Medieval manuscripts blog

62 posts categorized "Animals"

23 October 2015

Hybrids and Shape-Shifters

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Animal Tales, an exhibition exploring the role of animals in literature and what it says about us as humans, is open in the entrance hall of the British Library until 1 November 2015. One of the exhibition cases is devoted to shape-changing: stories where human and animal identity is blurred, with humans taking on the shapes and characteristics of animals. Works on display include illustrated editions of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Little Red Riding Hood.

The Library's collections of medieval manuscripts contains a wealth of the most incredible images of animals, humans and everything in between. For example, an advanced search for ‘Hybrid’ in Iour Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts gives 196 results! Here are some of the most intriguing.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is perhaps the earliest example of, well, metamorphosis, and it was widely copied and adapted in medieval manuscripts. Here is an example from 15th-century Germany.


Decorated initial 'I'(n) with acanthus leaves, a lion, a lady with pointed headdress and the head of a hybrid creature holding arms in its mouth, at the beginning of book 10 in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2489, f. 120r

Of course, most of the shape-shifters in our manuscripts are in the marginalia livening up the pages of a wide variety of texts, some of them religious. This image, illustrating an episode from the Old Testament apocryphal legend of Tobit, has a knight-centaur and a hairy man in the border.


Miniature of the blinding of Tobit, lying in bed in his house; outside, Tobias leading the angel Raphael into the house; with a full border including a wildman holding a banner bearing the royal arms of England and a centaur, with a banner inscribed with the Yorkist motto, 'Dieu et mon droit', Netherlands, S. (Bruges); 1470 and c. 1479, Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The Luttrell Psalter, featured many times in this blog, is filled with fantastical marginal creatures and here are two delights: a bishop and a king with bird/animal/reptile-like bodies.


A page from the Psalms with marginal hybrids, from the Luttrell Psalter, England, N. (Lincolnshire), 1325-1340, Add MS 42130, f. 175r

The Gorleston Psalter has a variation on the knight versus snail theme, one of our favourites. Here a knight with a horse’s body holds up a face-shield to the snail, while attacking it with curved blade.


Marginal image of a knight/horse attacking a snail from the Gorleston Psalter, England, E. (Suffolk), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 179r

This Book of Hours from St Omer, formerly owned by John Ruskin, has some of the cutest marginal creatures, and what a great hairstyle for a hybrid!


Marginal images of a male hybrid holding a fish and a female hybrid in the St Omer Hours, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Therouanne) c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 96v

Legends and romances are often decorated with marginal creature too and this manuscript of Arthurian tales, known as the Prose Lancelot-Grail contains an image in the top left-hand margin of a hybrid man reading an almanac, with an ape trying to snatch it away.


Opening page of Lancelot du Lac with the lines ‘En la marche de Gaule’, a large miniature in colours on a gold ground of King Ban of Benoith and King Bohort of Gaunes, and a full bar border with hybrid creatures, animals and human figures, one side consisting of a 3-storey chapel, each storey containing a courtly character, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 1r

This page from a book of canon law, the ‘Smithfield Decretals’, is a riot of imagination. The lower margin contains some great hybrids doing what hybrids do!


Two hybrid creatures blowing trumpets on either side of a castle full of people, from the Smithfield Decretals, England, S. E. (London), 1325-1350, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 2v

Of course, hybrid creatures are found not only in the margins. This miniature illustrates an episode from Froissart’s Chroniques: the Dance of the Wodewoses. These were mythical satyr-like creatures or men of the woods who were popular figures in medieval folklore. The episode illustrated is the tragedy at the Bal des Sauvages in Paris on 28 January 1393. King Charles VI of France and some of his courtiers were dressed as wild men and chained together for a masquerade. Their costumes contained flammable glue attaching a hemp-like material that made them appear ‘hairy from head to foot’. As they were dancing, a spark from a torch set their highly-flammable costumes alight, so that some of them were burned alive; the king's life was saved through quick action by his aunt, the Duchesse de Berry, who used her dress to smother the flames.


Miniature of the dance of the Wodewoses, from the Harley Froissart, Netherlands, S. (Bruges), c. 1470 and 1472, Harley MS 4380, f. 1r

Animal Tales is a free exhibition at the British Library until 1 November 2015.

