to the groups they identify. But have you ever stopped to wonder where these peculiar terms actually came from?
Many of them were first recorded in the 15th century in publications known as Books of Courtesy – manuals on the various aspects of noble living, designed to prevent young aristocrats from embarrassing themselves by saying the wrong thing at court.
The earliest of these documents to survive to the present day was The Egerton Manuscript, dating from around 1450, which featured a list of 106 collective nouns. Several other manuscripts followed, the most influential of which appeared in 1486 in The Book of St Albans – a treatise on hunting, hawking and heraldry, written mostly in verse and attributed to the nun Dame Juliana Barnes (sometimes written Berners), prioress of the Priory of St Mary of Sopwell, near the town of St Albans.
This list features 164 collective nouns, beginning with those describing the ‘beasts of the chase’, but extending to include a wide range of animals and birds and, intriguingly, an extensive array of human professions and types of person.
Those describing animals and birds have diverse sources of inspiration. Some are named for the characteristic behaviour of the animals (‘a leap of leopards’, ‘a busyness of ferrets’), or by the use they were put to by humans (‘a yoke of oxen’, ‘a burden of mules’). Sometimes they’re given group nouns that describe their young (‘a covert of coots’, ‘a kindle of kittens’), and others by the way they respond when flushed (‘a sord of mallards’, ‘a rout of wolves’).
Many of those describing people and professions go further still in revealing the medieval mindset of their inventors, opening a window into the past from which we can enjoy a fascinating view of the medieval world.
1) “A tabernacle of bakers”
Bread was the mainstay of a medieval peasant’s diet, with meat, fish and dairy produce too expensive to be eaten any more than once or twice a week. Strict laws governing the distribution of bread stated that no baker was allowed to sell his bread from beside his own oven, and must instead purvey his produce from a stall at one of the king’s approved markets.
These small, portable shops were known in Middle English as ‘tabernacula’, which were defined by Dutch lexicographer Junius Hadrianus in his Nomenclature, which was first translated into English in 1585, as ‘little shops made of boards’.
2) “A stalk of foresters”
The role of a forester in medieval society was respectable and well paid. Geoffrey Chaucer held the position in the royal forest of North Petherton in Somerset, and records from 1394 show that he was granted an annual pension of £20 by Richard II – a sum that reflected the importance of the role to hunting-mad noblemen.
A forester’s duties included protecting the forest’s stock of game birds, deer and other animals from poachers. From time to time they also stalked criminals, who took to the forests to evade capture.
3) “A melody of harpers”
Depicted in wall paintings in Ancient Egyptian tombs, the harp is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, and by the medieval period – the age of troubadours and minstrels – was experiencing a surge in popularity.
This was an era defined by its emphasis on knightly tradition, and the harp often accompanied songs about valiant deeds and courtly love. In great demand at the estates of the upper classes, travelling harpists often moved from town to town performing instrumental accompaniment at banquets and recitals of madrigal singing. There were high-born harpists, too: both Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were keen players.
4) “A sentence of judges”
Up until the 12th century, the law was deeply rooted in the feudal system, whereby the lord of the manor could charge and punish perpetrators of crime – often poaching from his land – as he saw fit. But in 1166, Henry II sought to shift the power away from individual landowners and bring it more directly under his own control.
He established the courts of assizes, where a national bench of judges travelled around the country attending quarterly court sessions. These judges based their decisions on a new set of national laws that were common to all people, which is where we get the term ‘common law’.
Though more egalitarian than the manorial system, assizes judges could be harsh in the sentences they delivered, which ranged from a stint in the stocks to public execution.
5) “A faith of merchants”
Merchants lived outside the rigid structure of feudalism, and their growing success in the 15th century had an enormous impact on the structure of society. They formed guilds of fellow traders, which eventually bought charters directly from the king, allowing the towns to become independent of the lord of the manor.
Faith’ as it is used here was a reference to the trustworthiness of a person, and is meant ironically, since merchants were rarely trusted. Court documents from the time record the various tricks of the trade that were used to con the public, including hiding bad grain under good, and stitching undersized coal sacks to disguise small measures of coal.
All offences were officially punishable by a stint in the pillory, but because the guilds were self-regulated, most perpetrators got off with only a fine – to the inevitable anger of the masses.
6) “An abominable sight of monks”
Monks weren’t particularly popular during the 15th century. Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, dated around AD 725, is the story of a party of monks who almost drowned when their boat was caught in a storm on the River Tyne. Cuthbert pleaded with the peasants on the bank for help but “the rustics, turning on him with angry minds and angry mouths, exclaimed, ‘Nobody shall pray for them: May God spare none of them! For they have taken away from men the ancient rites and customs, and how the new ones are to be attended to, nobody knows.’”
By the 15th century this resentment of the trampling of pagan traditions had been exacerbated by a perception of monks as being well fed and comfortable while the general population starved. ‘Abominable’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “causing moral revulsion”, which is a fairly accurate description of the reaction this image provoked.
7) “A superfluity of nuns”
Superfluity can be interpreted in two ways – the first is as historical fact. There were around 138 nunneries in England between 1270 and 1536, many of which were severely overcrowded. The convent was seen as a natural step for the daughters of the nobility who had passed marriageable age, and lords put pressure on prioresses to accept their daughters even if they were already full.
Alternatively, though, the excess of nuns referred to here could have been a comment on the emerging view among agitators for church reform that the days of the monastery and convent were over. Some 50 years after this noun appeared in print in The Book of St Albans Henry VIII ordered their closure, and the Protestant Reformation was in full swing.
8) “A stud of horses”
Horses were at the absolute centre of life in the Middle Ages. Rather than the breeds we’re familiar with today, medieval horses were classified by the role they played in society. There were destriers, stallions that were used as warhorses by royalty and lords; palfreys, bred for general-purpose riding, war and travel, usually owned by the wealthy; coursers, steady cavalry horses; and rouncies – common-grade hack horses of no special breeding.
During the Middle Ages, monasteries often ran breeding centres called stud farms – ‘stud’ has its roots in the German word ‘Stute’, meaning mare. State stud farms also existed: the first was established under Louis XIV of France in 1665, by which time ‘a stud of horses’ was already established as the proper collective.
9) ‘A pack/cry/kennel of hounds’
Hunting dogs were important members of the medieval household. Every noble family kept kennels for their dogs, and these were looked after by a team of dedicated servants.
‘A cry of hounds’ is thought to derive from the hunting cry that instructs the hounds in their pursuit. The traditional English hunting call ‘Tally Ho!’ is a shortening of ‘Tallio, hoix, hark, forward,’ which, according to an 1801 edition of The Sporting Magazine, is an Anglicized version of the French terms ‘Thia-hilaud’ and ‘a qui forheur’, which appear in La Vénerie by Jacques du Fouilloux, first published at Poitiers in 1561.
This was adapted into English by George Gascoigne under the title The Noble Arte of Venerie, and became one of the pillars of a young gentleman’s hunting education.
10) “A richesse of martens”
The European pine marten was considered a top prize for hunters in the Middle Ages. Of all the ‘vermin of the chase’, which included foxes, wild cats, polecats and squirrels, the marten was the most sought after because of its valuable pelt.
Tudor ‘statutes of apparel’ – strict laws governing the amount of money the people could spend on clothing – dictated the colours, cuts and materials that could be worn by each level of society, and stated which furs could be worn by which tier of the aristocracy. Only those of or above the rank of duke, marquise and earl were allowed to wear sable fur, while ermine, the white winter coat of the stoat, which could only be obtained for a few months of the year, was reserved for royalty.
Chloe Rhodes’ An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns is published by Michael O'Mara.