62 pages 2 hours read

Karen Cushman

Catherine, Called Birdy

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1994

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Summary and Study Guide


American author Karen Cushman’s middle grade novel, Catherine, Called Birdy, explores the life of a young woman in 13th-century England. Published in 1994, the book won the Newbery Honor the following year. It is currently being adapted for the screen by actor, writer, and director Lena Dunham. This detailed work of historical fiction immerses the reader in the very different world of medieval England, with its emphasis on religion as the organizing force behind daily activities and seasonal celebrations, and strictly imposed gender, class, and communal roles.

Plot Summary

The book follows its narrator Catherine, nicknamed Birdy, as she writes in her diary throughout the year in her life when she turns14, beginninginSeptemberof1290.Unusual for a young woman of the time, Birdy was taught to read and write, and her brother Edward has encourages her to keep an account of her life. He believes that this endeavor will help her mature and temper her impulsiveness. Most entries are introduced by an italicized note indicating which saint’s day is being recognized, with occasional editorial comments from Birdy expressing her approval or disdain for the saint being honored. This organizing principle shapes the daily lives of all the characters within the book, be they upper class members of the manor or lower-class villagers and servants.

Birdy lives in the manor of Stone bridge. Her father Rollo is the country knight of the town. In the hierarchy of medieval England, this means that Birdy is of the landed class; she is wealthy but not so wealthy that she doesn’t have to work. She lives in a manor, not a castle, marking her at the lower echelons of the landed classes. She is destined, like that of other women of her class during this period of history, to become a Lady and be married off, ideally to a wealthy suitor.

She balks at this arrangement, cursing her lot and interfering with her father’s attempts to match her to any number of “lack-wits” and other inappropriate suitors, as she sees them. Birdy, like the birds she keeps and so devotedly loves, longs to break out of her cage. By far, her greatest nemesis in this ongoing saga to find her a fitting husband is Shaggy Beard, an uncouth older man whose title and wealth make him an attractive prospect to her parents, but not at all to Birdy.

Instead, Birdy prefers the company of Perkin, the goat boy, whom she considers the cleverest person she knows. Despite an apparent physical disability, Perkin has a gifted way with animals and dreams of being a scholar; he is a tolerant foil to Birdy’s flights of fancy and fits of anger. Birdy is also enamored with her handsome uncle George, who has returned from the crusades. He makes her blush with his good looks and charm, and he represents the freedom of movement and experience of adventure for which she longs. Uncle George, however, soon becomes romantically interested in Birdy’s best friend, Aelis, and they quickly announce their desire to wed. However, in the medieval world of proscribed roles and the need for political alliances, this match is not to be. Instead, Aelis is wed to a seven-year-old duke, while George eventually marries Ethelfritha, an unfettered and fun-loving older woman who, unfortunately, also displays signs of a mental illness. Birdy blames herself for both of these incidents because, in a fit of jealousy, she tries to curse George and Aelis for their romantic feelings.

Eventually, though, all of the characters bend their wills and desires to the realities of their roles during this period of history: Aelis’s young husband dies, and she is betrothed to Birdy’s least favorite brother, Robert. Despite her previous and allegedly undying love for Uncle George, Aelis accepts this arrangement and even seems happy with it, forcing Birdy to reconsider her brother’s character. Uncle George, for his part, grows to care for his wife Ethelfritha, showing her great tenderness. Even Birdy slowly begins to accept the fate that awaits her.

After being betrothed to Shaggy Beard, she vows never to submit to the marriage, confounding her father at every turn. Upon a trip to the Bartlemas fair, however, Birdy ends up buying a performing bear that had been doomed to a bear baiting—a fight to the death. In saving the bear, she uses the money that Shaggy Beard has given her as a wedding gift, thus implicitly giving her consent to the marriage. While she initially tries to accept this, the prospect of marriage to Shaggy Beard ultimately overwhelms her, so she runs away to Ethelfritha and George’s home.

With George away on business, Birdy and Ethelfritha try to devise a plan to free Birdy from her commitment. It quickly becomes apparent that Ethelfritha’s ideas are far-fetched and that her illness leads to irrational thinking. By the time George returns, Birdy has reevaluated her choices and decides to return home without much of a fight. She takes comfort in the fact that no matter who her husband is, she will still remain herself. Upon returning to the manor, Birdy learns that Shaggy Beard has been killed in a bar brawl, so she will instead be betrothed to his son, Stephen. She does not seem to mind, having a better opinion of the manners and intellect of the son and ultimately looking forward to her wedding day.

In the background of the story, there are indications of great transformations occurring throughout England and beyond: The expulsion of the Jewish people from England has been ordered by the king, Edward I, known as Edward Longshanks; the crusades are ongoing in the Holy Land of Jerusalem, without success; and Queen Eleanor dies. In addition, Birdy’s mother endures a difficult pregnancy and birth, while Birdy contemplates the nature of people’s changing identities.

At the conclusion of the book, the author writes that“[t]he England of 1290 is a foreign country” and that “our ideas of individual identity, individual accomplishments and rights, and individual effort and success did not exist”(165). Birdy’s life experiences are as different to a 21st-century 13- or 14-year-old as those of a young woman from a far-flung foreign world. Still, her resistance to her proscribed fate can be seen as a nearly universal feature in maturing adolescents.

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