Chantry Westwell


21 October 2015

A Kestrel for a Knave

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Set in a coal-mining community in northern England, Ken Loach’s film Kes (1969) portrays the solace a young boy finds when nurturing a kestrel. The film is based on A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), a novel by Barry Hines currently on display in the British Library’s free exhibition Animal Tales. This 20th-century tale of social realism may seem out of place in a blog post about medieval manuscripts. However, it has an unexpected connection to an item in the British Library’s Harley collection and provides the perfect opportunity to explore one of the most frequently written about and depicted human-animal interactions in medieval books.

  YT MS 19_f.54r

Detail of a miniature of different types of hawks, from Brunetto Latini’s Livres dou Tresor, N. France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 54r

 In the preface of A Kestrel for a Knave, Hines alludes to the source of his title:

‘“An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady; a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave.”

Selected from the Boke of St. Albans, 1486, and a Harleian manuscript.’ (Kes: A Kestrel for a Knave (London:  Michael Joseph, 1974), p. 7)

The manuscript mentioned is Harley MS 2340, a 15th-century collection of treatises on hawking. It is one of a number of English hunting and hawking manuals created during this period. For an intriguing illuminated example, check out this blog post on the Kerdeston Hawking Book.

The first item in Harley MS 2340 is The Booke of Hawkyng after Prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande (ff. 1r-22v), which includes such useful information as treatments ‘ffor the hawke that hath lost his corage and luste’ (f. 12r). This text was also incorporated into the hawking section of The Boke of St. Albans (1486), the first source mentioned by Hines, which is the earliest printed English treatise on hawking and hunting.  

  Photo of harley ms 2340_f. 50r

The hierarchy of owners and hawks from a collection of treatises on hawking, England, 1st half of the 15th century, Harley MS 2340, f. 50r

 The hierarchy of owners and hawks modernised by Hines is largely the same in both Harley MS 2340 (f. 50r) and the printed Boke of St. Albans (Hands (ed.), ll. 1164-1203). However, the famous line ‘a Kestrel for a Knave’ is only found in the Harley manuscript (‘A kesterell for a knafe’ (f. 50r)), despite The Boke of St. Albans being widely cited as the source of the title.


Detail of marginal drawing of a man hawking, from the Luttrell Psalter, N. England (Diocese of Lincoln), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 42130, f. 41r

It is unlikely that the hierarchies in the printed book and the Harley manuscript represent actual medieval practices. Indeed, specific types of bird were selected according to the nature of the prey or the location of the hunt. The two principal categories of bird, hawks and falcons, manifest different ways of attacking prey. Whereas falcons dive from a height and are better suited to hunting in open countryside, hawks swoop on their prey from a lower altitude, making them also suitable for woodland hunts.   


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mounted king, hawking, and a stag feeding, from the 'Smithfield Decretals', Southern France (Toulouse?) and England (London), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 254r

The hierarchy of birds and owner does, however, make clear how hunting with birds was a socially-coded activity. The circumstances surrounding this form of venery distinguished the rich and powerful from the lowly knave. What game keepers did to make a living, the aristocracy enjoyed as sport.


Portrait of King John with a hawk from a genealogical roll of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1300-c. 1340, Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 6

The equation of falconry with nobility is frequently found in manuscript illumination. Aristocratic figures were often portrayed holding hawks as a sign of their status, even the ignominious King John. The time and wealth required to train and keep these often very valuable birds was substantial. As Robin S. Oggins sums up, hawking was ‘an almost perfect example of conspicuous consumption: it was expensive, time-consuming, and useless’ (The Kings and Their Hawks, p. 111).

 Detail of a bas-de-page scene of three kings, Royal MS 10 E IV,  f. 258v   

Participation in hawking as a leisure activity increased by the 15th century, and so too did the ways of marking social superiority. It not only counted how one hunted, but also how one spoke about it. For example, after the hierarchy in Harley MS 2340, we find a list of the collective nouns for different types of bird, a terminology that distinguished the elite from the uneducated.

In addition to high social status, falconry was also associated with youth, as seen in this roundel from the Ten Ages of Man.


Detail of a roundel from the section on Youth from the Wheel of the Ten Ages of Man, in the De Lisle Psalter, Arundel MS 83, f. 126v 

Hunting with birds was also an activity open to women. Two of our most famous illuminated manuscripts, the Taymouth Hours  and the Smithfield Decretals, both feature multiple scenes of ladies using hawks to hunt for hares and ducks.


