Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Elephant is Dead

  One of the adjuncts to Medieval Writing was The Elephant Book, a guide to medieval resources on the web, originally designed for students at the Australian National University. It first appeared in paper form around 1995, when there were about twelve good medieval resource sites on the web, and had pictures of a medieval elephant on the cover. You can meet this elephant here, as part of a paleography exercise. The students, naturally referred to the guide as The Elephant Book. 
  As medieval resources on the web increased and students became a bit more savvy about using it, The Elephant Book migrated to the web itself, with a terrible tacky elephant skin background, big gold star ratings for websites and a different elephant on the cover due to the university's anxiety about copyright issues. As resources and search facilities grew again, the site changed focus from being a listing of useful and reliable medieval sites, to how to find and evaluate them for yourselves, with a listing of some of our favourites. But still time marches on. It is hard enough to keep up a reasonable list of sites on even a specialised corner of the medieval cyberverse, such as manuscripts and paleography, and the issue with using the web for research is not so much how to find things, as how to evaluate them. So the elephant got very elderly and tired, and has had to be put down.
  They knew about elephants in medieval Europe, but not many people had seen one. That's why so many depictions of elephants in medieval art don't look terribly much like elephants. Matthew Paris, the famous monk-chronicler of St Albans in the 13th century, had seen one that was given to King Henry III of England by Louis IX of France and was occasionally paraded through the streets of London. These two were great competitors in present giving and also in the acquisition of dodgy holy relics. The chapel and shrine for the Crown of Thorns still stands in Paris. The original elephant from the cover of our book, and which appears in the paleography exercise for a 13th century bestiary, looks like an elephant and the artist may have seen the same elephant. On the other hand, Matthew Paris drew another elephant, bearing on its back the town band of Cremona, rather as our bestiary elephant has a band of musicians on its back rather than the traditional castle. As Matthew Paris had never been to Cremona, he was probably basing that elephant on the one he had seen in London. Maybe our bestiary illustrator copied the Cremona elephant drawing. Medieval scribes, illuminators and sculptors had no qualms about nicking designs from each other.
  Our Elephant Book website actually lasted longer than the hapless elephant that was given to Henry III and kept in the Tower of London. Unfortunately they didn't know too much about elephant husbandry in 13th century London. I'm not too sure what happened to the drops of blood of Jesus that the Templars brought back for Henry. You could flog anything to a Templar.
  So farewell to all departed elephants. Vale. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just desire to say thanks, i havent posted on your blog but i have been an avid reader for fairly some time now.