07 December 2012
The Distinguished Pedigree of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle
Detail of a miniature of a hedgehog; from Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d'Engleterre, vol. 1, Netherlands (Bruges), 1471-1483, Royal MS 15 E. iv, f. 180r.
The hedgehog is one of the English language's more
picturesquely named animals: the word comes from the hedge where it lives, and
from the appearance of its supposedly hoglike snout. But this term is a relatively recent coinage
in the history of the language – the first recorded uses date only to the
mid-15th century. This is not to say
that the common hedgehog was unknown in the Middle Ages, however. For much of the medieval period it was called
an 'urchin', a term still favoured in some dialects, but most commonly
associated today with the spiky little sea urchin: literally a 'sea
hedgehog'. Even urchins came over with
the Norman invaders, however, ultimately derived from the Latin 'ericius':
before the Conquest, the Anglo-Saxons knew the animal as the Germanic 'igl'.
Detail of a miniature of hedgehogs sticking fallen fruit to their quills and carrying it back to their burrow; from the Rochester Bestiary, England (Rochester?), c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 45r.
Hedgehogs, however they were named, were familiar animals,
finding their place in the standard medieval bestiary between the mole and the
ant. Such mundane company does not mean,
however, that their story was not exotic and strange. Hedgehogs were said to creep into vineyards
when the grapes were ripe, to climb the vines and shake the fruit down to the
ground. Then, rather than eating this
bounty on the spot, they would turn onto their backs and roll around, impaling
the grapes with their sharp quills. They
could then trundle off back to their burrows, carrying the grapes on their
spines, as a meal for their young. The
bestiary writers allegorized this as a warning of the clever stratagems of the
devil in stealing man's spiritual fruits.
Detail of a miniature of the hedgehog reproaching the goat for his vanity; from Ulrich von Pottenstein, Spiegel der Weisheit, Austria (Salzburg), c. 1430, Egerton MS 1121, f. 44v.
Despite this unflattering association with the infernal,
hedgehogs were more often depicted favourably than not. The Speculum
sapientiae, or Mirror of Wisdom,
was a Latin text that included a large number of beast fables. In one of the fables, a goat came upon its
own reflection in a pond. The goat,
seeing the horns on his head and his long goat beard, thought himself very
handsome indeed, and began to bleat, boasting of his horny 'crown' and hairy
'necklace'. A passing hedgehog, however,
was less than impressed. If the goat had
impressive horns and beard, he also had an unsightly tail and a foul
temper. A profound humility, the
hedgehog reproached, not vain
boasting, was what made an animal truly noble.
The hedgehog here is chosen as a symbol not of diabolical trickery, but
of an appropriate Christian modesty.
Miniatures of (above) a dormouse and (below) hedgehogs, collecting fruit on their quills; from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 31v.