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady observing her hawk fly towards a duck, from the 'Taymouth Hours', England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 73r


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady observing her hawk bringing down a duck, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 73v


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady hawking for a hare, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 74r


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady holding her hawk and a dead duck, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 74v


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two women with hawks catching ducks, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 78r


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a woman hawking, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 79r

Venery and courtship were often connected in medieval literature and art. As well as the sexual connotations of the hunt, birds of prey represented the ultimate luxury accessory for the courtly lover.


A couple courting and hawking, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 243r

Images of lovers hawking also often accompany the month of May in calendars at the beginning of books of hours, such as the manuscript from our recent caption competition and the Huth Hours discussed in this blog post.


Calendar roundels for the month of May depicting Adam and Eve and two lovers hawking, Book of Hours, Paris, 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 5r

As with other symbols of social status or authority, the margins of the page provided the space to parody the prestigious connotations of hawking. Rather than an aristocratic male, here a monkey is depicted wooing a lady. Instead of a bird of prey, an owl rests on his arm, a nocturnal bird laden with negative and ignoble connotations, and even used as bait. The lewd sexual nature of these animals subverts the courtly erotic evoked in the images of lovers above. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a courting monkey holding an owl, Stowe MS 17, f. 62r

In other examples, parodic monkey falconers are depicted riding goats instead of horses. This fellow looks like he's having a hoot!


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a monkey holding an owl and riding a goat, Additional MS 42130, f. 38r

You have until 1 November 2015 to explore the fascinating books (and sounds) on display in the British Library’s free Animal Tales exhibition.


Further reading

Rachel Hands, ‘Juliana Berners and The Boke of St. Albans’, The Review of English Studies, 18 (1967), 373-86.

Rachel Hands, English Hawking and Hunting in ‘The Boke of St. Albans’. A facsimile edition of sigs. a2–f8 of ‘The Boke of St. Albans’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Robin S. Oggins, The Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004).

Jean Wirth, Les Marges à drôleries des manuscrits gothiques (Geneva: Droz, 2008).


- Hannah Morcos

14 October 2015

The Unicorn Lives On

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On 20 September of this year our eagle-eyed friend and former colleague Dr Alixe Bovey drew our attention to that day’s edition of The Sunday Times.  In that issue was an article about the latest work by the artist Sir Peter Blake, who is perhaps best known for designing the iconic album cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Sir Peter had created a mural to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Lord Mayor’s Parade, compiling dozens of images to capture the spirit of the parade across the centuries.

Peter Blake mural

In the earliest years of the parade can be found the familiar figure of our ‘unicorn lady’; can you spot her amongst the crowds?  She first made an appearance on 1 April 2012 in our post Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library, and now you can see her between the years 1315-1415 and 1514-1515 (click the above image for a larger version).  It is a testament to the power of medieval images that they can continue to be reused and remixed today in such interesting ways, and to such astounding effect.  We are absolutely thrilled. 

Unicorn Head
Bringing the unicorn to table, from the Unicorn Cookbook

We’ve found a number of other images from British Library manuscripts in Sir Peter’s work, including the dancing nun of the Maastricht Hours (for more on that manuscript, see Monkeying Around with the Maastricht Hours).  Please do let us know if you discover any others, either in the comments below or on Twitter @BLMedieval

-   Sarah J Biggs

10 October 2015

Medieval Animal Tales

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You have until 1 November 2015 to run, gallop, canter, fly, swoop or simply walk down to the British Library to catch the brilliant (and free!) Animal Tales exhibition, on display in the Entrance Hall Gallery. 

Press shot

Curated by Matthew Shaw, Alison Bailey and Barbara Hawes, Animal Tales explores the relationship between beasts and humans in works of literature and artistic books: the many ways in which human feelings and thoughts have been projected onto animals, and how the animal kingdom has served as a mirror to human foibles. A full list of exhibits is available on our American Collections blog

Two items likely to be of interest to readers of this blog are Guillaume Apollinaire’s Le Bestiaire, ou Cortège d’Orphée (1977) and Pablo Neruda’s Bestiary/Bestario (1965). These 20th-century re-imaginings of a medieval genre provide the perfect opportunity for us to look over the British Library’s rich collection of bestiary manuscripts.

  Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f050r - detail

Detail of a miniature showing vultures feeding on human carrion, from the Rochester Bestiary, south-eastern England (?Rochester), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 50r

When we think of medieval bestiaries, what first comes to mind are richly illuminated manuscripts: for example, the 13th-century Rochester Bestiary (Royal MS 12 F XIII). Some 55 miniatures illustrate passages of text that describe animals and their behaviour, from the lion to vulture (via the elephant, beaver, dromedary and mole). The 13th century was the heyday of the Latin bestiary, and based on the distribution of surviving examples and entries in contemporary book-lists, they were most popular in England.

Sloane MS 278, f. 48v

Detail of a miniature showing elephants, a dragon and a mandrake, from a bestiary, northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Sloane MS 278, f. 48v

Such manuscripts represent the culmination of a very long textual tradition. Bestiaries were primarily based on the Physiologus, a Greek text from Alexandria written between the 2nd and 4th centuries. The Latin translation that followed shortly thereafter provided the basis for the medieval bestiary, along with interpolations from Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, ff. 31v-32r

Miniatures of goats and a bull, from a bestiary compiled with other theological texts and medical recipes, northern or central England, 1st quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 12 C XIX, ff. 31v-32r

In monastic libraries, bestiaries were usually classified along with theological works and shelved with similar materials, such as sermons, penitentials, and lives of saints. The compilation of a bestiary in Royal MS 12 C XIX along with two sermons and extracts from the Bible, the Imago mundi and the Etymologiae further illustrates the context in which contemporary readers encountered this text. This manuscript (omitting the French and Latin recipes at the end) is a direct copy of the Worksop Bestiary (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 81).

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f034v - detail

Detail of a miniature of Adam naming the animals, with a stag, a lion, a donkey, a rabbit, and a man riding a camel, from the Rochester Bestiary, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 34v

While the Physiologus began its life as a treatise structured around the subjects of virtue and vice, the interpolations from other texts gradually changed the bestiary’s form to reflect the organisation of the natural world as described in Genesis. The moralising content remained, however, and many medieval sermons and preaching handbooks contain such material derived from bestiaries. It was as source-books for edifying and instructive stories, complementary to those derived from the Bible or hagiographies, that the bestiaries derived their success and widespread circulation.  

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f044v - detail

Detail of a miniature of moles burrowing underground, from the Rochester Bestiary, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 44v

For a more in-depth look at the bestiary genre, its origins and evolution, and links to further images, check out our online exhibition, Books of Beasts in the British Library: The Medieval Bestiary and its Context.

Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

Detail of a miniature of hunters spearing a bonnacon, and protecting themselves from its burning dung with a shield, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

Past posts on animals – real or fantastic – are among the most popular ones published on this blog. Who could forget the Unicorn Cookbook? Or Medieval Lolcats and Bugs in Books? We’ve had dancing monkeys in Apes Pulling Shapes, the humble hedgehog in The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and How to be a Hedgehog, and the mighty lion in A Royal Beast and the Menagerie in the Tower. There’s also a handy guide to possibly the oddest creatures in Weird and Wonderful Creatures of the Bestiary; beware of the bonnacon, that’s all we can say.

Animal Tales runs until 1 November 2015 in the Entrance Hall Gallery at the British Library. Entry is free.


- James Freeman

31 July 2015

Happy Uncommon Musical Instrument Appreciation Day!

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As we are sure you are all aware, today is Uncommon Musical Instrument Appreciation Day, the day on which we are urged to take time to think about the rare and unusual instruments that have gone obsolete, or are otherwise beyond our ken.  We would like to offer a number of examples in the spirit of this momentous occasion - the familiar, the forgotten and the simply odd.  Please be sure to send any other gems you might encounter to us on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Without any further ado:

Add MS 47683 f. 1v G70059-77
Folio with musical instruments, from a leaf from a giant Bible, Italy, 11th-12th century, Add MS 47683, f. 1v

Harley MS 4951, f. 299v E123871
Detail of a man with bells among musical neumes, from the Gradual of Saint-Etienne of Toulouse, France (Toulouse), last quarter of the 11th-first quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 4951, f. 299v

Harley MS 2804 f. 3vE102183c
Detail of two musicians playing the vielle and a harp or psaltery, from the Worms
Bible, Germany (Frankenthal), 2nd-3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 2804, f. 3v

Add MS 62925 f. 54r copy copy
Detail of a miniature of a rabbit playing a bell-like instrument, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 54r

Stowe_ms_17_f061v copy
Detail of two monkeys playing trumpets in an unusual manner, from the Maastricht Hours, Liège, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 61v

Add_ms_49622_f106v copy
Detail of a marginal painting of a rabbit and a dog playing a portative organ, from the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk?), 1310-1324, Add MS 49622, f. 106v

Royal MS 14 E III f. 89r c13827-54c
Detail of a marginal painting of a man playing a rabbit-trumpet (despite distractions), from La Queste del Saint Graal, France, c. 1315 - c. 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 89r

 Harley MS 6563 f. 40r E123884
Detail of a cat playing a vielle, from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320 - c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 40r

Add_ms_18851_f419v copy
Detail of a marginal painting of a monkey playing bagpipes, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Bruges, c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 419v

Add MS 18852, f. 98r copy copy
Detail of a marginal painting of bagpipes (?), from the Hours of Joanna the Mad, Bruges, 1486-1506, Add MS 18852, f. 98r

Arundel_ms_263_f136r and f. 137v
Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, including a mechanical organ and timpani/drums, from the Codex Arundel, Italy (Florence, Milan, and Rome), 1478-1518, Arundel MS 263, f. 136r and 137v

- Sarah J Biggs

14 April 2015

Ten Things To Know About Medieval Monsters

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In their new picture book published by the British Library, Medieval Monsters, medieval historian Damien Kempf and art historian Maria L. Gilbert explore the fantastic, grotesque and exuberant world of monsters in the Middle Ages through the images found in illuminated manuscripts, from dragons and demons to Yoda and hybrid creatures. The book has already attracted rave reviews: don't forget that you can buy it from the British Library online shop (£10, ISBN 9780712357906).

In this guest post, Damien and Maria describe ten things you should know about medieval monsters in a whimsical poem à la Edward Lear and Dr. Seuss.

With medieval manuscripts one does find

there lurks a particularly special kind

of creature, lurking in the margin,

religious instruction or pure diversion?

Frightening, charming, sometimes alarming;

monsters are Sin and Damnation,

Seduction, Temptation, Allure, Delectation.

We enter their world, they hold us in thrall

let’s take a look, the Middle Ages call.


1. They may be shy


The big-eared Panotii were a monstrous race;

located on the peripheries—an imaginary place.

Their ears were so large they could serve as blankets

or wings to fly away when overcome with shyness.

* * *

2. They may create a wonderful first impression but beware!

MS. LUDWIG XV 3, FOL. 78_mask.png

Bird-woman mermaid, alluring siren at sea,

sings so enchantingly there’s no time to plea.

You’re entranced, you’re drawn in. That voice! Those tail swishes!

Next you’re asleep and then: food for the fishes.

* * *

3. They may crave love and tenderness


A horse with a long horn, most fierce and shrewd,

the all powerful unicorn easily eludes

an experienced hunter, but tame it becomes

at the touch of a virgin and completely succumbs.

* * *

4. They may be multi-headed


An end days vision: six heads and ten horns

with multiple crowns, his head is adorned.

Mouth like a lion and feet like a bear

the Beast of the Apocalypse gives quite a scare.

* * *

5. They may be very tempting

Getty Ms. Ludwig XI 8, fol. 6v_demon adjusted.png

Living in the desert, the hermit saint Anthony

besieged by hallucinations seemingly continually.

Facing trial after trial of temptation,

this Christian ascetic retained his concentration.

* * *

6. They may bite off more than they can chew

MS. 37, FOL. 49V_mask.png

Margaret of Antioch, thrown into prison

by the prefect Olibrius for being a Christian.

The devil as a dragon visited her there,

swallowed her whole but having said a prayer

she burst out unharmed, a dragon slayer.

* * *

7. They may take your soul on your deathbed if you behave badly

Ms. 57, fol. 194_mask.png

At death, both an angel and devil are waiting.

Will your soul go to hell or is it worth saving?

It depends on the deeds you performed in life.

whether you repented or caused bitter strife.

* * *

8. They may be quite irksome


On Patmos, John (the Evangelist probably)

wrote revelations, an apocalyptic prophecy.

A mischievous demon tried to spoil the plot

by sneakily stealing John’s ink pot.

* * *

9. They may be flashy


Warrior angel Michael, celestial army head

smote the devil down but didn’t strike him dead.

A spectacular battle, some would say,

as theatrical & vibrant as lucha libre.

* * *

10. They may look like Hollywood movie stars


Sendak, Burton, Lucas, and Seuss

Their films: medieval monster reuse!

Handsome, playful, quirky, and whimsical

Nothing, it seems, is ever new in principle.


Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert

FEATURED: Panotti (British Library Add MS 62925, f. 88v, detail); Siren (Ms. Ludwig XV 3, f. 78, detail, J. Paul Getty Museum); Unicorn (BL Stowe 17, f. 90v, detail); Beast of the Apocalypse (BL Add. 54180, f. 14v, detail); Anthony's demon (Ms. Ludwig XI 8, f. 6v, detail, Getty Museum); Margaret's dragon (Ms. 37, f. 49v, detail, Getty Museum); Soul takers (Ms. 57, f. 194, detail, Getty Museum); John's demon (Ms. Ludwig IX 6, f.13, detail, Getty Museum); Michael and the Devil (BL Add 18851, f. 464, detail); Figure in monk's robes ('Yoda') (Royal 10 E IV, f. 30, detail).

19 January 2015

Surviving the Winter: Medieval-Style

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There is a Middle English aphorism that says, ‘Winter all eats / That summer begets’. Living alongside 24-hour supermarkets, it is easy to forget the once vital preoccupation with preserving the autumn harvest and stocking our larders to the brim. As we approach the sign of Aquarius, long nights and short days will persist until mid-March when the sun enters Aries, and we spare a thought for our medieval forebears in the most barren and cold of seasons. Depictions of wintry concerns and activities from the medieval era are frequently featured in the calendars which preface many Books of Hours and Psalters (for a discussion of calendars, see the post from January 2011).

Add_ms_18851_f006r - detail
Detail from an October calendar showing the fattening of hogs, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497,  
Add MS 18851, f. 6r

Kings ms 9 f_3v
A February calendar with a bas-de-page scene of men chopping wood and a woman gathering it, from a Book of Hours, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500,
King’s MS 9, f. 3v

Surviving a medieval winter was the result of forethought and hard labour. The calendar page for October shows two men knocking acorns from trees to fatten their hogs in readiness for winter, while the calendar page for February depicts two men with curved knives cutting wood to be gathered and bundled, in this case, by a woman.

Royal 2 b ii f_1v
Detail from a February calendar of a man drying his shoe by the fire, from a Psalter, France (Paris), c. 1250,
Royal MS 2 B II, f. 1v

Arundel ms 157 f_13v
A February calendar with roundels showing of a man warming his feet by the fire (top) and the sign of Pisces (below), from a Psalter, England (Oxford), c. 1200–c. 1225,
Arundel MS 157, f. 13v

Little agrarian activity could take place in winter and miniatures of Labours of the Month for December, January and February show mostly indoor scenes. The practical discomforts of winter are illustrated in the February calendars of two contemporary Psalters, one made in Oxford and the other in Paris, both showing a man attempting to dry his shoe or warm his feet over the fire.

Add_ms_18852_f001v - detail
Detail from a January calendar of warming by the fire and feasting, from a Book of Hours (the ‘Hours of Joanna I of Castile’), Southern Netherlands (Bruges), 1486–1506,
Add MS 18852, f. 1v

Kings ms 9 f_2v
A January calendar with a bas-de-page scene of feasting by an open fire, from
King’s MS 9, f. 2v

The standard activity featured in the January calendar is one of feasting and warming oneself by the fire. These miniatures were produced in Bruges around 1500, and both show men sitting to a rich feast attended by a woman. The dominant ‘humour’ of the winter season was thought to be phlegm, and one contemporary text, the Secretum Secretorum, recommended combatting its injurious effects through a modification of the diet. It prescribes figs, grapes, ‘fine red wine’ and ‘hot meats’ such as mutton or pigeon, while warning that the somewhat odd assortment of laxatives, bloodletting and lovemaking are to be avoided. Overindulgence in general is very bad, according to our source, but better to do so in the winter season when the body’s natural heat is drawn inwards, resulting in good digestion. This is good to know in the season which includes Christmas.

Add_ms_18852_f002r - detail
Detail of activities on a frozen river, from
Add MS 18852, f. 2r

Egerton ms 1146 f_12v
Detail from a November calendar of a boar being snared, from a Book of Hours, Germany (?Worms), c. 1475–c. 1485, from
Egerton MS 1146, f. 12v

Snow sports of many varieties are another feature of January calendars, such as the skating, sledging and ball games taking place on the frozen river above. An activity which combined sport and the acquisition of food was boar-hunting, the principal quarry of noblemen in the winter. Above, a boar is chased through a gallows-like-structure in a snowy landscape, becoming ensnared in the noose and speared by a knight. Another good ‘hot meat’ to combat the phlegm.

- Holly James-Maddocks

18 November 2014

A Royal Beast and the Menagerie in the Tower

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Yates_thompson_ms_13_f018r - detail
Detail of a miniature of a crowned lion as ‘King of Beasts’ in a Book of Hours (‘The Taymouth Hours’), ?England (?London), c. 1325–c. 1350,
Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 18r

In light of the recent news that London may be without lions for the first time in 800 years, and with further inspiration from the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London, we take a turn towards the role of the lion in the medieval imagination.

Barbary lion skull
A skull of a ‘Barbary’ lion, excavated from the moat of the Tower of London in 1937, image courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

Visitors to Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination may remember the lion skull kindly lent to the British Library by the Natural History Museum. This was one of two skulls unearthed at the Tower of London, where King John (d. 1216) had established a Royal Menagerie which was to become home to an assortment of exotic beasts including lions, bears and one short-lived elephant.

Egerton_ms_3277_f068v detail
Detail of an historiated initial showing the King of England mounted on a lion, from the Bohun Psalter, England (S.E., ?London), 2nd half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 68v

The skulls were radiocarbon dated to 1280–1385 and to 1420–1480, suggesting that these particular lions were the private exhibits of either Edward I, II or III, in the first instance, or of the Lancastrian Henry VI or Yorkist Edward IV, in the second. These ‘Barbary’ lions, hailing from northwest Africa, were doubtless an exciting embodiment of the Royal Arms of England for any English monarch.

Harley4751 f2v
Detail of a miniature of crafty method for catching lions (potentially) by placing a goat in one hole and waiting for a lion to fall down the second hole, from a Bestiary, England (?Salisbury), c. 1225–c. 1250,
Harley MS 4751, f. 2v

Whether royal mascots or diplomatic gifts, numerous archival records indicate a long history of lions at the tower. Exactly how they came to be at the tower, how they were crated and transported, is unknown, but trapping a lion using the method depicted in the Bestiary above (involving two holes and a tethered goat) would be quite a feat. The earliest noted payments to their keepers came from King John in 1210-1212, with records becoming more detailed under Henry III (d. 1272).

Egerton_ms_3277_f104r - detail
Detail of an historiated initial showing a man being devoured by lions (I Kings 20:36), Egerton MS 3277, f. 104r

In 1240, the sheriffs of London were instructed to make provisions for a lion and a keeper, William de Botton, including 14 shillings for ‘buying chains and other things for the use of the lion’. By 1314, the sheriffs were providing a quarter of mutton every day for the maintenance of numerous lions. The polar bear seems to have had it better in this respect. As part of a cost-saving measure for the City, this (chained) Norwegian captive could at least fish for its own supper on the bank of the Thames.

The keeper’s own wages could be slow to materialise, as experienced by William Bounde who was owed £55 by 1408: he would be imprisoned by his creditors, he claimed, and the lions would go unfed. The office was granted to Robert Manfeld in 1436, who would double up as marshal of the hall within the royal household. Perhaps delegating duties became a challenge since it was in the same year that all of the lions in the tower apparently died. Had he simply fed the sick lions a monkey, as recommended by the Bestiary, they may well have been cured.

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f005v - detail
Detail of a miniature of lion and his irrational fear of the white rooster, in a Bestiary, England (?Rochester), c. 1230–c. 1300,
Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 5v

The Bestiary describes the power, courage and intelligence of the lion – a fitting emblem of monarchy – who fears nothing save the white rooster, scorpion and snake.

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f006r - detail
Detail of a miniature of cubs born dead and reanimated by their fathers who breathe life into them, in the Bestiary, England (?North or Central), c. 1200–c. 1210,
Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r

When hunted, the Bestiary relates, the lion sweeps his tail over the ground to conceal his tracks; he also sleeps with his eyes open to avoid capture, and he has the ability to resurrect his stillborn cubs. He never attacks women and children, nor the man who prostrates himself before him.

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f008v - detail
Detail of a miniature of Josiane (luckily a virgin of royal blood) with two lions,
Yates Thompson 13, f. 8v (this miniature featured earlier this year in our Valentine's Day blog post, An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love)

Lions were able to ascertain, by mysterious means, both virginity and royal blood, which is why Josiane was immune to being trapped in a cave with two lions.

Yates_thompson_ms_13_f012r - detail
Detail of a miniature of Beves of Hampton slaying the two lions pestering Josiane,
Yates Thompson 13, f. 12r

Beves of Hampton, by contrast, was forced to employ all his knightly prowess to avoid being devoured alive.

Royal_ms_13_b_viii_f019v - detail
Detail of a miniature of Joanna of Paris embracing a lion, from the ‘Topographia Hiberniae’ of Gerald of Wales, England (?Lincoln), c.1196–1223,
Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 19v

Occasionally, a ‘woman’s tricks’ might be held responsible for encouraging the amorous affections of the lion, as Gerald of Wales reports was the case at the French court of King Philip.

Roy17EVII f107v
Detail of a column miniature showing Habakkuk (suspended by the hand of God) delivering a jug of stew to Daniel in the lions’ den, from Guyart de Moulins, Bible historiale, France (?Paris), 1357,
Royal MS 17 E VII, f. 107v

Roy1Di f377
Detail of an historiated initial 'A' showing Daniel and two lions in the den, from a Bible, England, c. 1250–c. 1275,
Royal MS 1 D I, f. 377r

The popular stories associated with biblical heroes Daniel, Samson and David gave frequent cause for lions in manuscript miniatures. Daniel’s benign and friendly companions emphasise his miraculous delivery from the lions’ den.

Marginal drawings of David keeping his sheep safe by grappling with a lion and a dog (above) and fighting Goliath (below), from the Worms Bible, Germany (Frankenthal), c. 1148,
Harley MS 2803, f. 126v

Other popular subjects include David – shepherd boy and future king – protecting his sheep from a lion, a prolepsis of his battle with Goliath.

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f044r - detail
Detail of a miniature of Samson taking a honeycomb from the lion’s body, from the ‘Queen Mary Psalter’, England (?London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 44r

Samson was renowned for possessing the strength to tear apart a lion with his bare hands. The illuminator who executed the Samson miniature chose to depict the moment when Samson revisited the dead lion to find bees nesting in its carcass, allowing him to take honey from the lion’s body.

Add 69865 f2v
Detail of an historiated initial containing an Evangelist portrait that represents Mark as a lion, from a Book of Hours, Italy (?Bologna), c. 1390 – c.1400,
Add MS 69865, f. 2v

The lion can be seen, more frequently, distinguishing the Gospel of Mark from the other Evangelists (this particular Mark has morphed into a lion-human hybrid).

Egerton 3266 f8
Detail of an historiated initial showing Jerome and lion, from Jerome, Pseudo-Jerome and others, Epistles and treatises, Italy (?Venice), c. 1390,
Egerton MS 3266, f. 8r

Similarly, Saint Jerome can be identified by his red Cardinal’s hat and his attribute, a lion.

Egerton 1070 f9
Detail of the border of a Calendar page for July, showing Leo and a man harvesting and gathering sheaves of wheat,  from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410,
Egerton MS 1070, f. 9r

In the bestselling devotional books of the Middle Ages, the calendar pages often display a zodiac sign paired with a typical activity for the month. Leo, the sign for July, heralded the harvest and he is frequently juxtaposed with scenes of peasants sharpening sickles or threshing grain.

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f078r - detail
Detail of Leo as a lion apparently forced into the July calendar by chain,
Royal 2 B VII, f. 78r

The lion is often very well portrayed in manuscripts and this may be linked to their popularity as an exhibit in the Tower. The improvements to Matthew Paris’ depictions of elephants, for example, are the result of his journey from St Albans to the Menagerie to draw Henry III’s elephant from life. Looking at the miniature above, you can almost imagine William de Botton with his chains worth 14 shillings, cajoling his captive ...

To learn more about the lions and other exotic creatures, their keepers, and the vanished menagerie that was a distant predecessor of London Zoo, check out the Royal Beasts exhibition at the Tower of London.

- Holly James-Maddocks