I didn’t mention that at Niguliste, there is also a collection of silver objects, many of them formerly owned by the various guilds of Tallinn. By far (in my view) the most attractive of these items is a popinjay, made in the first half of the sixteenth century. It belonged to the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, and was given to the winner of a regular archery contest.

The Tallinn popinjay.

The Estonian word for popinjay is papagoi, itself a loan-word from the German Papagai (cf. Papageno), Italian papagallo, French perroquet, Scots papingo and Spanish papageyo. All come in a clear geographic trail from the Arabic babbaġā, through Spanish, etc. etc. The slightly odd English version is thought to have resulted from an attempt to normalise this exotic bird name by adding the more familiar ‘jay’ to the end of it (is the same true of the Italian ‘gallo’ suffix?).

This cockatoo among fruit is attributed to Roelof Koets (1592–1654). (Credit: Skokloster, Sweden)

The next question, obviously, is, what is a popinjay? As a bird, it usually means a parrot, in the broadest sense (though occasionally the context suggests the peacock). It is a brightly coloured, exotic bird, treasured by the well-to-do in the early modern period for both of these features (as well, presumably as its ability to mimic all sorts of sounds and human speech). There is a grey parrot front and centre on the Paston Treasure (possibly singing from the music manuscript on which he perches), but the popularity seems to have begun in the Low Countries, as trade with South America (and later Australasia) got under way. This interesting article connects the parrot with the Virgin Mary (for less than obvious reasons); and you can see bright macaws among the trees in the Garden of Eden, by Jan Brueghel I and Peter Paul Rubens. Later they appear both in still-lives and in portraits, usually of women, where they and their cages may have a symbolic as well as a literal meaning.

A small parrot with fruit and nuts, by Georg Flegel (1566–1638). (Credit: Gemäldergallerie, Berlin)

Gerrit Dou (1613–75), ‘A young girl with a perroquet’. (Credit: The Leiden Collection)

Caspar Netscher (1639–84), ‘Young woman in a window feeding a parrot’. (Credit: the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–81), ‘A young woman in a red jacket feeding a parrot’. (Credit: the National Gallery, London)

The papingo features in the Scots version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, called The Thirteen Days of Yule, which I learnt at school (this is the final verse):

The King sent his lady on the thirteenth Yule day,
Three stalks o merry corn, three maids a-merry dancing,
Three hinds a-merry hunting, an Arabian baboon,
Three swans a-merry swimming, three ducks a-merry laying,
A bull that was brown [pronounced, of ‘broon’, to rhyme with baboon],
Three goldspinks [goldfinches: I wondered for years what a spink was], three starlings, a goose that was grey,
Three plovers, three partridges, a papingo, aye.

Was a papingo more desirable than a partridge in a pear tree?

The English word ‘popinjay’ has a subordinate meaning to indicate a dandy at the extreme end of brightly coloured foppishness; see also macaroni …

The actor Colley Cibber as Lord Foppington, in John Vanbrugh’s smash-hit comedy The Relapse (1696).

‘The Martial Macaroni’, from a series of prints of the early 1770s, which included …

… ‘The Fly Catching Macaroni’, caricaturing Sir Joseph Banks, just returned from his round-the-world voyage with Cook.

And it is presumably this aspect of the word which gave rise to the English name of Stibochiona nicea, the popinjay butterfly, found in south-east Asia.

The popinjay butterfly, Stibochiona nicea. (Credit: Tony Hoare)

But the Tallinn popinjay was a prize for archery, specifically pole archery, where the aim is to hit a target – a wooden or wicker popinjay – in the air rather than on the ground.

Shooting horizontally at the butts, from the Luttrell Psalter. (Credit: the British Library)

It seems to be still popular today in Belgium, and, fascinatingly, at Kilwilling in Ayrshire, Scotland, where the Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers was founded in the late fifteenth century, and where a papingo shoot (the oldest archery competition in the world, it is claimed) is held yearly in June in the grounds of the equally ancient Kilwinning Abbey.

Papingo targets from Kilwilling. (Credit: Roger Griffith)

Shooting at the popinjay, from a sixteenth-century French manuscript. Where do the arrows come down?

The Brotherhood of the Black Heads was a confraternity of (unmarried) merchants and ship-owners (mostly, inevitably, foreign settlers), founded in Tallinn in the fourteenth century. Their surviving grand building on Pikk, one of the main thoroughfares, was renovated in 1597 in a quasi-Dutch style.

The House of the Black Heads in Tallinn.

In paint above the door and in the coat-of-arms above the lintel is the Black Head of the Brotherhood’s patron saint, St Maurice, the Egyptian soldier-martyr, patron of armies, and (less likely) sufferers from gout.

The grand doorway of the house.

Matthias Grünewald (1470–1528), ‘St Erasmus and St Maurice’. (Credit: Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Other decorations on the front are a row of coats-of-arms of some of the other Hanseatic towns, including that of the Steelyard in London (now under Cannon Street station), but we couldn’t determine which it was.

The arms of the Hanseatic League from the Steelyard in London, now in the Museum of London. (Credit: Kim Naylor)

Georg Giese (1497–1562), a merchant of the Steelyard, born in Danzig and immortalised by Holbein. Lovely glass of pinks! (Credit: Gemäldegallerie, Berlin)

The confraternity survived until the twentieth century, but many of its members fled to Germany after the Soviet occupation in 1940. No. 26 Pikk is used today for concerts, exhibitions and public meetings (The Black Heads also had a guild in Riga, Latvia, in a very elaborate building that was completely destroyed in the war and reconstructed in 1999.)

The coat-of-arms of the Black Heads, inside the building.

Precisely where the Black Heads held their competition is not clear. Perhaps they fixed a pole with a dangling popinjay from the gable of their house, or to the tower of the church of the Dominican monastery of St Catherine (formerly one of the largest churches in northern Europe, later a granary, a warehouse and a car repairer’s, now in part a concert hall), with which they were associated.

Part of the surviving buildings of St Catherine’s church.

The object of the exercise seems to have been not merely to hit the target, but to bring it down, at least if Sir Walter Scott’s historicity (describing a gun-shooting competition in 1679) can be relied on:

[The popinjay] was suspended to a pole, and served for a mark, at which the competitors discharged their fusees and carabines in rotation, at the distance of sixty or seventy paces. He whose ball brought down the mark, held the proud title of Captain of the Popinjay for the remainder of the day, and was usually escorted in triumph to the most reputable change-house in the neighbourhood, where the evening was closed with conviviality, conducted under his auspices, and, if he was able to sustain it, at his expense. (Old Mortality, ch. 2)

Shooting at a popinjay with firearms, by Adriaen van de Venne (1589–1662). (Credit: the British Museum)

The Black Heads’ silver popinjay has a chain – was it worn round the victor’s neck on ceremonial occasions in the subsequent year? With its carefully delineated feathers, smiley expression and twinkling ruby eyes, it is a remarkable survival – perhaps it is time for the art of pole archery to be revived in Tallinn?










This entry was posted in Art, History, London, Museums and Galleries, Natural history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Popinjays

  1. Martin Rose says:

    I imagine you know all about the Archers’ Guild of St Sebastian in Bruges, a lovely building and fascinating institution with its own popinjay, still regularly shot at by stout old gentlemen before a good lunch. There’s a short film of it which I’ve just found here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02JyAMIwDIk

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much, I didn’t! But by happy chance, I’m going to Bruges in a few weeks (for the first time for ages), so will be on the look-out.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this (as usual!). The illustrations are superb. The word only had negative connotations for me before (for a dandy, a show-off) but that has changed now!!!


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