Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, is the diary of the fictional teenaged Lady Catherine in the year 1290. Catherine, who is nicknamed “Birdy” or “Little Bird”, records her daily trials and triumphs along with her fears and hopes for the future. On the small Medieval manor on which she lives, her options are limited. As Catherine seeks to avoid an arranged marriage and find meaning in her life, Cushman challenges the reader to consider questions of identity, equality, freedom, and familial responsibility. The book opens a window into the life of Medieval women and will enrich students’ study of both literature and history.
Students reading Catherine, Called Birdy will likely require a little background on life in Medieval England. As Catherine explains in her journal entries, her life in the manor house is strictly controlled. For Catherine, acting “like a lady” holds a different meaning than it does today. Being a lady did not simply mean acting like a polite female; a lady was a specific upper-class position in the ranks of English nobility and held different responsibilities and expectations than life as a lower-class female. Catherine is both empowered and restricted by this position.
Her privileged position as Lady Catherine is due to her father’s position as a knight. While he is only a minor knight, he is still lord of the manor on which he lives. His position is a result of the feudal system which dominated English life during the Middle Ages. In this hierarchical system, all power flowed down from the king, and with it, land, money, and food. The king parceled out his property among his favorite nobles who owed him loyalty and yearly taxes in exchange. This system was repeated on a smaller scale between greater and lesser nobles, eventually working its way down to the peasants, who collected no tax themselves, but owed allegiance and rent to their ruling nobleman. With this strict social structure, each member of society knew his or her place in the community and the expectations and responsibilities that came with it. Although this structure could provide comfort to some, it restricts Catherine and creates both external and internal conflicts for her, adding to the novel’s central tension. For more information about the feudal system and life in the middle ages, check out the links below.
Before beginning Catherine, Called Birdy, students may also benefit from research on the following aspects of Medieval society: